Keeping your engine properly oiled is one of the most important things you can do to ensure its performance and longevity. Although it looks like a simple part, the oil filter has been through a few incarnations before reaching its current design, and the technology is still advancing. Here’s a look at the history of the oil filter and what you can learn from a modern-day oil filter comparison when it comes time for a change.
A Slippery Situation
Aside from providing vital lubrication, oil also helps dissipate heat and clear away tiny debris that creeps into spaces too small for anything else to reach. During normal function, it picks up small particles that result from either the combustion process or friction between all the moving parts. An oil filter’s job is to remove those particles and recycle the oil back into the system over and over again. It’s really a genius technology in its simplicity. The pump forces used oil into the canister through a filter element, and then into the innermost chamber for the engine to take up, reuse and refilter.
Through the Ages
The first automobiles didn’t have oil filters. However, because early engines were plagued by the same (and worse!) problems of combustion contamination, oil had to be changed frequently. When pressurized lubrication was introduced, it became necessary to install some kind of primitive filter, such as a mesh screen, to prevent damage from the suspended particles shooting around.
The first oil filter was introduced in the 1920s and consisted of fabric-covered, perforated plates encased in a hard shell that caught some particles while still allowing adequate flow. It also included a sight glass on the side so flow could be monitored. Since then, the biggest advances in oil filter technology have dealt with the filter element, moving from woven fabric to cotton and eventually paper. These paper and cellulose elements are thin and pleated to increase surface area, simultaneously maximizing flow and filtration. Installation began as a cartridge design, where the filters were replaced in a permanent housing, and advanced to the modern spin-on design.
Filtering Through Options
The main distinction between filters available today is the filter media and the quality of the design. Paper and cellulose remain, but more often you’ll encounter synthetic fibers that look very similar. Other manufacturers use fiberglass or “micro glass,” which is actually a minuscule metal mesh. There are many synthetic options available that do an excellent job.
If you change your filters yourself, it’s worth doing a bit of research to find the right match for your vehicle and needs. Make sure, for instance, that your choice does not void a warranty. If someone else changes your oil, don’t be shy to ask what kind of filters they use and do a quick online search to confirm the quality. As always, keep track of your maintenance intervals and stick to them.
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Photo courtesy of Flickr.
Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.