One of the most frustrating things about owning a car is experiencing a problem and not knowing the cause. That’s when the questions begin.
Is it important?
Should you bring it into the shop immediately? Or can you push it, waiting for a better time?
Car repairs can be expensive. If you wait, it can cause the cost of the repair to escalate rapidly. Instead of replacing a hose, for example, you might end up replacing an entire system. And that can be a heavy hit to the pocketbook.
It can also be difficult to know exactly what’s going on inside your vehicle. The average car has over 30,000 parts. If one piece has a problem, how will you ever find it? It may be easy to see if a headlamp is burned out, but it can be a lot more difficult to determine if there’s a problem inside the engine.
Understanding a car vacuum leak
To better understand how a vacuum leak forms, it’s essential to know how a car engine works.
An engine is a large, powerful vacuum that draws air in to be able to produce the amount of energy needed to move your vehicle. It uses pistons moving up and down to create the vacuum, which draws air into the engine and creates combustion.
This air is carefully metered through computerized sensors that analyze how much fuel to take in for maximum efficiency and power. Thanks to modern technology, it’s a process that can be tweaked and controlled to ensure your car continues to operate smoothly as you drive.
Through wear and tear, problems can arise. Each make and model can be set up slightly differently, but a vacuum leak occurs anywhere between the engine and the airflow sensor. Unmetered airflow enters the system and causes actual airflow to be higher than what the sensor can measure. That allows the system to miscalculate the amount of fuel injected into the system, which means your engine will run lean. Too much air causes too little fuel. And you’ll notice the impact of this vacuum leak in the way your engine idles.
How do you know if your car has a vacuum leak?
The 30,000 parts that make your car operate are all interwoven together in a complex way. When something goes wrong, it’s designed to make you aware of a potentially escalating problem by giving off warning signs. A vacuum leak is often diagnosed in one of several ways:
A rough idle
This is perhaps one of the most common ways to diagnose a vacuum leak. Because the leak allows too much air into the system and not enough fuel, it immediately shows up in the way the engine operates. You’ll feel it in the way the engine runs, and hear it as it attempts to stay operational.
In addition to the rough idle, you’ll also have trouble with the way your vehicle operates as you drive it down the road. With too much air and not enough fuel in the system, as you press the accelerator, the vacuum pressure will be more noticeable. You’ll have an engine that hesitates or stumbles as it attempts to pick up speed and move forward.
Fuel economy and emissions problems
When there is a change in the air-fuel ratio, the engine will burn hotter than normal. This increases the generation of oxide emissions, such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide. Even if it isn’t strong enough to trip the check engine light, it will still be detected if you run your vehicle through an emissions test. You’ll also notice a reduction in fuel economy as the overall system tries to compensate by adding more fuel to the process. The EVAP – evaporative emissions control system – also depends on the vacuum to work. When it doesn’t, it can throw off the system functionality, sending an emissions trouble code back into the system.
Check engine light
Depending on your vehicle, the vacuum leak will eventually be detected by the monitoring system and react by turning on the check engine light. The check engine light can mean a variety of things, which is why it’s imperative to bring your car in as quickly as possible to avoid damage to any part of the engine system.
If you catch a vacuum leak early, you can minimize damage and fix the problem easily. The more the vacuum leak is allowed to continue, the more extensive the potential damage. Driving with a vacuum leak elevates temperatures within the engine compartment by running on a lean air-fuel ratio. This mixture over time can damage pistons and bearings, and can move to other parts within the engine, such as the catalytic converter.
Over time, damage can move more extensively underneath the hood. If you leave a vacuum leak unchecked, the situation will worsen over time. Depending on where the vacuum leak is and what type of car you drive, you can experience many other problems. With some vehicles, it may impact the engine and stall it as you park. For others, it can reduce braking power, meaning your car will be harder to stop.
The faster you solve the problem, the less likely it will affect other parts, putting you further at risk.
Identifying a vacuum leak
If you do a quick search online, you’ll discover several ways you can test the system to see if your car is experiencing a vacuum leak. Some take more working knowledge than others. If you aren’t familiar with how a car operates, your best course of action is to bring it in and let one of our skilled mechanics take a look. We can find the root of the problem, fix it, and have you back on the road in no time.
A visual check can alert you to potential problems with hoses and tubes. If they become stiff and brittle, they can easily crack or break under pressure.
A water check is a simple way to detect where the vacuum leak is. Spray a bottle of water where the vacuum leak is thought to be. A vacuum leak will suck in moisture and temporarily seal the leak.
Once you find the leak, fix it at the source. Keep in mind that the fix isn’t always straightforward. Hoses and sensors can be easy to find and change out. But if the problem goes deeper, such as a faulty intake manifold, it can be more time-consuming and costly, especially if you don’t fix it right the first time.
Think you have a problem under the hood? Is a vacuum leak impacting your drive? Bring your car in today. We’ll have you back on the road in no time.