Open Road

Car filters: To clean, or to replace?

Your car uses a variety of filters to keep everything running smoothly. There are filters for the air entering the engine and cabin. Oil and fuel filters work to keep debris from contaminating your car's engine components. While it's inevitable that all these filters will need to be replaced eventually, it's good to know the symptoms of a failing filter, as well as whether or not they can be cleaned so you don't have to buy a new one. Who doesn't like to spend less money on vehicle maintenance?

Air Filter: Your car's air filters are made out of a variety of materials, including paper, foam, and cotton. They work to filter debris like dust, pollen, smog, and other contaminants from getting into your car. The intake air filter, found inside the engine compartment, prevents debris from getting inside your engine and interfering with it's function. A cabin air filter is usually found behind the glove compartment, or tucked next to the pedals on the driver's side.

Problem Symptoms: You'll start to notice if your car's air filters are beginning to go bad. Common symptoms of a failing engine air filter include: You'll know your cabin air filter is starting to go bad if you notice any of these symptoms: Clean or Replace? : Generally, your car's air filters can be cleaned a few times before being replaced. Depending on the type, you can clean them with a vacuum, or with a damp cloth. The intervals at which you clean or replace the filter will depend on your particular driving patterns, but it's worth checking their condition at every oil change. However, air filters usually aren't very expensive, so if there's any question about their condition, full replacement is a good idea.

Oil Filter: The oil filter is usually made from cellulose, with microglass filters found in some high-end cars. Oil filters protect the engine from dirt, oxidized oil, or metallic particles created by moving components. These contaminants can get in the tiny nooks and crannies inside your engine, increasing wear and tear, reducing efficiency, and sapping performance. Oil filters are commonly found on the bottom or on the side of a car's engine.

Problem Symptoms: If your car's oil filter is starting to fail there will be some warning signs. These include: Clean or Replace?: Given that the oil filter is continuously bathed in increasingly-dirty oil, cleaning it is a major hassle. As such it's probably wisest to replace the oil filter outright. This should usually be done at every oil change, and the frequency of your oil changes will depend on your particular vehicle and driving style.

Fuel Filter: Every drop of fuel that goes into your engine passes through the fuel filter. It cleans out any particles or impurities that could inhibit combustion or damage your engine's internal components. The location of the fuel filter depends on your particular vehicle, but generally they are located somewhere along the fuel supply lines or inside the fuel tank.

Problem Symptoms: Your engine doesn't like dirty fuel, so it will let you know if any is getting inside it. A clogged filter will also exhibit some troubling symptoms. Common signs include: Clean or Replace?: Like the oil filter, it's usually a better idea to replace the fuel filter than attempt to clean it. That's simply due to the nature of the fluid that it filters. However, unlike the oil filter, there isn't necessarily a set schedule at which you have to replace the fuel filter. You only have to replace it if you experience any of the above symptoms, and a qualified mechanic is sure that it's not something else that's causing them.

Like brake pads and tires, the filters in your car are going to wear out eventually. The symptoms they produce will tip you off that something's amiss, but just because you're experiencing them doesn't mean you need to rush out and buy a new filter. It's possible that a thorough clean will get it closer to normal operating condition – so that you can save money for more fun times behind the wheel.

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