The Cold Air Intake: Useful Guidance And Advice

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Is that aftermarket cold air intake kit worth the trouble and expense?

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You have most probably heard about a cold air intake and wondered exactly what it is and how it benefits your vehicle. Did you know that your engine must ingest fresh air to burn fuel and produce power? This is how an internal combustion engine works.

However, air contains dust and impurities that accelerate engine wear, so these must be filtered by an air filter which is usually made of paper. You can learn here how air filters work, but for now, it's enough to know that the car engine's air intake plumbing is arranged so that the intake pipe sucks the air through the filter into the intake manifold. Such a stock air induction system balances airflow, filtration ability, and noise suppression. But what is a cold air intake, then?

Air Intake unsplash.com

What is a Cold Air Intake System?

People modify such factory systems by replacing them with an aftermarket cold air intake system - or CAI - comprising an aftermarket air filter and a cold air intake kit with special plumbing, insulating paneling, and a different mounting location. And, if you're asking, "what does a cold air intake system do?", the answer is that these are added because of a desire for improved performance and fuel economy.

Many such systems are available in the USA and pricing varies from cheap to very expensive. People seeking improved engine performance and/or economy, like buyers of hot hatchbacks, large truck models such as the Chevrolet Silverado, or sport sedan models such as the Honda Civic Si Sedan might consider such systems, and here's why:

Cold Air Intake unsplash.com
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The Advantages and Disadvantages

Such a cold air intake's benefits are claimed to include any or all of the following:

There can be cons too:

  • It might perform worse than the original system
  • It costs time and money
  • It can invalidate a car's warranty
  • Modifications are usually not allowed on financed or leased vehicles
  • It could actually turn out to be bad for your engine's longevity
  • Modifications can affect resale value - read more here about buying modified cars
  • Old vehicles that depend on a thermostatic intake system to warm intake air in cold weather may be incompatible with a cold air system - or won't run well
  • A cold air intake might have a negative impact on fuel economy, usually because the driver is enjoying the additional horses too much

Unobstructed airflow means an engine ingests more air, and the colder the air, the denser it is and the more oxygen it contains. Many people believe that factory systems do not let enough cold air into the engine and that the best cold air intake systems available aftermarket can markedly improve airflow to get the above-mentioned advantages. But do cold air intakes work and how much horsepower can a good cold air intake add to your engine? Let's find out the truth about cold air intakes.

How to Choose and Install Your Cool Air Intake System

Manufacturers of aftermarket cold air intake systems usually design these systems to fit specific vehicles, so read the product literature to determine whether your model is compatible. Read as many online product reviews as you can and talk to knowledgeable mechanics to determine which ones produce top results. Accurate, scientific information can be hard to come by and anecdotal evidence and testimonies can be misleading.

Once you've found a product you can trust, follow these steps on how to install a cool air intake:

  • Prepare: Remove the battery terminals and make sure you have the intake kit's parts and instructions handy, as well as the tools you'll need.
  • Remove the stock system. Remove the air intake plumbing and filter, being careful to unplug sensors, such as those for the emission controls that regulate engine functions.
  • Installation of the aftermarket system. Follow the instructions provided with the aftermarket system to install it and make sure everything is secure. Reattach the sensors and battery terminals and replace any parts stripped to gain access.
  • Test. Go for a test drive to ensure that the engine is running well and without any problems or dashboard lights illuminating.
Cold Air Intake Filter unsplash.com

How Much Horsepower Can a Good Cold Air Intake Add?

To determine horsepower gains, have your car's horsepower tested on a dynamometer before you do the work. After installing the aftermarket air intake, have the car retested, ideally with the same variables as the first test, such as the barometric pressure and temperature. It must also be the same dynamometer and it must be in the same state of calibration. If you adhere to these requirements, any difference in horsepower should be evident. Learn all about how horsepower works here.

Getting accurate comparative results is difficult and depends on many factors. A car with a standard air intake system that ingests hot air from the engine bay or that has restrictive plumbing, or has a very small standard air box or filter will benefit most from a replacement system that can address all these problems by sucking in more air from a cooler location through a less restrictive filter and piping. This could add a few horsepower but is often less than the five to 20 hp that is typically claimed. Only proper scientific comparative testing will be able to determine the true differences, though. You might not be able to feel much of a difference in a powerful vehicle, where ten or so horsepower is a tiny percentage of the total; however, in a small and lightweight car, you should be able to feel the added vigor quite readily.

Conclusion - The Truth About Cold Air Intakes

Is an aftermarket cold air intake worth it? OEM engineers spend so much time and money developing cars' intake systems that aftermarket systems don't always provide significant benefits. Improvements in performance may come at the expense of induction noise levels or an air filter that lets in more air might also let in more impurities, which are bad for your engine. Reading reviews and doing comparative research and testing will identify products that improve the driving experience, but quality air filtration is paramount and filter inefficiency can mean an early death for your engine. The advantages may simply not be worth the risks.

Cold Air Intake Kit Ford

FAQs About a Cold Air Intake System

Can a cold air intake cause damage to your engine?

A properly installed cold air intake should not damage your engine. However, it is important to buy a high-quality product of solid construction, because if anything breaks off or fails and somehow makes its way into the engine's intake manifold, it can ruin the engine. Poor-quality air filters can also let in dust and badly designed piping might not seal tightly and let in dirt as well. If water or moisture can get in too easily, this can be ingested into the engine with dire consequences.

How long does an aftermarket cold air intake system last?

The higher the quality of the materials, the more durable the system is. Avoid the cheapest systems and read reviews to determine product quality before buying. Poor-quality systems can leak, fail, break, or allow debris into your engine. How long the aftermarket filter lasts before replacement or cleaning depends on the manufacturer - check the product literature and follow the instructions to the letter. Some cold intake air filters are claimed to need servicing every 100,000 miles, but more frequent services are advised for dusty environments.

Will a cold air filter save me money in the long run?

Most makers of such systems claim that they do, but it might not be much. A cleanable filter will save you the money of replacing the filter, but standard paper filters are cheap and you already invested time and money buying and installing the system, which must be recouped too. Perhaps you save a little after many miles, but you'll more likely be after the practical benefits rather than any minor potential cost savings.

What types of cold air filters are best?

Standard factory air filters are dry paper and aftermarket ones can be dry or wet. Dry aftermarket filters may use cotton gauze as a filtration medium and must be replaced - typically every 30,000 miles. Wet (oiled) filters use the oil to trap dirt and are often claimed to last 50,000 miles or more. They have to be washed and can be reused. Wet filters require less maintenance and save money because they're reusable.

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