If your motorcycle is like most on the road, track and trail today, it has either a two-stroke or four-stroke internal combustion engine. For internal combustion engines to function properly, they need a steady supply of air. That is, to get the most out of your machine, you have to think about its ability to breathe. You also must know how to choose an air filter to keep your motorcycle’s engine and other systems in excellent shape.

What Do Motorcycle Air Filters Do?

Both your car and your motorcycle have an air filter. You may not realize, however, that your bike’s air filter is likely more important than your everyday vehicle’s ones. Put simply, motorcycle air filters improve airflow to your bike’s engine by keeping dust, debris and other contaminants out. Because your motorcycle’s engine is smaller than your car’s motor, a clean, well-constructed and properly fitted air filter is essential.

Your motorcycle’s engine turns liquid fuel into the gas and air mixture it burns to create power. Whether you are on a paved roadway or muddy track, air usually contains dirt that you do not want inside your engine. A high-quality air filter prevents most dirt from entering your bike’s motor. As such, it protects your motorcycle’s engine while ensuring you have the power and performance you need to achieve your riding goals.

What Type of Air Filter Is Best for Your Machine?

If you are wondering how to choose an air filter, you are probably asking yourself, “which air filter do I need to get the best engine protection for my motorcycle?”

As you probably know, there are three types of motorcycle air filters: paper, cotton and foam. To know which of the different types of air filters is right for you, you must understand the air-filtration capabilities of each style.

There is a good chance your motorcycle left the factory with a paper air filter. Paper filters have pleated paper inside a metal, plastic or rubber frame. Motorcycle enthusiasts often debate the effectiveness of paper filters, though. While these filters usually do an adequate job of removing contaminants early in their lives, they tend to wear out and become less effective over time. Even worse, you cannot clean a paper filter. Instead, after your bike’s paper air filter becomes soiled, you must replace it with a new paper filter or a cotton or foam alternative.

Cotton air filters are better quality than their paper counterparts. They are also often more expensive. As you may suspect, because of their superior quality, cotton filters usually last significantly longer than other types of motorcycle air filters. If you install a cotton air filter on your motorcycle, though, you should plan to regularly clean it to extend its lifespan.

There is another component to consider when debating paper vs cotton air filters: foam air filters. These filters usually fill the gap between paper and cotton filters. While you can typically clean and reuse a foam air filter, it likely does not have the filtering capabilities of a high-quality cotton filter. A foam filter does a better job of removing particulates than most paper filters, though.  

How Often Should You Replace an Air Filter?

Whether you are a skilled weekend mechanic or just want to take excellent care of your machine, you know you have a few maintenance tasks you can’t ignore. Occasionally replacing your motorcycle’s air filter is one of these tasks. That is, while you can usually clean and reuse your motorcycle’s existing air filter, there is likely to come a time when you need to toss your bike’s air filter and install a new one.

With some time and a bit of experience, knowing when to replace an air filter becomes second nature. If you are not certain, begin by examining your motorcycle’s filter. When you do, look for breaks, cracks, compressions and other signs of damage. If you see any, you should probably invest in a new air filter. If your bike’s filter is just dirty, you can likely clean and reuse it. Unfortunately, though, some air filters are so grimy that you can no longer trust them to remove contaminants effectively. If your motorcycle’s air filter still looks rough after a good cleaning, it is likely time to buy a new one.

Your motorcycle’s owner’s manual probably has a maintenance schedule. If so, use the manufacturer’s suggestions to know when to replace your bike’s air filter. You must be careful, however, as your riding style may require you to swap out your existing air filter sooner or later than your bike’s operator’s manual recommends.

How Do You Clean Your Motorcycle’s Air Filter?

To keep your cruiser, sport bike, dirt bike, ATV or other machine running optimally, you must know how to clean an air filter. If your bike has a paper air filter, you should not try to clean and reuse it. Rather, install a new air filter to be certain your bike has the air it needs to function properly. You can usually clean both foam and cotton air filters, though.

To remove dirt and other debris from your bike’s foam or cotton air filter, you must first locate the filter. Your bike’s owner’s manual probably tells you exactly where to find your air filter. Otherwise, you can examine an OEM schematic diagram to determine the location of the filter. Either way, you must remove the filter from its housing before you attempt to clean it.

To start the cleaning process, carefully dislodge as much dirt as you can by gently tapping your bike’s air filter on a hard surface. If you have access to one, an air compressor is a good tool for blowing out excess dirt. Then, use a cleaning kit to scrub away remaining dirt, dust and other debris. Once the filter looks clean, thoroughly rinse it with clean water to remove any chemical or soap residue. Finally, allow your air filter to dry completely before reinstalling it inside its housing.

Now that you know how to choose an air filter, you are ready to invest in the performance, value and condition of your machine. Rather than risking the quality of your ride, look through the best motorcycle air filters and order a high-quality one for your bike today.