Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2006   by J.D. Ney

A Healthy Argument for Cabin Air Filters

With the increased smog levels that seem to be a regular news report for city dwellers during the dog days of summer, not only can coolant systems and engine air filters take a beating, but so can your own lungs. The cabin air filter could help–if people would just let it.

A recent report from the Filter Manufacturers Council noted that while cabin air filters (CAFs) have been a feature of European cars since the 1980s, they have only recently become a booming trend in the North American market. According to the report, it is widely expected that by the end of this year, some 85% of all cars on American (and presumably Canadian) streets will be equipped with a CAF.

While the numbers seem promising, a large percentage of the human population remains completely unaware that a cabin air filter provides them with any beneficial service, or even exists. It is a problem that needs to be addressed by not only the manufacturers but throughout the supply chain–and here is a solid way to start the dialogue.

Cabin Filters: a Question of Wants and Needs

As with most products in the aftermarket, there is a wide degree of variance in quality within the cabin filter market, and as a result, a difference in price and profit margin.

“There is a range of media types that are all slightly different, which means more expensive models that help margin dollars,” says Honeywell Consumer Products Group consumer and trade marketing manager Megan Currie. Major filter suppliers usually offer three basic types of cabin air filters, among which, according to Wayne Smith of Affinia Canada, there are real technical differences.

The first category is the particulate filter, most often made of a paper or woven medium that removes airborne particles like soot, dust, and pollen. These are the filters that the health-conscious and the allergic are going to want and need. With the same industry report also citing a statistic that some 40 million Americans now report having allergic sensitivities, the transition from want to need among this demographic is a very real possibility.

The second variety is the odour filter, which is usually comprised of specially charged charcoal, thus removing unwanted odour from the air circulating around the occupants’ noses. This type of filter is designed specifically for driver and passenger comfort, and does little in terms of removing potentially harmful contaminants. Despite its ineffectiveness against harmful particulate matter, the notion of a sunny Sunday country drive, minus some of the country aroma, is undeniably appealing.

Finally, the third type is a hybrid or combined filter, utilizing both particulate and odour filters. Although more costly, this is a very marketable product, as it addresses both the health and creature comfort sides of the filter equation.

Specific health concerns aside, a filter’s ability to reduce contaminants in the cabin would most certainly be beneficial, specifically for those 40 million allergy sufferers. But, as some newer research has shown, it’s not just those of us who don’t get along with pollen that ought to be concerned about their own personal air intake.

Customer Health: an Educational Approach

In response to growing health concerns spawned by mounting air pollution in urban centres, many vehicles come equipped with filters that clean the air destined not only for the engine compartment, but for the actual cabin as well.

Similar to home air conditioning and heating filters, the automotive version acts as a cleaning buffer between the cooled or heated outside air, and your nose. Currie puts it this way: “Cabin filters ensure that when you’re sitting in traffic, or driving down a dirt road, your car isn’t inhaling that air as-is into the cabin – it’s actually filtering out all of those dust mites and pollen spores.”

Now, there are some automotive parts that require something of a bread-and-butter sales approach, like alternators, brake pads, and ball joints. Others scream for an appeal to the driver’s vanity, like exhaust tips, spinning rims, and trunk-mounted spoilers. But when it comes to cabin filters, it can benefit the jobber immensely to adopt a third method, namely an emotional, educational one.

To put it in vulgar terms, this is not quite the tired “put a price on your family’s safety” sell, but rather an appeal to the customer’s sense of both logic and personal health.

When Robert Bosch first launched its line of cabin filters, it did so with the kind of medical research that can help legitimize health-related sales claims. In corporate literature, the firm talks about recent studies appearing in The Journal of the American Medical Association and the journal Epidemiology showing the harmful effects of vehicle exhaust, smoke, and industrial emissions on human health and disease. The research showed unequivocally that breathing in exhaust fumes could damage the heart — and possibly even shorten life.

“The results suggest that repeated periods of short-term (several hours’) exposure to high particulate matter levels, such as may occur during rush-hour traffic, is potentially capable of promoting…atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries],” writes Qinghua Sun, a doctor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. When particulate matter enters the lungs, it triggers an inflammatory response in lung cells and in blood vessel walls that can lead to plaque build-up and atherosclerosis.

Another study conducted for WebMD returned equally alarming results. “By looking at the effects of pollution within communities, not only did we observe pollution’s influence on overall mortality, but we saw specific links between particulate matter and death from…heart attack, as well as lung cancers,” notes Michael Jarrett, Ph.D, associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.

This medical research is certainly not included here in order to encourage jobbers to adopt a doom and gloom attitude towards the sale of cabin filters, but to provide resources to encourage a health-based attitude towards promoting the products.

The personal health benefits of initial installation and regular media replacement can be quite a powerful sales angle, when played tactfully. Furthermore, it certainly will never hurt to remind your customers that, due to the often-awkward location of cabin filters in the engine compartment or buried under the dash, this is largely an installer job. As such, it’s something that is going to help both of you in the long and short term, if the opportunity is seized.

With an industry that has seemingly provided a filter for everyone, and is quickly aiming to equip any and all vehicles with this part, jobbers have simply failed to step into the game with any consistency.

Drivers Can’t Buy What They Don’t Know They Need

Problematically for wholesalers and retailers of this particular component, public education on the very existence of cabin air filters seems sorely lacking.

While vacuum salesmen have been able to promote the HEPA filter to the point that consumers now insist upon it, the automotive market has been slow to push the same feature in their own product; or rather, they have built them in, but not really done much in the way of telling anyone that they have done so. This causes myriad problems for the aftermarket. Namely, it’s hard to sell someone a replacement part if he doesn’t know he has an original one to begin with.

Honeywell’s Megan Currie highlights the problem for the aftermarket succinctly. “Because of how cabin filters were introduced, dealers are currently capturing most of the sales,” says Currie. “And while I think most WDs are stocking them, people need to be made aware of the benefits.”

Rob Backode, senior product manager for Robert Bosch Corporation, backs up this sentiment. “Many drivers simply have no idea that their vehicle is equipped with a cabin filter, where it is, or what it does,” he says. “Yet the cabin filter is essential to a good driving experience because it cleans the flow of outside air that enters the vehicle through the air vents.”

So, due to their relatively unknown nature, cabin filters are a component that really needs to be sold by the jobber. There are many parts in the aftermarket that are relative gimmies, in that when a customer needs something like a new axle, it’s a pretty clear sale. However, considering the location of many cabin filters, the old “out of sight, out of mind” adage certainly applies. Furthermore, seeing as the cabin filter will not cause the vehicle to cease its driving function, the CAF is the easily ignored redheaded stepchild of the auto parts family.

As such, regular maintenance, the cash cow of the aftermarket, is something that routinely gets overlooked, and this is where the conscientious jobber comes in. As a front-line sales force for new products, this is your opportunity to push a valuable, helpful product.

In terms of the overall maintenance market, cabin filter replacement ought to be on par with other filter systems. “Cabin filters should have the same change interval as air filters, about every 20,000 km or so,” says Currie.

The Filter Manufacturers Council suggests that CAF should be changed on a regular basis according to vehicle manufacturers’ recommendations. “If the cabin filter is not changed regularly, the efficiency of the fresh air intake system will be diminished. For example, defogging windshields may be difficult.”


So why aren’t cabin air filters flying off the shelves in these scorching summer months? Well, it would seem as though OEMs and the aftermarket have some work to do in terms of the most basic sales and marketing tactics. Luckily, jobbers across the country can do quite a lot to help the process along, and in turn, give this component a well-deserved leg up.

The information that jobbers can provide to their trade customers, properly delivered to the consumer, can certainly help the sales of this part. But it will also have real and lasting health benefits for customers.