How Changing Your Car’s Cabin Air Filter Can Save Your Health and Money

Cabin Air Filter Thumbnail

According to southernenvironment.org, we Atlantans drive over 100 million miles per day. For the last 15 years, we’ve had over 40 consecutive ‘code orange’ days every summer due to high ozone levels. In short, our air quality is among the worst in the United States. Air pollution is a serious concern for everyone, not just people that drive vehicles. However, there is something you can do to improve the air quality in your vehicle, which will help preserve your money and your health.

What’s a cabin air filter and why should I change it?

Virtually all cars produced after the year 2000 have a cabin air filter. The cabin air filter is part of your HVAC system and is responsible for trapping pollutants and odors from entering the vehicle’s cabin. Much like the engine air filter prevents contaminants like debris or dirt from entering the engine.

  • Prevents dirt, pollutants, odors from entering the vehicle’s cabin
  • It helps keep the vehicle’s HVAC (heating & cooling) system clean
  • Avoid costly repairs due to a failing fan blower motor being overworked
  • Keeps the air quality clean and eliminates allergy-inducing pollen and mold spores
  • A new cabin air filter will help your car smell fresh

What Happens If I Don’t Change The Cabin Air Filter?

Let me tell you a quick story. Years ago, I bought a Vespa 250cc from Midtown Atlanta. I live 30 minutes east of Atlanta and decided to ride it back home via the back roads. I wore one of those open-face helmets. Because I didn’t take I-85 which is a straight shot to my house, it took me a little over an hour.

I got home in one piece thankfully, but after I got off the scooter and removed the helmet, I noticed something quite unusual. My face was completely covered in black soot minus where I wore my eye protective goggles. There could be no mistake, “I was inhaling that the whole time riding back,” I thought to myself.

Most people don’t even know what an air cabin filter is or where it’s located. It’s recommended that you replace it every 15-20,000 miles or every year. If you living in a highly polluted area, you might want to think about replacing it even sooner.

If you don’t replace your cabin air filter and it’s been years since anyone’s even taken a look at it, you might be inhaling more pollutants than you’d like, and also, your HVAC system may be working harder and wearing out components due to insufficient airflow.

Traffic jam in the morning with smog pollution
Car Pollution

Where Is The Cabin Air Filter And How Much Does It Cost To Replace?

Most of the time, the cabin air filter will be right above or behind the dash glove box. Some vehicle cabin air filters are located on the other side in the engine bay near the firewall. Usually, the cabin air filter is quite easy to access with only a few plastic trim pieces that either need to be removed or disconnected to gain access.

Many drivers will quite justifiably be upset when the dealer informs them that the cost of replacing the cabin air filter will be $60-110. The actual filter is usually no more than $10-20 and most vehicles only have one. There are a few fancy luxury vehicles like Audi, Mercedes, BMW that may have two cabin air filters.

With the help of the internet, changing the cabin air filter is one of the easiest DIY maintenance repairs you can do yourself. There are many step-by-step YouTube tutorials and articles with images that will guide you on how to replace the cabin air filter. Just enter your year make and model into the search bar of your favorite search engine or YouTube and follow along with the tutorial. It shouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes to replace it and no more than an hour for the complex luxury vehicles with two cabin air filters.

The worst thing you can do, especially if it’s been over 30,000 miles or years since anyone has replaced the cabin air in your car, is to simply refuse the service or neglect it. I’ve seen some cabin air filters that have never been replaced for years, and let me tell you, they were absolutely filthy with bugs, nests, mold, dust, etc…

I promise you that once you’ve replaced your cabin air filter and visually compare it to the new one, you’ll never want to skip on this service.

Dirty cabin air filter comparison
Old Dirty Cabin Air Filter vs. New One

It’s important to note that if it’s been a while since the last service, the compartment where the cabin air filter is installed may also have dirt, acorns, and other residues. Make sure to clean out the area before installing a new one.

Not changing your cabin air filter may cost you not only in terms of health but may also wear out your fan blower motor prematurely. If you hear a whistling sound coming behind your dash, it may be the fan blower motor working very hard due to insufficient airflow. Replacing the fan blower motor can you hundreds of dollars!

Are All Cabin Air Filters The Same?

The efficiency and air quality of your vehicle will largely depend on two factors. The design (size, location, quantity) of your cabin air filter and the quality of the air filter itself.

Much like the engine air filter, there are various types of air filters. Smaller entry vehicle models usually have a simple small cabin air filter located behind the glove box. As mentioned previously, certain luxury models have two cabin air filters located in the engine bay near the firewall. Having more filters certainly helps in terms of odor control and air quality but will slightly be more in maintenance cost.

There are various manufacturers of cabin air filters. Each with its own unique advantages but nevertheless they serve the same purpose. Manufacturers like K&N sell lifetime reusable air filters. Personally, I’d rather spend the $11 every year to replace it with a brand new one since it’s not too hard and I’d feel better knowing it’s brand new with no leftover contaminants still trapped in the filter.

Cabin air filter
Many vehicle cabin air filters are located behind or underneath the passenger-side glove compartment

Some makes and models support HEPA filters which basically stand for (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. In short, HEPA traps even finer microns as small as 0.3 microns at the cost of reduced airflow. Tesla who is known for having HEPA filters on certain models designed their HVAC system to have sufficient airflow.

HEPA filters are commonly used in various other applications including household filters. Regular cabin air filters trap over 90% of contaminants whereas HEPA has a higher efficiency typically rated at 99.97%.

The type of filter you use is largely dependent on your year, make, and model. If your car wasn’t designed to use HEPA, I’d be cautious of installing one due to the restricted airflow even though some companies may sell them for your vehicle. I usually recommend getting an OEM direct replacement from the dealership parts department because it’s what originally was intended for your vehicle.

Other Ways To Keep Your Car Smelling Fresh

We all want a nice fresh car smell. Carmakers intentionally create that new car smell that smells so heavenly the first time you sit in the vehicle. Over the years, food deposits, stains, residue, and dirt collects on the carpets, seats, and dash. There are a few things you can do to ensure that your car smells fresh.

Car air freshener
Car air freshener
  • Vacuum the floor and seats to remove dust, food particles and more
  • Wipe down the dashboard, steering wheel, door panels and very gently the center console
  • Clean spills immediately before they solidify or becomes a permanent stain (liquid spills on buttons can cause them to jam and stop functioning)
  • Use a natural air freshener. I prefer something that absorbs and prevents odors not just masks them. Something like a Moso Air Purifying Bag. It uses natural bamboo charcoal to absorb even the toughest odors.

Conclusion

Replacing your cabin air filter may dramatically improve your vehicle’s cabin air quality, increase airflow and eliminate musky odor smells. It doesn’t take too long to replace yourself and the cost of the filter is relatively cheap.

Whether you decide to get an OEM direct replacement or an aftermarket one, the most important factor is that you replace it. Don’t wait until your filter is clogged up and overdue for replacement. Your lungs will thank you as well as your pockets.

If you’ve replaced your cabin air filter before, share your thoughts and experiences below. What’s the worst cabin air filter you’ve seen?

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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