Cabin air filters are the unsung heroes of enjoying a pleasant atmosphere during your drive. Most people don’t even know they exist. Just like any other filters on your vehicle, they have a job to do and that job gets them dirty. Proper cabin air filter maintenance means knowing when to clean a cabin air filter or identify when a new filter is due. Most vehicles made after 2000 have these filters, and manufacturers generally recommend replacing them every 15,000–20,000 miles or so, depending on routine driving conditions, or roughly once a year.
Cabin air filters help keep the air inside your vehicle free of dust, mold, pollen and other fine particles that can be unpleasant or dangerous to ingest. When a filter is dirty, environmental contaminants sneak through and can cause discomfort. Additionally, a dirty or clogged filter can impact the efficiency of the cooling and heating systems for the car’s interior.
Most cabin air filters are located on the passenger side, under the glove box, but some are also under the hood, right behind the firewall. Depending on the car, there may be one or two. There are different ways to get at them on different vehicles, so check your owner’s manual for the proper way to remove the filter(s), as it might require the additional step of disconnecting the glove box. Even though removal is an easy process, handle the filters with care so as not to rip them. Even a small tear will require replacement.
Once the filter is out, you’ll notice that one side is dirtier than the other. Check for discoloration, accumulation of dust or dirt and tears or bent pleats. Remove any sticks or other larger debris by hand or whatever else might have accumulated.
Cleaning Different Filter Types
Cabin air filters come in cloth, carbon and paper. Paper filters should always be replaced, never cleaned. Some cloth and carbon filters are reusable and can stand up to a wash. Using a hose on low pressure, direct water from clean side to dirty, sweeping top to bottom. Then fill a container with soapy water, submerge, slosh back and forth and allow to soak for at least 10 minutes. Repeat if needed with another batch of clean soapy water, then rinse and let it air dry on a towel in the sun. Only reinstall when completely dry or you could end up with mold. There is a limit to how many times you can wash a reusable filter, so once it starts looking ragged or develops holes, it is time for a new one.
Cabin air filter maintenance is a simple way to improve air quality and help support the efficiency of your heating and cooling systems.
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Photo courtesy of Blair Lampe.
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.