Nearly every car built since 1995 has a cabin air filter. Its purpose is to catch dirt and dust before they reach your car’s interior, where passengers can breathe in particles like pollen. As the filter catches this airborne matter, it will get clogged over time, restricting the airflow and efficiency of your heater and air conditioner. So consider the easy DIY task of replacing your car’s cabin filter—to ensure that your heat and AC run efficiently and to keep your car’s interior smelling nice.
Cabin air filters should be replaced as part of your vehicles regular maintenance, usually every 15,000 to 30,000 miles. If you drive in dusty environments like construction sites or farms, then replace the filter more often.
Two Main Types of Cabin Air Filters
The most inexpensive common cabin air filter is made of white pleated paper. It filters particulate material down to about the size of ground black pepper. However, this type of filter does not trap pollen or neutralize odors.
We recommend an activated carbon-charcoal air filter, which is not much more expensive. This type of filter removes fine particulates with a layer of activated carbon. It catches a long list of airborne chemicals and air pollutants including alcohols, ethers, hydrocarbons, organic acids, and sulfur dioxide. An activated carbon-charcoal air filter also traps odor molecules produced from animals and by humans—including cigarette smoke. You can recognize this type of filter by its gray color. You will also see specks of black—the carbon charcoal embedded in the paper material.
How to Change Your Cabin Air Filter
Depending on the year, make, and model of your car, replacing the cabin filter can be completed in five minutes—or might take more than an hour of work (even requiring removing the glove box). With most newer cars, the job is an easy plug-in-play operation.
Your vehicles owner’s manual will show you where your cabin filter is (and might have instructions for changing it). Because the filter removes the particulates before the air is heated or cooled, it’s located in front of the HVAC fan. You might be able to access the filter from the windshield cowl—the plastic covering that protects the windshield-wiper assembly—or you could gain access from under the dashboard in the passenger footwell (as shown at the top of this post).
To install the filter, pull the cabin filter out from its housing. When replacing it, especially an activated charcoal filter, make sure you insert it with the right orientation. The arrows indicated on the filter should face in the direction of the airflow.
Many new cabin filters come with instructions on how to install them. A quick web search will fill in details about installation for your specific make and model. After you complete the task the first time, subsequent replacements will be a breeze.