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What is a Fuel Filter?
I’m sure you can figure this one out, but just in case, I'll give you a little help. A fuel filter is a filter for your fuel. Yup, it's that simple.
And honestly, that’s pretty much it. The fuel filter is located between the fuel tank and the engine, and occasionally is even placed inside the fuel tank itself. Just like many other types of filters, the fuel filter uses a pleated material that the gasoline runs through. As the fuel passes through the filter, any debris - such as dirt - gets caught and kept out of the engine.
Pretty simple, yeah? But let’s address a few points. First, why does fuel have debris and foreign particles in the first place? While the gasoline you put in your car is perfectly clean (as far as, you know, gasoline can be clean), it can pick up dirt, dust, and debris when it’s transported, when it’s stored at the gas station, and when it’s traveling into your car’s gas tank. That dirtiness won’t be visually evident, but it only takes a little bit to cause an issue. Hence the fuel filter.
Second, what’s the problem with a little debris in your gasoline? Well, would you like drinking dirty water? No? Well then.
Any impurities in your car’s fuel that make it to the engine will come into contact with the engine. They can scrape and cause damage to the engine over time, or clog the fuel injectors, leading to some things you don’t want to happen to your car.
Fuel filters are relatively durable, but, as with all things in life, good things must eventually come to an end. Over time, the fuel filter can become clogged, as it collects too much dirt and nasty particles, and it can stop doing its job. The filter can also break, though that’s bit more rare.
When either of these things happen, the filter will need to be replaced, though it’s a rather affordable service. So you’re in luck there.
Symptoms of a bad Fuel Filter
Check engine warning light
You were hoping I wouldn’t mention this one, weren’t you? It can’t be that serious if it’s just a little light, right?
Wrong. The check engine warning light exists to...well, warn you about something going on with your car. While it can illuminate due to a myriad of different issues. Many of those issues are fuel-related, which can ultimately be the result of a fuel filter that needs replacing.
This one is pretty straightforward. Your car needs fuel to operate. When the fuel filter is clogged, damaged, or otherwise compromised, your engine may not be able to get the proper amount of fuel.
The result can be a variety of issues that you’ll feel in your right foot. The car might misfire, which happens due to incomplete combustion.
You also might notice a lack of power, as your car won’t quite do what your foot is asking it to do. This may be a lot more noticeable at slow speeds, because the engine isn’t working as hard. At faster speeds, with the engine working a bit harder, the higher pressure can help the fuel make it past a clogged filter, which it may not be able to do at lower speeds.
There also may be hesitation when you start, or when you accelerate, which is a weird sensation.
Car will stall
If your car is stalling like you did when you were first learning how to drive a stick shift, then it very well may be an issue with the fuel filter.
If a clogged up fuel filter is keeping the adequate amount of gasoline from making it to the combustion chamber, then the car may not be able to idle, which will lead to stalling when you come to a stop.
And yes, it's a bit embarrassing.
Difficulty starting or inability to start
Similarly, if your car can’t get enough gasoline because of a clogged fuel filter, then it may have a hard time starting.
This may play out with a case of hard starting, where the engine is reluctant to get going, and it takes a few tries to get the car to turn on. Or it may go a step further and result in an engine that simply won’t turn over, and a car that, in turn, won’t start.
Here’s your first lesson in Cars 101 class: If your car won’t turn on, it’s kind of useless.
Look, I know it's easy to "forget" (or ignore) scheduled maintenance, but if you have an external fuel filter, it should be replaced per the manufacturer's scheduled maintenance. Not sure how to tell when your car's due for scheduled maintenance? Check out that manual that came with your car. Hint: It's probably sitting in your glove box.
How urgent is a Fuel Filter replacement?
A bad fuel filter should be addressed sooner than later, if you want your car to function properly. Let’s recap. A fuel filter that needs to be replaced might make the car suffer a serious loss of performance, and eventually it may not even start. Pretty sure you don’t want either of those things to happen, right?