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How to Change the Cabin Air Filter in Your Car

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Photo: wellphoto (Shutterstock)

Over the past few years, air purifiers have become common household appliances, thanks not only to COVID-19 and smoke from wildfires, but also a better understanding of exactly how dirty the air we breathe can get. In addition to the air quality inside our home, we should also think about what we’re breathing in when we’re inside our cars.

This brings up a question: When was the last time you (or a professional) changed your car’s cabin air filter? Here’s what to know about that process, including how to replace cabin air filters, and how long they typically last.

How long do cabin air filters last?

In most cases, cabin air filters were designed to last for between 12,000 and 30,000 miles. But if you live in an industrial area with a lot of air pollution, or somewhere with regular wildfires, you may need to replace it on a yearly basis, or even more frequently.

Signs your cabin air filter needs to be replaced

So if mileage isn’t always an accurate way of determining when to replace your cabin air filter, how do you know when it’s time? According to Jonathon Klein of The Drive, these are some of the usual signs:

  • You can easily smell what’s outside your car—farms, factories, skunks, etc.—including when the air inside the car is being recirculated
  • The airflow out of your vents is weak, even when it’s set to the highest level
  • It sounds like air is struggling to get through the car’s HVAC system and out the vent, or like the vent itself is blocked
  • You can see smoke or other particulates come through the vents

How to replace your car’s cabin air filter

Even if you typically bring your car into the dealership for routine maintenance like oil changes or tire rotations, this is one situation where, in most cases, it doesn’t make sense to pay the dealership’s inflated fee—which can range from around $40 to $130—for something you can do by yourself in a few minutes.

The tools you need and the process involved depends on the type of vehicle you have, so your best bet is to start by looking at your owner’s manual to find out where your cabin air filter is located, and how to change it.

More often than not, the cabin air filter is located behind the glovebox—though it can also be found at the base of the windshield, under the hood.

Behind the glovebox

In some vehicles, you simply press a tab on each side of the glovebox, which drops it down, allowing you to access the cabin air filter. From there, you pull out the old filter, slide in the new one, and pop your glovebox back into position. The end.

In other vehicles, you may need to remove the glovebox door to get to the cabin air filter. In this case, use a flathead screwdriver or Torx/Hex wrench (whatever is stipulated in your owner’s manual) to remove the glovebox door. This should allow you to access the air filter. Then it’s a matter of taking the old filter out, putting the new one in, and finally, reattaching the glovebox door.

Under the hood

First, start the car, switch the windshield wipers on, then turn the car off when the wipers are positioned so they’re pointing towards the sky. Then, pop the hood. We’ll let Klein take it from here:

  1. Remove the windshield washer hose from the clips on the plastic cover near the base of the windshield.
  2. Pull away the hood weatherstripping.
  3. Remove the plastic cover (you may need a flathead screwdriver).
  4. Remove the cabin air filter.
  5. Replace with the new cabin air filter.
  6. Reinstall the plastic cover, hood weatherstripping, and windshield washer hose.
  7. Close the hood.

This is a simple task that’s well worth the effort: Your car’s HVAC system will work better, and most importantly, you’ll breathe cleaner air.

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