Skip to main content

Cartridge oil filter replacement guide highlights:

  • A cartridge oil filter has the same basic components as a spin-on one but separates the valves and other hardware from the filter media itself
  • Although changing cartridge oil filters requires removing separate housing caps and gaskets, they’re also cheaper and produce less waste than spin-on ones
  • Cartridge filters have the same replacement intervals as spin-on filters

If there’s one bit of car maintenance you absolutely can’t ignore, it’s changing your oil and oil filter on time. Fortunately, with the right tools, it’s relatively easy to do yourself. However, some newer cars present a complication. Rather than using a ‘traditional’ spin-on oil filter, they rely on cartridge filters instead. But the good news is swapping these filters out doesn’t have to be any more complicated.

What are the differences between a spin-on and cartridge oil filter?

On a basic level, all oil filters have the same job: removing gunk from the oil. By ‘gunk,’ I mean things like soot, fibers, and bits of metal, the by-products of a working engine. Without the filter trapping this debris, the oil would carry it throughout the engine and accelerate part wear. And both spin-on and cartridge filters rely on pleated media to catch this crud. However, they differ in how they house that media.

As you can see in the photos above, a cartridge oil filter is basically just some pleated media in a plastic housing. But as the above photos also show, that’s what’s inside a spin-on filter, too. The spin-on filter, though, houses more than just that. It also has an anti-drain valve, bypass valve, threaded insert, and rubber sealing gasket.

Cars with cartridge oil filters have those things, too, but not on the filter itself. Instead, they’re found in the threaded filter housing cap. And while spin-on filters usually have metal casings/housings, cartridge caps are typically plastic.

Basically, cartridge filters are spin-on filters separated into two halves. One half is the actual filter media while the other has all the supporting hardware.

Are there any advantages to using a cartridge oil filter instead of a spin-on one?

The dirty cartridge oil filter and black housing cap from a 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth
Dirty 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth cartridge oil filter and housing cap | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Assuming they’re the same size and use identical media, cartridge oil filters aren’t inherently better or worse than spin-on ones. However, each has a different set of advantages when it comes time to change your oil.

Because they put all the filtering hardware in one canister, spin-on oil filters are easier to change than cartridge ones. You just screw the old filter off and screw on the new one; job’s done. Also, because they have metal housings, spin-on filters can handle rougher treatment than cartridge housing caps. And while some cartridge housing caps require special tools to remove, that’s not an issue with spin-on ones.

However, cartridge oil filters one-up spin-on filters in other ways. Firstly, they’re cheaper to make and buy than spin-on ones because they’re just some plastic and filter media. Secondly, once you change a spin-on filter, you recycle the whole thing. With cartridge filters, though, you just recycle the media and the gasket: the housing cap stays with the car. This cuts down on environmental waste, both during disposal and production. Remember, to make a spin-on filter, you must make the media, metal case, valves, and gasket every single time.

Interestingly, cartridge oil filters were around before spin-on ones, The Drive notes. The latter took over for decades because it was easier to replace. But as materials science improved and companies started focusing on reducing environmental impacts, cartridges made a comeback.

Changing a cartridge oil filter is only slightly different than replacing a spin-on one

Although cartridge oil filters are making a comeback, not every modern car has them. My 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth, though, is one of those cars. So, when I went to change its oil and filter recently, I had to make a few adjustments to my usual tool kit. In addition to a torque wrench, socket wrench, and sockets, I also brought an extension, swivel attachment, and a larger additional socket for the housing.

However, I only needed the extension and swivel attachment because of where my Abarth’s oil filter sits. If it was higher up, I might’ve only needed the housing-specific socket. And as I’ll explain shortly, apart from a few minor extra steps, an oil change with a cartridge filter isn’t any different than one with a spin-on filter.

First, make sure your car’s engine is warm but not hot, and remove the oil cap. Second, safely raise and secure the front of the car, and locate the oil pan. Then, remove the drain plug and let the old oil flow into your drain pan.

Next, find your oil filter’s housing cap. In my Abarth’s case, the cap has a built-in 27mm hex socket, rather than an exotic one. So, I used the swivel attachment, extension, and 27mm socket to loosen and remove the housing and filter. Then, once they were out of the engine bay, I removed the old filter and O-ring gasket and put the new ones in. And I made sure to lightly lubricate the new gasket with some fresh oil.

Once the new cartridge oil filter and gasket are in the housing cap, gently re-install the whole shebang. To prevent cross-threading and cap damage, hand-tighten it to start. Once you’ve got it started, finish with the torque wrench, if you have one. My Abarth makes this even easier because the cap’s torque spec is printed on the cap itself. But if you don’t have a torque wrench, only go slightly beyond finger-tight, The Drive says.

After that, the job is like any other oil change. Just replace the drain plug—again, hand-tighten then use the torque wrench—and add the correct grade and amount of oil. Then, turn the engine on to check for any leaks. And after letting the engine sit for a few minutes, double-check your oil level.

How often should you change it?


Should You Get Your Engine Oil Analyzed?

Once upon a time, 3000-mile oil-change intervals were the norm. But nowadays, 5000- and 7500-mile intervals, for the oil and the filter, are fairly common. And that goes for cartridge oil filters as much as spin-on ones. If your car’s oil-change interval is 7500 miles and it has a cartridge filter, that filter will last for 7500 miles. Note, though, that some cars have duration-based intervals as well as mileage-based ones.

Regardless, while it takes a bit more time and care, changing a cartridge oil filter isn’t significantly different than changing a spin-on one.

Follow more updates from MotorBiscuit on our Facebook page.