Four Kinds of Car Filters and How to Know When They Need Attention

Filters are good for all sorts of things. Not only do they help you avoid awkward social situations, but they can also keep your car humming along without trouble.

There are four main types of filters in cars. They each have their own important job and different signals for when they might need to be changed. Luckily, insulting you isn’t one of the warning signs. Let’s take a look at the filter lineup:

Four Kinds of Car Filters and How to Know When They Need Attention

Air Filter

When your car is flying down the highway at 70 miles per hour, it’s going to get hit with some stuff: debris, bugs, water, pollen, and all sorts of grime and dirt. The air filter protects your engine from damage by blocking things that could cause damage.

Air filters work hard to keep everything running, so they need regular attention. Ideally, the air filter should be changed every 15,000-30,000 miles. But, if you lose track of time, your car might send you some symptomatic reminders.

Cars use air to work properly, and if that air isn’t clean then there will be some issues that will signal something is wrong:

  • Odd Noises: If your car suddenly starts making “spitting” or “popping” noises, a clogged filter might be the culprit, blocking needed air from the engine.
  • Check Engine Light: The poor check engine light often gets ignored, but a clogged filter might be the culprit and is worth a look.
  • Sluggish Car: If you notice a change in how your car is driving, struggling uphill, or slow acceleration, then checking the air filter might be a good first step. A sudden drop in gas mileage can also be a red flag.
  • Black Smoke: This is never a good thing, but black smoke from your exhaust is a common symptom of a clogged air filter.

Car Cabin Filter

While the air filter keeps the air clean for your engine, the car cabin filter does the same favor for you and your passengers. This is generally behind your glovebox and goes to work anytime you use the air conditioning system. There are warning signs here as well:

  • Slow Air Flow: If you notice that your AC system is barely making a breeze when you’ve got it at full blast, then the cabin filter could probably use some attention.
  • Smells: A clogged cabin filter can send a musty smell into your car. If you’ve searched and scoured and don’t find any visible culprits of that nagging smell, take a look at the filter.

Oil Filter

Cars don’t only need air, so other filters are important. The oil in your car runs through all sorts of places and can pick up dirt and debris on its adventures. The oil filter cleans those out, helping the engine do its job more effectively.

This is often done on a schedule. However, life can get busy and so it is helpful to recognize the signals your car might send you to head to an oil change station and swap out that filter.

  • Overheating Engine: If the filter is clogged, it might be blocking the oil your car needs to keep everything running smoothly. That can lead to friction and heat. If you notice your car is overheating more often, the oil filter might be the place to start.
  • Sluggish Engine: Like the air filter, a clogged oil filter can also cause your car to lag. Check in both places to be sure.
  • Black Smoke: Yep, this can also be caused by a clogged oil filter. It might also be accompanied by a burning smell.
  • Leaking Oil: If the oil filter is clogged, it can cause a backup. This can lead to low pressure and/or leaks. There can be other factors causing leaks, but this is an easy first thing to rule out.

Fuel Filter

By now, you can probably guess what each filter does by its clever name. So, not surprisingly, the fuel filter protects your engine from anything unwanted in the fuel line. In diesel engines, the fuel filter also separates any water from the fuel. A clogged or broken filter means the fuel won’t get to the engine as efficiently. It won’t surprise you to hear that this can cause problems!

  • Struggles with the Start: If fuel can’t get to your engine, it will have a hard time firing up. If this starts to be a common problem, take a look at the fuel filter.
  • Rough Idle, Misfire, or Stalling: This is another signal that the engine might not be getting as much fuel as it would like.
  • Fuel Pump Failure: If the pump is working too hard to try to push fuel through a clogged filter, then it might just wear out and shut down. If the fuel pump is struggling, the filter might be the reason why.

Filters are everywhere in our society–from our coffee to our conversations. Cars depend on them, and we depend on our cars. Understanding filters isn’t just helpful in maintaining your current car. If you’re in the market for another car, it can inform your search at used car dealerships. Knowing the age of the different filters can give a clearer picture of the vehicle, its maintenance, and any possible problems in the future. While your filter might keep you from commenting on the salesman’s tie, don’t let it stop you from asking about the air, cabin, oil, and fuel filters!