We run down the top six reasons — and foolproof steps — for cleaning your vehicle’s engine.
If you’ve ever purchased a new or used vehicle from a dealer or prepped for a car show, you know just how clean an engine compartment can look. The metal gleams, the black hoses glisten and you can touch any surface and not come away covered in dirt, grease or oil. Conversely, every driver knows that it doesn’t stay that way long as things get nasty under there in a hurry — a fact we’re reminded of every time the hood’s popped to check fluids, do some work or investigate a disturbing new noise, vibration or smell.
Drivers clean their vehicles’ interiors and exteriors, but by and large tend to ignore the engine compartment, allowing grit and grime to accumulate over the years and miles. Whether you don’t clean under there because you don’t know how and are afraid you’ll damage something, or you’re a seasoned do-it-yourselfer but just don’t think it’s important, consider these thoughts and tips on engine cleaning.
Why clean your engine?
Sure, a clean engine looks great, but that’s just one of the reasons for tackling this project. Here are some reasons you may not have thought of for cleaning your engine and engine compartment:
- It’s easier to spot potential trouble before it becomes a major problem. If your engine is filthy, you’re not going to know if that small fluid leak has been there forever, or if it just appeared. Clean engines make leaks, cracks and other problems easier to spot.
- Remove road salt and debris that can lead to corrosion if they’re allowed to accumulate.
- Remove debris that can cause hot spots to form on the engine and its components, shortening their lives.
- Prevent the buildup of combustible materials, such as leaves or oil, that are fire hazards on the road and in the garage.
- A clean engine is more enjoyable to work on and look at.
- A vehicle with a clean engine and engine compartment has a higher resale value.
How to clean your car engine
Ask ten different DIYers how to clean an engine, and you’ll get 10 different answers. It’s not rocket science, but it’s also not something you should dive into without possessing some knowledge. Back in the day, the preferred method of cleaning an engine was to steam clean it. Cheap, easy and it got the job done.
Times change, as do engines, and steam cleaning isn’t the best option any longer because of the sensitive electronics in the engine compartment. Fortunately, there’s an alternative today – engine cleaners.
First, browse the various engine cleaning and degreasing products available. There’s water-based, solvent-based, gel, foam, spray bottles, aerosol cans – you name it. Solvent-based cleaners cut through grease and grime better than water-based ones, which translates to less effort and elbow grease when trying to scrub away stubborn dirt. Many people like gel-based engine cleaners because they like the way they stick to vertical surfaces, giving the cleaner’s scrubbing action more time to work on the surface.
In addition to choosing a cleaner/degreaser, you’ll also want to pick up a drip pan and some absorbent pads. Why? A lot of oil and other chemicals will be rolling off your engine when you clean it, and this hazardous cocktail shouldn’t be going onto your driveway, into a stormwater drain or seeping throughout the ground. Instead, capture the dirty fluids on the pads and drip pan, allow the pads to sit in the sun until the water evaporates and then find a local recycling center that accepts both the used pads and the oily water from the drip tray.
Ready to start? Here's our step-by-step guide on cleaning an engine the right way.