Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2003   by Andrew Ross

Market Feature: Forgotten No More

Cabin Air Filter Gaining in Awareness

With a doubling of the market predicted over the next two years, it is increasingly difficult to think of the cabin air filter as the “forgotten filter” it has come to be known as.

Earlier this year, the Filter Manufacturers Council predicted a doubling of the market by the year 2005, while car manufacturers continue to increase the proportion of their vehicles equipped with the air clearing device. The fact is that they clog with dirt and debris, and will continue to be replaced in increasing numbers as consumers become more aware of their existence.

In fact, according to statistics from ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket, it is the only filter category which is experiencing any appreciable volume growth whatsoever.

And so, while other filter categories such as air and oil have taken the route of adding value and premium offerings just to maintain margins and dollar volume, the cabin air filter, or vent air filter as it is also called, has only a positive outlook for volume sales in the foreseeable future.

“It’s obviously a growing market in the U.S.; one in five vehicles has one,” says Bruce Richardson, ATP-Inc. But growth rates are a double-edged sword. Small total market penetration also continues to be a challenge. “The rate of replacement is going up as well, but it is still just about 2%,” says Richardson, which means, of course, that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Richardson says that the reason for the increasing popularity is simple: people are becoming concerned with their sensitivity to allergens. Just as the HEPA filter has become commonly used in household ventilation systems, so has the cabin air filter, or vent air filter, become more and more popular with automakers. Still, it has remained in the background for many service providers.

“Again, it is up to the installer to make sure that the consumer is aware that their car has one,” says Richardson.

Interestingly, says Richardson, the quick lube chains seem to be making more inroads into the market than the independent garage. “They take the time to look up the vehicles and find out if they have one and suggest a replacement,” he says. Part of the reason for this is motivation, he says; when the profit on your core service is so low, as it is with many lube chains that entice customers with a low price, you have to look at as many ways as possible to build profits. “And,” he says, “it’s an easy service.”

It wasn’t always a simple service, he recalls, but as automakers designed new vehicles, they took into account improving access.

“Most applications now have access either through the glovebox or through the engine bay, with access panels that make the job a few minutes at worst, seconds at best.”

One barrier that remains, however, is awareness.

Peg Cambelton agrees. As product manager for Honeywell Consumer Products Group, which supplies the Fram brand of filters, she says that the growth which is taking place in the market is an improvement, but it really just scratching the surface; the market’s true potential is greater.

“I’m sure my competitors would agree,” she adds. The growth is starting to come, “but we’re not really there yet.”

To aid in improving the situation, the company recently published a booklet outlining the applications and installation instructions, as well as the benefits of replacing this hidden filter.

“The booklet has definitely helped the cause,” says Campbelton, “because the interest is up, but we still need to do some work. We need to get to the consumer by working through the installers and retailers to show them the benefits.” The booklet, which is available through the company’s reps, also shows how the category has grown. “We started with two part numbers; now we have 22,” says Cambelton, “and that represents about 96% coverage.”

Wayne Smith, product manager, Dana Canada Corporation filter division, which supplies Wix and Kralinator brands, also says that part numbers have been expanding. He predicts that there will be as many as 50 in the company’s offering by the end of the year.

“There seem to be more and more vehicles with them all the time. We’ll add seven or eight this year. I think that people are starting to realize that they are out there.”

He agrees with others in the market that the lube shops are doing an exceptional job at moving the category forward, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Some of the lube shops have big signs and people didn’t even know they had one. My father-in-law has a Venture van. We opened the glove box to get to the filter and it was just plastered with leaves and feathers. It was unbelievable.

“He was wondering why he wasn’t getting any cold or hot air.” He says that Dana has a brochure, posters, and starter kits, and that a binder with installation instructions is in the works. It will all go to help the cause.

Likewise, ArvinMeritor, which supplies the Purolator brand of filters, has a wall chart and a starter kit, while a brochure is in the works.

Richardson says ATP, like its competitors, has continued to bang the drum and provide the tools for jobbers and installers to build consumer awareness. The introductory program, for example, includes a filter assortment, a poster, wall chart with applications and installation instructions, as well as a consumer information piece.

“It comes down to the education that is needed,” he says. “The owner of the vehicle needs to understand that this filter is a maintenance item. You have to take time to check that filter. Why let this vehicle go away? Once you show the consumer the dirty filter, they’ll change it out no problem.”

With all these major suppliers providing resources to build awareness, it is beginning to look like there are fewer reasons jobbers and their customers cannot make inroads into this increasing market base.

Cabin Air Filters An Emerging Market

Filter manufacturers can expect to see a doubling of the size of the automobile cabin air filter market by the year 2005, according to the Filter Manufacturers Council.

Cabin air filters have been installed by European car makers on the majority of their products since the late 1990s, and on heavy-duty trucks – especially in environments where heavy amounts of dust and other pollutants are present in the air, such as construction and mining operations. North American car makers are, however, producing an increasing number of automobiles and light trucks with cabin air ventilation systems equipped with filtration media.

ArvinMeritor reports that in North America, some 15% of vehicles on the road have the filters, though 35% of vehicles sold in 2001 were so-equipped.

Predictions are that up to 80% of the cars sold in the U.S. in 2005 will have cabin air filters installed as standard equipment, and even today some estimates of the number of new cars sold in the U.S. that have cabin air filtration systems top 50%. Canadian figures should closely parallel these, perhaps even exceeding them due to the higher import penetration here.

Car owners are, in fact, largely unaware that their automobiles and light trucks contain cabin air filters, and that these filters have regular recommended change intervals. Though often not mentioned in car owner manuals, the normal recommended change interval for cabin air filters is approximately every 20,000 km. And it is growing. A survey of U.S. lube shops reported that some 20% are currently offering the service, up from 3% as recently as 1999.

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