Who makes the best oil filter?
Best oil filter brand and type
If you’re here it’s because you’re looking for help in buying the best oil filter. Maybe you’ve already looked at a few oil filter reviews and “tear-down studies” already. But if you put any stock on those supposed studies, I’ve got some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you. None of those “studies” are worth the paper or pixels they’re written on. They’re not at all scientific and the stats they measure are irrelevant—the number of pleats has NOTHING to do with an oil filter’s efficiency or life. If you want to know how false those studies are, click here.
Most oil filter companies make several grades of filters and several brands
That’s right, many of the different brands you see out there are made by the same company. They’re just private labeled for different auto parts stores so you can’t compare apples to apples.
The best oil filter has the best filtration media for your vehicle
These days, many oil filters are vehicle specific. So an engine with direct fuel injection will use a different filter than an engine with port fuel injection Why? Because each engine generates a different amount of oil contaminates.
Oil filter history
The first oil filters used steel wool, wire mesh, screens, and felt. The next generation moved on to cotton and other fabrics. Then came disposable filters made from cellulose filter paper. Before synthetic oil and extended oil change intervals came around, manufacturers used only 8 different types of cellulose papers. Then things changed.
Keep that in mind as you review the numerous oil filter reviews and “studies,” because most are woefully outdated. Many of these studies show a pleat count or total square inches of filter media. However, since car makers now rely on almost 80 different types of filtration media, square inches of filter media means nothing unless you know the efficiency of that particular media. In other words, a high-efficiency filter made from synthetic glass and cellulose can actually filter out more and smaller particles than a low-efficiency filter with more square inches of material.
You simply can’t interpolate good test results from a part number to reflect the overall effectiveness of the entire brand. Keep in mind that manufacturers build their filters to match the needs of a particular engine.
Economy, OEM and premium oil filters
A high-quality oil filter is built from quality components. First, it must have a quality filter media. Most economy filters are made with cellulose that’s only about 80% efficient. But a multi-layered premium filter is made with cellulose and synthetic glass fibers that are 99% efficient. That extra filtration traps more harmful particles and sludge. Next, the filter must have enough surface area to keep filtering for the full life of your oil change. Most people think that means a larger size filter or a filter that’s packed with more pleats — not always true!
Again, this comes back to the filter media’s composition and efficiency. Some filters made with synthetic filter media can last far longer than a conventional filter twice the size.
Aside from the filtering media, the differences are in the filter pleat support, bypass valve, anti-drainback valve, and end cap design and construction. Economy filters, (like the one shown below and to the right) have a plastic core tube that only partially supports the filter media. In a spin-on filter design, oil enters the pleats from the outside and drains back to the engine through the core tube. In that configuration, you want as much core support as possible to prevent the pleats from collapsing and disintegrating into the core as the filter clogs.
The premium quality filter below and to the left has a metal mesh core support to reinforce every pleat.
A bypass valve opens during periods of high pressure. It allows oil to bypass the filter media when the filter has reached its end of life. Once the bypass opens, oil bypasses the filter media and drains down the core tube.
If the bypass valve doesn’t operate properly, the pressure can blow out the O-ring seal and in some extreme cases, destroy the tin can. Some carmakers install a bypass valve in the oil pump, so those filters don’t need the valve. The economy filter shown below skipped the traditional metal spring-loaded bypass valve and relies instead on a combination anti-drainback/bypass valve. The rubber valve collapses during high-pressure cycles. That allows the oil to drain down the center tube as well.
Finally, the filter must have some type of anti-drainback valve to prevent
dry startups on vehicles where the filter is mounted on the top of the engine, on its side or at an angle. Economy filters use a Nitrile (black rubber) valve that can harden and crack after 3,000 miles. Premium filters use a silicone anti-drainback valve that can last the entire length of an extended oil change (7-10,000 miles). It’s easy to tell the difference between the two materials—nitrile is black. Silicone is either orange or light gray. You won’t find silicone valves on economy filters—the manufacturer just can’t afford to use those costlier materials.
Oil filter dirt holding capacity specs are a red herring—kinda
Engine oil filters must do these three things well:
1) Remove the size of contaminants considered to be most detrimental to that particular engine. This is based on engine material design and clearances, so it’s different for every engine.
2) Have enough contaminant holding capacity to last the recommended oil change interval.
3) Provide contaminant capture yet allow oil flow without increasing pressure beyond carmaker specs, even at cold temps.
Those requirements can create contradictions. For example, a filter that captures smaller particle sizes may also restrict oil flow at cold temps. In addition to restricting oil flow, it may clog faster and go into bypass mode where it stops filtering completely.
Engine Contaminant discussion
So before we even talk about contaminate capacity we have to understand what it is. There is dirt, and then there’s dust. Most people think engine contaminants come into the engine from outside. Not true.
Think about how dirt can enter an engine. It can come through the air filter and into the intake. Any dirt that gets past the air filter is going to go into the combustion chamber, not your oil pan. Yes, some dirt could possibly move into the pan via piston ring blowby. Most likely though it’ll be burned during combustion. Besides, preventing dirt entry into the cylinder is the air filter’s job, not the oil filter.
Dirt can also get pulled into the crankcase via the positive crankcase ventilation system. The intake is constantly sucking blowby gasses out of the crankcase. That air has to be replaced or the crankcase would be running a negative pressure. But the replacement air is coming from the intake duct after the air filter. So any street dirt that gets into the oil got there because of a problem with the AIR filter or a leak in the air filter box, seal, or duct.
But here’s the key to understanding why street dirt is almost irrelevant. Almost all late model engines monitor intake mass airflow to properly calculate air/fuel mixtures. A leak in the intake air duct, a leak that could introduce dirt into the crankcase, would also cause a drivability problem. An air duct leak lets in UNMETERED air. The PCM sees a lean condition caused by the leak and adds fuel to compensate. So you get high idle speed and poor gas mileage.
Bottom line: The air intake systems on late model cars are sealed much better than the systems used on carbureted engines.
Nominal versus absolute filter efficiency rating
Filter media efficiency ratings can be misleading if you don’t understand the terms.
A filter that lists a NOMINAL rating must also have an EFFICIENCY rating. So a filter that lists a 30-micron nominal rating with a 20% efficiency is a filter that only filters out 20% of particles 30-microns or larger. In other words, it’s not a very efficient filter because it allows 80% of 30-micron particles to pass through.
However, a filter that has a 30-micron ABSOLUTE rating will filter out 100% of all particles 30-microns and larger.
Sludge is really your engine’s #1 enemy
This is what sludge looks like on an oil filter
Sludge is caused by oil, soot, water, viscosity improver breakdown, and
acids from combustion blowby gasses. The oil filter’s ability to trap sludge is FAR more important than its ability to trap dirt (yes, it’s important to trap dirt but if your air filter and intake ducts are properly maintained, you won’t get dirt in your engine).
Dust, on the other hand, comes from deteriorated gasket material, residual core sand from the casting, and worn metal. Some filter manufacturers list a dust holding capacity in grams. But as you’ve seen so far, dust is far less of a problem than sludge.
Here are the best ways to create sludge:
Short trips after a cold start—oil doesn’t heat up enough to evaporate excess water, raw gas, and blowby byproducts. Stop the engine and all that liquid mixes with crankcase oil to create sludge.
Pedal to the metal driving
Extending drain intervals beyond the oil’s useful life
Driving while low on oil
Driving in hot conditions
Viscosity improvers are polymeric additives that uncoil to “thicken” oil at higher temperatures—like adding flour to thicken gravy (except the coils contract again when cold). Unfortunately, these coils aren’t very good lubricants so they shear (the coils get cut) during periods of high torque and high temp. As the VI shears, it accumulates at the bottom of the crankcase, mixes with water and gas and forms sludge.
Running oil beyond the recommended drain intervals not only damages the VI additives, but exhausts the other additives like dispersants, detergents, anti-corrosion, and anti-forming agents. Also, running your engine when it’s low on oil puts tremendous stress on the remaining oil, causing it to degrade much faster.
Economy versus premium oil filters
Today filter manufacturers use well over 80 different types, and they range from cellulose to synthetic glass, to a combination of both. Cellulose filter media excels at trapping dirt particles. Synthetic media excels at trapping sludge and combustion byproducts. That’s why these filter comparison “studies” are baloney. They simply don’t duplicate real engine conditions. In the latest studies, the authors heat the oil to make it break down. Great. But in order to create sludge, you need more than just heat. You also have to introduce combustion byproducts in real-world amounts and subject your samples to hundreds of heat/cold cycles. Not a single one of these studies does that (that I’ve seen).
So where does that leave you as a buyer? Well, putting no stock in filter studies for one. Next, understand that all filter manufacturers make several different quality levels, so buying by brand alone doesn’t work.
How to buy the best oil filter
If you’re running conventional oil, have under 100,000 miles on the odometer, drive under the car maker’s severe conditions (as defined in the owner’s manual) and you change your oil according to the manufacturer’s recommended intervals (usually 3,000 miles), you can probably get by with an inexpensive filter. It’ll most likely be made with cellulose filter media. It’ll most likely have a nitrile (versus silicone) anti-drainback valve. But those are fine because you’ll be changing your oil according to the recommended schedule. If you don’t change your oil and filter according to the manufacturer’s schedule, you darn well better install a better filter.
If you meet all of the above conditions but have a higher mileage vehicle, move up to a better filter. As engines wear, they produce more blowby and that increases your chances of sludge. A higher-quality filter will do a better job capturing sludge particles.
If you’re running synthetic oil, buy the best oil filter that’s made with synthetic filter media or a combination of synthetic and cellulose.
Best oil filter brands
The majority of all retail, wholesale and OEM automotive oil filters are made by just four companies: Bosch, Mann+Hummel, FRAM and Champion Labs,
Purolator Oil Filters
Purolator is owned by Mann+Hummel headquartered in Ludwigsburg, Germany
Bosch Oil Filers
Bosch is owned by Robert Bosch GmbH, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. Bosch purchases many of its filtration raw materials from Mann+Hummel.
Fram Oil Filters
As of March 1, 2019, Fram is owned the Trico Group
Trico brands are: Trico Wiper Blades, Anco Wiper Blades, Airtex Fuel Pumps, Carter Fuel System Components. Fram Oil and Air Filters, Strongarm Gas Lifts, Autolite Spark Plugs, ASC Cooling System Parts and ASC Water Pumps.
Wix Oil Filters
Wix is owned by Mann+Hummel headquartered in Ludwigsburg, Germany.
Champion Laboratories, Inc.
Owned by UCI International. Champ Labs mManufactures oil filters under private label for auto parts stores, OEMs and under their proprietary brand LuberFiner. UCI also owns Airtex, a manufacturer of fuel pumps.
The oil filter size issue
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen car enthusiasts brag about how they found a larger oil filter for their engine. They’ve convinced themselves that their oil filter now captures more crud. Really? Didn’t you read the part about how filter media is chosen by application? In my interview with oil filter engineers, I’ve witnessed them laughing out loud at this one. Why? Because large filters often have less efficient filter media so they can provide enough flow and less pressure drop. So don’t kid yourself by using a filter other than the model recommended by the manufacturer. You didn’t design the filter. You didn’t design the engine. You simply don’t know what’s inside every filter and the filter manufacturer certainly isn’t going to tell you because it’s a trade secret.
Finally, Rick’s opinion of cardboard oil filter end caps
Everyone talks about how Fram uses cardboard end caps in their economy filters, as if metal end caps are superior. The entire discussion is simply B.S. and you should put no stock whatsoever in the cardboard versus metal end cap controversy.
The role of the end cap is to prevent oil from bypassing around the ends of the pleats. Filter manufacturers glue the ends of the pleats to an end cap. So the effectiveness of the end cap depends on its ability to bond the pleats to the end cap without allowing oil seepage through the cap or the glue. Nobody actually uses cardboard, not even Fram. Instead, they use a resin impregnated fiberboard. Resin impregnated means it’s soaked in a plastic resin under pressure to make it impenetrable, get it? The resin-impregnated end cap actually seals better to a fibrous pleat than a metal end cap because it’s a resin-to-resin bond. So, if the end cap is impenetrable and it bonds well to the filter media pleats, what’s the issue?
To secure filter media pleats to metal end caps, filter manufacturers have to flood the caps with enough adhesive to prevent the possibility of oil bypass in the event the adhesive breaks away from the metal end cap. I’ve talked one-on-one with engineers from many oil filter manufacturers. All of them would prefer to use resin impregnated end caps because they cost less, bond better, and actually perform better than metal end caps. But they feel they can’t because of all the marketing hype surrounding metal end caps. So they use metal end caps simply because of marketing.
©, 2015 Rick Muscoplat
Posted on by Rick Muscoplat