Obviously, car engines get dirty. Day-to-day use leads to dust and dirt gathering in the engine compartment, not to mention the fact that many people travel on dirt roads, drive through heavy snow, etc. While a dirty engine isn’t always a bad thing (they’re mostly sealed from the outside world), left unattended they can get very, very dirty and, depending on the conditions, engine damage can occur. For all of these reasons, it’s a good idea to clean your car’s engine once in a while. However, you have to exercise caution.

Since most of your vehicle’s electronic systems are under the hood (such as the ingition system, engine control module, and a myriad of connectors), dousing the engine compartment with excessive amounts of water is not a good idea. Even though most connectors are well sealed in new cars, high pressure and/or stagnant pools of water (water can sometimes pool on top of your engine) can damage electrical connection seals, which can cause circuit failure and sometimes lead to expensive repair work.

If you’re thinking that it’s a good dea to have a professional car wash clean your car’s engine, you’re not alone. Of course, getting your car’s engine cleaned professionally on a regular basis is the safest option, but it’s not the cheapest option. Besides, if you use special care when washing your engine it’s probably not necessary to hire a pro.

The first precaution you must take when cleaning your car’s engine is to make sure the engine is warm but not hot. Cleaning a hot engine can be dangerous, especially if the engine is older, because cold water can crack exhaust manifolds. For best results, your engine should be warm when you go to clean it, and the best way to make sure it’s warm (but not hot) is to park it and let it cool for at least 20 minutes, and much longer if you’re been driving for a while and/or if it’s an especially hot day.

Next, before you start spraying water on your engine, take a few minutes to loosen dirt from the engine surfaces with a plastic bristle cleaning brush. This will help make sure you get the dirt off without exposing the engine to high-pressure water (which, again, can ruin seals).

To degrease the engine (which may or may not be necessary), it is best to use a good brand degreaser available in the market. Just spray down the engine generously and leave it on for five to ten minutes. Then, wipe off the degreaser and grime with damp rags, using water for the final rinse.

When you spray water on the engine, don’t use the highest pressure setting. The idea here is to rinse, not to “power wash” grime away…that’s where you can get into trouble.

Finally, it’s a good idea to cover your car’s battery terminals and any after-market electronics connections with a plastic bag. If you car has spark plugs that sit on top of the motor, it’s also a good idea to cover these areas with a piece of plastic. You don’t want water to pool in the area around the spark plugs or coil packs.

After the cleaning process is over, allow your engine to drip-dry before starting. Even though most high energy ignitions will operate with wet plugs, to avoid misfires it is best to let them dry off first. Then, once you get the engine started, let your vehicle run for a few minutes to dry completely.

Remember: While some people claim that, because cars operate in rain all the time, washing down an engine is no big deal. However, this attitude can lead to serious car damage. The difference between a rain storm and washing your car engine with a pressurized stream of water is pretty big.

Author Chris Bjurlin owns BJ’s Auto Spa, a Phoenix auto repair and auto detailing shop.

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