When the Weather Changes, So Should Your Car’s Cabin Filter

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If you own a car made after the mid-90s, you have a "cabin filter" on your AC/heater. Few drivers know about them, but with winter here and the windows always rolled up, it could be doing you more harm than good.

Here’s an easy New Year’s resolution for you: Change the filter in your car’s AC/heater.

You probably don’t even know you have such a thing – and you don’t if your car was manufactured more than 15 years ago. But most cars made after 2000 have a paper or fabric filter that prevents road pollutants from being sucked into your car by your air-conditioner or heater. It’s just like the filter in your home air handler, and just as you do at home, you need to replace the filter in your car every so often.

But automotive experts say many drivers don’t replace those filters because they don’t even know they have them. Each summer, they lead an educational campaign to get the idea across.

“If your vehicle is a model year 2000 or newer, there’s a good chance it is equipped with a cabin air filter,” Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council, declared this summer. “However, many motorists have never heard of a cabin air filter.”

But if you didn’t change the filter last summer, it can lead to all sorts of problems this winter – when the windows are rolled up and the heater is cranking instead of the AC.

“A fresh cabin air filter cleans the air that the driver and passengers breathe, reduces the accumulation of dust inside the car, and helps keep the interior air clean and fresh,” says Ramon Nuñez, spokesperson for Purolator Filters – which, of course, sells these things.

“If this filter is clogged, the dangers from pollutants trapped inside the vehicle can actually multiply,” says Frank Merrell, another Purolator spokesman. That leads to the perverse irony of a filter meant to keep out pollutants actually blowing more into your car – and your lungs. This is especially dangerous for children, since they’re much more susceptible to air pollution. Says the Clean Air Council…

Children are often less able to metabolize and remove foreign compounds than adults. In addition, children’s bodies often absorb these compounds at a higher rate than adults do. Children’s immune systems are still immature and are often not developed enough to provide adequate protection from environmental toxins.

So what should you do? Something you probably never have before: Check your owner’s manual. Or at least search online for the make and model of your vehicle. For instance, if you drive a Toyota, there’s a web page complete with a chart, a video, and a brochure that tells you all you need to know.

Most owner’s manuals will tell you to change the filter every 15,000 to 20,000 miles. If you’re handy with some basic tools, you can do it yourself, because these filters are either under the dashboard or under the hood in easy-to-find locations. Sites like Popular Mechanics and 2CarPros show you how.

Best of all, these filters can be had for as little as $8, although you can go high-end and get charcoal-activated ones for $35. It all depends on the vehicle, but even at their priciest, they’re good deals. Because lung replacements are even more expensive.

And while you’re on a filter binge, might as well check out your engine’s air filter and your furnace filter too. Changing these could save you some money.

Stacy Johnson

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