Wind in Your Hair and Clean Combustion: How to Clean an Air Filter on a Motorcycle

Ensuring you have a clean air filter for your motorcycle can feel a bit like dealing with ducts or pipework in your home. It’s not so noticeable from the outside, but if things are not working correctly with these parts, issues with them can make a significant difference. The air filter on your bike is more crucial than you might imagine, and they come in a variety of qualities. Just as motorcycle values differ, the quality of the air filters can be quite different when you compare a paper one to the cotton variety. Regardless of the type, though, keeping this part clean is vital.

What Happens If You Have a Dirty Motorcycle Filter

With a mildly dirty air filter, your motorcycle can lose engine power. The filter is the gateway between fresh oxygen your engine needs correctly burn the fuel, allowing in air while preventing dirt from getting into your chambers.

Eliminating some of the air will diminish some of the power of your engine. In a more severe filthy situation, a damaged air filter can even allow in debris and particles to your combustion chambers, a big problem you want to avoid. So, keep your bike working effectively and safely—no need to employ motorcycle insurance when you can maintain a simple filter cleaning and make sure the engine is working correctly. Whether you have a cruiser or prefer sport bikes, your air filter needs changing or cleaning on a regular maintenance cycle.

Types of Motorcycle Air Filters

There are three main types of motorcycle filters: paper filters, foam filters, and cotton filters. Paper filters are the standard stock parts that come with most types of motorcycles. Paper filters are a popular option because they are not only inexpensive, but you literally cannot clean them. You toss them and replace with a new filter when the time comes.

The downside with paper filters is that they do not remove as much particulate as foam or cotton filters. If you ride dirt bikes, live on a dirt road, or want to enhance your engine performance, opting for a foam or cotton filter is a better idea.

The exception with stock filters is often in off-road bikes when foam filters are typically the standard. Foam filters are fantastic for reusability because they can get cleaned frequently. The drawback with foam is that it can be so dense that it will not allow quite as much airflow. This reduced breathability gets even worse when these filters become dirty, requiring more frequent cleaning. Foam filters cost between the range of paper and cotton and typically run between $10 and $20 for a foam filter.

Cotton filters are often considered premium because they allow for a lot of airflows but also can be cleaned and reused. Cotton filters are known for lasting hundreds of thousands of miles if you maintain them correctly.

The negative side of a cotton filter is the complication involved in cleaning it adequately and the cost. You will typically need a cleaning fluid and oil for these filters. Most of the makers of cotton filters have kits available to clean them with the correct products. Cotton filters also run anywhere from $20 to $60 and up.

How Often to Change a Motorcycle Air Filter

So how often should you change your motorcycle air filter? The frequency will largely depend on the type of bike you have in the conditions in which you ride. If you ride a dirt bike on tracks and trails, many recommend replacing or cleaning your air filter after every ride. This type of schedule might seem like overkill to some people, but in dirty conditions the air filter can get caked up quickly.

If you ride a cruiser on the street, you will have to gauge when to clean your filter by checking it occasionally. In cleaner conditions, you can get a handful of rides in before changing your air filter. For many people, cleaning with each oil change works. It’s best to check it frequently in the beginning when you start riding to get a feel for how quickly your air filter gets dirty.

Do’s and Don’ts of Cleaning Motorcycle Air Filters

  • Don’t clean your air filter with gasoline. Some people recommend this technique, but the gas will not just strip residue from your foam filters. It also breaks down the foam itself and the glued seams on the foam. Utilize cleaners and oils specifically made to clean air filters.
  • Don’t forget to cleanse the airbox. A wet rag with soapy water or even just warm water on a damp cloth can quickly remove contaminants from a filthy airbox. Placing a clean filter and a dirty air box will quickly gunk up your newly clean filter.
  • Don’t wring out your foam filter like a washcloth. Doing so can tear the foam and rip the seams. Gently squeeze out excess oil by firmly but carefully pressing the foam filter and then allowing to air dry.
  • Do use air filter specific cleaners. Different oils are for various purposes. Motor oil is too light and can seep through air filters, where it can potentially get to your engine. Air filter cleaning oil is explicitly designed to work through foam pores and then evaporate leaving behind a sticky surface which helps trap dust and dirt.
  • Do use enough to coat your filter thoroughly so that the oil can do its job. That sticky residue from the cleansing oil will help grab dust and small particles, making your filter work more effectively.
  • Do consider getting a cotton filter if you want a lot of air intake but also want a screen that will last a long time—the entire lifespan of your bike in some cases.

How to Clean a Foam Motorcycle Air Filter

  1. Get your air filter cleaning supplies before you begin. When cleaning a foam motorcycle air filter, first put on a pair of gloves to protect your hands. Remove the foam from the housing and lightly tap it over a garbage can to remove some of the initial debris before the washing process.
  2. Then get a bucket of warm water to wash off the majority of the gunk. Do not twist or wring out the foam filter. You can then use a mild cleansing, such as a drop of dish soap in warm water and give the filter a few rounds of washing to remove some of the old oil.
  3. Rinse the filter as many times as needed to remove all of the soap. Gently squeeze the foam to remove excess water, but again, do not twist or wring it out. Set it aside to dry thoroughly. Do not apply oil until the filter is entirely dry. You can clean out the airbox/filter housing while it dries.
  4. Once the foam is dry, saturate it with filter oil and use enough to allow it to soak through. Gently squeeze out the extra oil to allow air to pass through the foam effectively, and you can now return the filter to the airbox.

How to Clean a Cotton Motorcycle Air Filter

  1. Put on gloves to protect your hands. Then remove the filter from the housing and tap loose dirt and dust off the cotton screen.
  2. Apply cotton filter-appropriate cleaning and allow it to sit for about five minutes, or as the instructions state. This time will enable the cleanser to break down grime.
  3. Then fill a bucket with warm soapy water, using a mild soap or just a dash of dish soap, and wash off the filter being careful not to dent or damage it.
  4. Rinse until the water is clear and free of suds and allow the filter to dry completely. Do not apply the oil until the cotton is entirely dry.
  5. Once dry, apply air filter oil to the cotton and cautiously wipe any excess off the filter. Return the cotton screen to its (cleaned) housing.

As mentioned, if you prefer to avoid the cleaning process, using a paper filter is the easiest way to get a clean filter regularly. Paper filters will not guard as well against dust and small particles, but they are cheap and straightforward to change.

Cleaning a Motorcycle Air Filter for an Efficient Engine

If you’ve never owned a bike before, changing the air filter is something that can be easy to forget. You want to keep the airflow clear to help your ride burn fuel most effectively. If buying a motorcycle, checking the VIN and ask about maintenance records. A motorcycle loan calculator can help you figure out a budget for your bike along with the monthly cost of potential repairs and upkeep. Cleaning or changing your motorcycle filter is not a step you want to skip. So, check it at least with every oil change, and more often if you ride on dirt or in dusty conditions.