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Different Oil Filters and How They Work

November 27, 2019

Different Oil Filters and How They Work

Oil is essential for the health of your engine. It serves as a lubricant by coating all of the internal moving parts with a thin slick layer that prevents metal on metal contact from causing damage. Oil also helps to regulate engine temperature and fill space between engine components. But over time, oil breaks down and no longer lubricates as it should. It also gets dirty.

Several factors lead to dirty, contaminated oil. For instance, while the air filter traps most of the dust and dirt entering the air intake on your engine, some dirt still gets through and makes its way into the oil. Due to normal engine wear, tiny metal particles are deposited into the oil and circulate through your engine. Combustion byproducts, such as water vapor (which can build up inside the engine when the engine is running at a low temperature – on start-up and during short trips in the cold), acid, and carbon also end up in your oil.

So, to remove these contaminants from the oil, your engine is equipped with an oil filter. If, as many suggest, oil is the lifeblood of your engine, then the oil filter is its kidney, tasked with filtering out unwanted materials.

How does an oil filter work?

The function of an oil filter is fairly simple. The filter is basically a cylinder, a housing, mounted on your engine and sealed snugly to prevent oil from leaking. Inside the housing is a matrix of filter material or media. The oil pump forces oil from the engine into the filter housing, through the filter material, and back into the engine. This effectively traps any particles that are 15 microns or larger. Some filters are even capable of filtering smaller particles.

Should I use a Canister Filter or a Cartridge Filter?

Since the nineteen-fifties, most engines have been fitted with canister-style filters. Also called “spin-on” filters, these self-contained units consist of a metal canister roughly the size of a soup can (early versions were a bit larger and some modern ones a bit smaller) with a round rubber gasket fixed to the bottom. On the bottom of the filter housing, a series of small holes form a circle just inside the gasket. The oil enters the filter through these holes. A large hole located in the center acts as the exit for oil on its way back to the engine. Threads in the large hole allow the filter to be screwed onto the mount on your engine. If you were to slice the canister in half, you would see on the inside the filter material that traps contaminants as oil is forced through.

Canister filters are easy to install and remove. And, as with a pair of old brake pads, they are simply disposed of at the end of their useful lives.

But another style of oil filter has been gaining popularity, not so much with consumers or auto service shops, but with automakers, the OEMs. A cartridge filter performs the same function as a spin-on canister filter, but it is constructed differently. The idea is not a new one. In fact, cartridge-style oil filters were around before canister filters were designed. But there has been a renewed interest for (largely) environmental reasons.

The cartridge-style filter incorporates a non-disposable filter housing that is mounted to a flange on the engine. To replace the filter, the housing is removed from the mounting flange, the old filter is pulled out, a new one is inserted, and the housing is replaced, along with a fresh gasket. The only parts that are disposed of are the filter (the actual filter material, not the housing) and the gasket.

This arrangement allows for less waste. With canister filters, the whole metal canister is thrown out. But with the cartridge filter, only the internal filter material (and gasket) are considered waste.

But the cartridge filter is not without its challenges. Where a spin-on filter makes filter changes relatively simple (spin off the filter and spin on a new one), cartridges are a bit more complicated. For example, many cartridge housings require a special tool for removal. By way of contrast, spin-on filters can be removed and replaced by hand (or with a simple filter wrench at most). Also, the gasket must be carefully positioned during replacement. With a spin-on filter, the gasket is attached to the filter and needs no special attention. Many of the cartridge filter housings are made of plastic, making them more susceptible to breakage. They need to be carefully torqued to manufacturer specifications to seal properly and avoid breakage.

Does one filter size fits all vehicles?

It might make sense that engines would be made so that a single oil filter could accommodate them all. But that is certainly not the case. Oil filters come in a host of sizes to fit all kinds of engines. It is essential that the correct filter is used for your engine.

Not only are the sizes of filters different, but so is the makeup of the filter material inside. Filter manufacturers include a variety of different media in their filters. Some are made from high-quality paper impregnated with resin. This cellulose fiber media can trap nearly 98 percent of particles 15 to 40 microns in size or larger. Other filters use a combination of cellulose fibers and synthetic or plastic fibers and are capable of trapping more (and finer) particles.

Do I need to use a synthetic oil filter if I use synthetic oil?
So, what if your vehicle’s manufacturer requires that you use synthetic oil in your engine? Or what if you simply prefer the benefits of synthetic oil over conventional? Does that also mean that you need to use a “synthetic” oil filter as well?

You certainly can buy a synthetic oil filter – some filters are made with synthetic materials for the filtering media instead of organic materials. But those “synthetic” oil filters are made for use with any type of oil, not just synthetic oil. Conversely, oil filters that use cellulose (organic) fibers can be used with synthetic oil. There is no need to use special filters with either conventional or synthetic oil.

Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright November 2019

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs, and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

COLUMBIA AUTO CARE & CAR WASH
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Copyright

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.