Motorcycle parts fail from time to time; however, when problems like lack of power or strange engine noises appear, we rarely think of our air filters.
Truth be told, it's a standard troubleshooting mistake. After all, the filters are not a mechanical part that can break, so we tend to oversee its importance at first glance.
Imagine the engine of your bike as a human body.
We breathe in, we breathe out, and our body processes the oxygen.
The engine on your bike is not that different, except that it breathes in from the airbox with air that was cleaned by the air filter, and it breaths out over the exhaust.
Similar to our bodies, it takes its explosive energy from the oxygen that gets to the combustion chamber.
On yet another analogy, if dust goes into your lungs, you may face some serious health issues. Well, the same happens if sand particles get on your cylinder, you may encounter some serious and expensive engine problems.
With this visual in mind, it's easy to understand why you should care about your air filter maintenance.
The main difference between ourselves and our bikes is that we do notice immediately when our airway is blocked, the motorcycle tends not to complain right away.
The air filter getting clogged is, in a typical situation, a slow and gradual evolution, meaning that you will start losing power and engine availability, but you will get used to it as it happens.
Only later on, will you one day sit on the bike and understand that "it's not running as it should."
This is the main reason why we tend not to notice the decay in performance neither to remember that a clogged filter could be the culprit.
The maintenance of the filters themselves is quite easy.
Most bikes have replaceable filters, meaning that once you pop your old one out, you only need to put the new in and you are golden.
The tricky part there might be to reach the filter itself.
Most café racers and custom bikes will have their filters quite exposed, which makes their maintenance a walk in the park.
If your bike has the airbox under a panel, you are in for a little bit more of work, but you are usually a couple of screws away from where you need to be.
If your airbox is under your fuel tank, then you have some extra steps, but nothing a novice motorcycle mechanic enthusiast can’t accomplish with ease.
Like all disassembly’s, regardless if we are talking about a panel or a fuel tank, you must take your time.
The more organized and systematic you are at this stage, the smoother the entire undertaking will be.
We have all been in a position where we are assembling something and can’t remember where this or that screw goes, or even in which position a specific part should fit.
Well, we only get to that situation because we skipped the most critical role of a proper disassembly, we didn't took our time.
There are however a couple of useful tricks you can use that will assist you into success.
Start by labelling the parts you remove.
If you are disassembling a panel or a part of your bike that has different size screws in it, grab a piece of cardboard, roughly draw the part you are removing on it, and punch the screws on the cardboard on the respective locations of the original part.
Needless to say that if you do need to open fuel lines, tip the open line upwards to prevent spillage, cover the open part of the fuel line – if applicable – so no debris goes on the line, and use adequate protection for your eyes and hands.
One extra step you can take is to make a marking on the cardboard, referring to the position the part takes on the bike.
A simple “this way up” or “this side to the motorcycle front” will work wonders to jog your memory, especially if you are to install the part a few hours or days after the initial disassemble.
For wiring or fuel tubes - in case you need to work around those - you can use a simple tagging system.
Either by using color tape – blue to blue, red to red - or by giving them names, you will always assemble it correctly.
Regardless of how big or little of a mess you make, in the end, all you will have to do is either match colors or names.
If you need to work around fuel line, be careful, fuel is exceptionally hazardous on your skin and eyes, so proper protection may be in order.
Once you get to the air filter, if it’s a replaceable one, pop in the new one, if it is a cleanable one, you have a choice to make.
You can either use a special brand cleaner or try your luck with soap and water followed by a nice dry clean with compressed air.
My advice is that if the soap and water technique works, save the money of the brand cleaner. However, if you do see significative benefits on using the brand cleaner, stick with what does work better.
After all, what’s the point on going about cleaning it if you don’t do the best job possible?
Always keep in mind that some air filters require you to spray them with oil before installing it.
Before you pop the new or cleaned filter back in, it is always good practice to clean the air box as well.
During this process make sure nothing falls into the air admission tube.
How often should you replace your air filter?
On average, I would advise every time you change your motorcycle engine oil, however, there are exceptions.
If you live in highly polluted or sandy locations and ride on a consistent base, it’s not a bad practice if you clean or check your filter once every 2 or 3 months.
You will be amazed at how dirty it gets!
If you do off-road or even on road travels to places like Baja, Morocco or any other desert-like locations, clean your filter before and after your trip.
Depending on sandstorms and dust clouds from other bikes, you may even feel the need to clean it during your adventure.
If you do mainly off-road, it may not be a terrible idea to check your filter before or after every ride.
When off-roading, the usual sandy, muddy or dusty conditions we encounter, will be highly demanding on your air filter.
This is the reason why some hard core off-road riders cary new clean filters, and just change/replace the old one half way into the day.
Before wrapping up, I want to share with you 3 extra tips.
Please be advised that although I do use these tips on my bikes, I am not recommending you to do the same; I am only expressing bush fix options that may help you on a pinch.
If you get stranded somewhere with a clogged filter and no way to clean it, use your exhaust as an air pressure gun.
If you run your engine without the air filter in place and hold the dirty filter close to your exhaust pipe exit, the air pressure from the pipe will promote some cleaning.
Some pushes of the throttle might be in order for extra air pressure.
Will it be perfect?
Is it advisable to run a bike without the air filter on?
- Absolutely not.
Does it beat staying stranded with a clogged filter or running the rest of the way without a filter in place?
- Without a doubt!
Coat your airbox.
If you know you are going to be riding in harsh environments, use any air filter oil and spray your airbox walls on the inside as well as your intake pipes.
The oil will create a sticky surface that will remove dust from the air before hitting the filter.
Is it as good as pre-filters?
- No, not necessarily, but on its own its a 2nd layer of protection.
Pre-filters, as the name indicates, are protections you can insert on your intake pipes - if you have them - in order to catch the bulk of the dirt before it reaches the filter.
If you go down this route, its important keep two things in mind.
1 - DIY pre-filters shouldn't be made out of thick materials as you want the air to flow. I have made pre filters with great success out of stockings greased with air filter oil for instance.
Some brands produce over the counter pre-filters for specific models, and those are also worth looking into.
2 - The pre-filter will get dirty before your main filter.
Use this to your advantage as you can position the pre-filter in an easy access place, and use it as a guide to when you need to replace/clean the main filter.
Grab yourself a cheatsheet
Now that you have all the info, tips and tricks, if you want, print our this cheatsheet, and always remember the steps you need to follow to keep your air filter in top shape!
Air filter replacement cheatsheet, courtesy of Braaaaaapp Nation.