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Cabin filter vs. air filter: What’s the difference?

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    Typically, cars are equipped with two filters: a cabin air filter and an engine air filter. Both serve important roles in your car. Let’s explore the difference and how often should you change these parts.

    What does an engine air filter do?

    Your car’s engine air filter is designed to provide your engine with a constant supply of clean air. Air filters are made to collect contaminants like dirt, dust and other allergens so they don’t make their way to your car’s key components. The filtered air moves through the engine’s air cylinders, where it mixes with fuel and this air-fuel mixture gets combusted.

    If the air filter is dirty or clogged, your car’s engine may have to work harder than it needs to, which can lead to engine problems or failure. A bad engine air filter may also allow debris to potentially enter the combustion chamber which could be even more damaging to the engine.

    When should you replace your engine air filter?

    Staying on top of routine maintenance schedules and regularly replacing your engine air filter is one way to help your car keep performing effectively. Depending on your car’s manufacturer, they might recommend changing your engine air filter every 12,000 to 15,000 miles. The recommendation depends on the year, make and model of your car, so refer to your manufacturer’s guidelines.

    How much does an engine air filter cost?

    As of April 2024, a new air filter can cost approximately $10 to $100, depending on your car. While you may be able to replace your engine air filter yourself, it may be worth having it installed by a professional mechanic. This is true for most vehicle services given the importance of properly maintaining your car’s engine.

    What does a cabin filter do?

    The cabin filter is designed to purify the air that can make its way into the cabin from outside the car. In conjunction with the whole ventilation system, the cabin filter could remove dust particles, mold spores and other allergens. This is important in creating a healthy, breathable environment inside your car’s cabin.

    When should you replace your cabin filter?

    Generally speaking, you may want to replace your cabin filter once or twice a year. Your owner’s manual should have the manufacturer’s recommended replacement schedule. Regularly replacing your cabin filter may help your car’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system run more smoothly.

    How much does a cabin filter cost?

    The filter itself can range from approximately $10 to $70. The cost of replacing a cabin filter can depend on your car and how you choose to service it. You may replace the filter yourself—follow any replacement instructions in your owner’s manual or the automaker’s website. If you’d rather have a mechanic replace your cabin filter, you’ll likely pay for both the filter and the service.

    Is there a difference between an air filter and cabin filter?

    In general, both a cabin filter and an engine air filter work to trap particles like dust, mold and other debris from being released inside of your car. However, they serve different purposes. A cabin filter cleans the external air that enters your passenger cabin, while the engine filter cleans the external air flowing to your car’s engine.

    In terms of design, cabin air filters resemble the filters you might use in your home’s HVAC system: They’re flat, rectangular panels with pleats. Engine air filters, on the other hand, may come in three different shapes: round, flat and conical. The costs of air filters and cabin filters can be similar, but it really depends on the car.

    In summary

    Your car typically has two air filters. The cabin filter essentially cleans the air that enters the passenger area, while the air filter cleans the air that enters your car’s engine. While both cleanse the air, they’re distinct parts that should be changed regularly. Refer to your manufacturer's guidelines for replacement instructions and consider adding this task to a list of routine maintenance that can keep your car running well.

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