How to Tell If You Have a Bad Fuel Filter

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Annette Maxon
Updated on Apr 15, 2022 · 6 min read
Generally, your vehicle’s fuel filter needs to be replaced every two years or 30,000 miles. However, a bad fuel filter also can be spotted by a few telltale signs, ranging from trouble starting your car to engine misfiring. Fortunately, many of these clues are easy enough to diagnose from your own garage.
Fuel filters are the unsung heroes that keep your engine running smoothly and safely. Responsible for filtering harmful debris out of gasoline before it reaches your engine, this filter can start to cause problems if not replaced.
There are some common bad fuel filter signs to look for. What’s more, replacing your car’s faulty filter is cheap and easy enough to do yourself.
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What is a fuel filter?

Fuel filters are essential for filtering harmful debris from gasoline (think: dirt, rust, paint chips) before it reaches the engine. When you fill your car with gas, it starts in the gas tank before being moved by the fuel pump through the fuel lines to the injectors. At this point, the injectors regulate the amount of fuel released into each combustion chamber or cylinder.
Generally, the fuel filters are somewhere between the gas tank and the injectors. Reflective of their name, they filter debris out of the gasoline that could potentially be
ignited and damage
your car.
There are two common types of fuel filters that you may encounter:
  • Spin-on filters will come in a metal housing that is “spun” into place 
  • Cartridge filters use a protective casing that is attached to the engine—the filter is a cartridge that sits in the casing
Since it’s a fuel filter’s job to collect debris, the filter needs to be replaced now and then to make sure your gasoline isn’t getting muddied by residual waste. 

Signs of a bad fuel filter

There are some signs to look for when trying to figure out whether your car needs a new fuel filter. However, most of the problems can be caused by other maintenance needs as well. With this in mind, it’s important to identify as many overlapping problems as you can before diagnosing your car.
If you’ve come across one or more of these telltale problems, your fuel filter may be bad and need to be replaced:

Trouble starting your car

Trouble starting your car can be indicative of many problems, including a bad fuel filter. Residue build-up could be preventing enough gasoline from being filtered into the combustion chamber. 
Though it’s an easy enough problem to spot, this often is not the most common sign of a bad fuel filter. If this is just one symptom in addition to others, then it confirms that it is time for a replacement filter.

The check engine light appears on your dashboard

Check engine lights are the much-needed alarm for any problems or required maintenance, including a bad fuel filter. 
To read the check engine light code on your dashboard, you’ll need an OBD2 scanner. This scanner can be ordered online, or visit an auto body shop to have the code checked by a mechanic (expect to pay a service fee here).

Stalled engine

Like with some of the other signs of a bad fuel filter, a stalled engine may be caused by a variety of different things. In most cases, it's caused by not having enough air, power, or fuel in the engine. 
Even with a bad fuel filter, your car may turn on easily enough since there will likely be some gasoline still in the fuel lines from your previous drive. The problem comes up when you go to accelerate or drive uphill. Since these actions require more gas, a lack of fuel caused by a bad filter may stall your engine.

Your engine misfires

A bad fuel filter can disrupt the flow of fuel to the engine, prompting the engine to misfire. Generally, an engine misfire happens when there’s an error in one of the combustion chambers. This error throws off the engine’s process for a beat before picking up again.
Since a bad fuel filter can slow or stop the flow of fuel, you may experience a slight jerking motion in your vehicle or a lag in the power as you step on the gas. 

Your car’s performance declines

When there’s a lack of fuel being sent to the injectors due to a bad fuel filter, your car’s engine control unit (ECU)will restrict the amount of power your engine can exert. Similar to a stalled or misfiring engine, you may notice that your car doesn’t handle steep hills, towing heavy loads, or accelerating as well as it may have used to. 
Keep in mind that a decline in your car’s performance does not necessarily mean you need a new fuel filter. However, if you notice this sign along with others, it may help point you to the problem. 

How often does a fuel filter need to be replaced?

Many mechanics recommend getting a replacement fuel filter every two years or every30,000 miles, whichever comes first.
If you have a newer vehicle, you can often go 60,000 miles before needing the filter replaced.

How much does it cost to replace a fuel filter?

If you take your car to a shop, expect the average replacement cost between $50 to $150. However, this is a maintenance task that can also be done at home for $15 to $60 if you have the right tools (i.e. drain pan, garden house, slot screwdriver and needle-nose pliers, and a vehicle ramp).

Does car insurance cover fuel filters?

car insurance
does not generally cover routine mechanical repairs or maintenance. However, if your car is damaged in an accident that happened due to a stalled engine on the highway, driving up a steep incline, or caused by other fuel filter-related problems, then this cost may be included in the repairs.
If your looking for ways to save on your car’s expenses, replacing your car’s fuel filter at home is an easy fix that doesn’t break the bank. Another option would be to swap to a
cheap car insurance policy
that still gets you the coverage your need. 

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Your car starts showing warning signs when the fuel filter is going out. Some clues to look that may be a sign of an old fuel filter may be:
Trouble starting your car
The check engine light appears on your dashboard
Stalled engine
Your engine misfires
Your car’s performance declines
Keep in mind that these clues may also point to other issues (i.e. transmission issues or bad ignition coils). If you notice multiple warning signs, then your problem is likely the fuel filter.
Your fuel filter should be changed every two years or every 30,000 miles, whichever comes first. However, newer vehicles can often go 60,000 miles before needing a fuel filter replacement.
If left for too long, a bad fuel filter can lead to engine trouble or damaged fuel injectors. This service is important for your engine’s health and long-term performance so should be addressed quickly. 
But don’t sweat—your car won’t experience any damage if driven for a short time with a bad filter.

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