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When you pull up to the pump and fill your car with gas, you probably never think about one of the critical parts of your fuel system – the fuel filter. These filters help to protect your car’s engine from debris that could cause damage to its inner-workings. Any small amount of particles and debris over time can result in unwanted wear and tear on your engine. Since the fuel filter is usually tucked away, not many people remember it’s there and is an important part of your vehicle’s health.

Fuel filters, just like any other filter, don’t last forever. Vacuum cleaners, forced air units, fish tanks – they all have filters that need to be cleaned or replaced regularly. It’s no different for the fuel filter in your car. It needs to be replaced in newer vehicles at around 50,000 miles, and every 50,000 thereafter, however, it doesn’t hurt to just replace them annually. (Note that you should always follow your vehicle’s owners manual for the recommended frequency as it could vary) If the vehicle is over seven years old, this is especially important because debris that has built up over time in the fuel tank could plug up the filter faster.

Who needs the cost of repairing or replacing expensive engine parts when you could just replace a fuel filter for the average cost of between $50 – $170 at the auto shop? Sounds like an important maintenance plan, right?

If you haven’t timed out your fuel filter maintenance just yet, do it! But in the meantime, knowing warning signs and symptoms of your filter needing replaced are a great skill to have. They could mean the difference between that high dollar engine repair and a planned out regular maintenance cost. Here are some things to look for that might indicate your filter has gone bad:

Warning Signs

  • Your vehicle is hard to start.

You hop in your car and turn the key and your car spurts and sputters at you instead of turning over. This might happen several times before it actually starts. This is one of the first signs that people experience that might indicate trouble with your fuel filter. Clogs in your filter block the flow of fuel through your system and can cause it to be hard to start.

  • Bad gas mileage

Ever looked at that handy gas mileage indicator on your supposedly efficient car’s display and wondered what the heck happened? If your fuel filter is clogged, it causes the fuel pump to pump faster, therefore using a higher rate of fuel than it would with a clean and clear filter.

  • Check engine light

Cars these days are so smart, aren’t they? Ding, that little check engine light just came on. Your car’s computer can detect when your engine is in distress and not working properly. One of the most common causes of a check engine light being activated is a bad fuel filter.

  • Your engine keeps stalling

Sitting in traffic on the interstate and your engine stalls. You manage to restart it but it happens again three times on your commute home. Talk about something that can make your stress level raise to the max! If a fuel filter is extremely dirty, your engine will be hungry for fuel and as a result, it might stall.

  • Engine misfires

While more common in older model vehicles, misfires can be a result of a dirty fuel filter. These happen most often when the vehicle is bearing a heavy load or driving uphill because there is more stress put on the motor in those situations. Another thing that might be noticeable during a misfire is hesitation or shaking of the vehicle since the amount of fuel being delivered to the engine varies due to the clog.

  • Power loss

You should be familiar with the way your vehicle accelerates, or the amount of power it has. If you notice a loss in that acceleration power, it’s possible the fuel filter is the culprit.

  • Hard idling

Your car’s engine seems to jerk, struggle, and stutter while you’re sitting at a stoplight. Geez, what’s the deal? You’re not even moving! A hard or erratic idle means your engine doesn’t have enough fuel for combustion and as a result, it jerks and shakes.

  • Fuel pump is damaged

If your fuel pump is damaged, more often than not a clogged fuel filter has contributed to the problem. When a fuel filter isn’t working properly, the pump has to work overtime in order to get enough fuel to the engine. This often can result in damage to the pump. If you’re replacing your fuel pump, it’s a good rule of thumb to always replace the fuel filter as well.

  • Gas smell

While it usually accompanies another ailment your car has like a faulty gas tank, fuel line, or broken spark plug, a gas smell could also be an indicator that your fuel filter is bad. However, before you consider this, you’ll want to make sure your gas cap is properly tightened first.

So there you have it. You’ve now got the knowledge needed to be able to know when your fuel filter might need replaced.

Outside of regular maintenance, if you’ve identified there might be a problem, take your car to your favorite mechanic to check for need of replacement. If you’re mechanically inclined, this repair will cost you even less since the part alone should run between $15 and $70 depending on your vehicle. But be warned. Fuel filters are not the easiest part to replace if you’re not a mechanic.

While the repair is fast for a trained professional and is usually included in a classic oil change package, to a not so trained eye, it could turn into a mess. Replacement involves depressurizing the fuel system, and there could be several parts and cables that need to be disconnected and reconnected, then re-pressurizing the fuel system. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, just leave it to the pros. They’ll have you in and out in no time.

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