Maintenance tips: How to avoid long-term car damage from volcanic-ash exposure

Don’t underestimate the effects of highly abrasive volcanic dust and particles
by Joey Bernardez | Jan 15, 2020
PHOTO: Leandre Grecia

I’m sure many of us have already cleaned off the thick layer of volcanic ash that has settled on our cars following the recent eruption of the Taal Volcano. You probably already know, however, that simply cleaning the vehicle’s exterior is not enough.

Volcanic ash is very fine—it can get into the nooks and crannies of our cars that we cannot see. It is also very hard and abrasive, meaning it can cause damage to the vehicle’s internals. And since we’ll be using our cars in this current ash-filled environment, we need to be more conscientious about maintenance.

Here are some parts of your cars that you will need to pay attention to on a far more frequent basis:

1) Cabin air filter

This is the filter for your car’s air-conditioner. Because of all the ash suspended in the air, this filter is sure to collect lots of dust and particles to the point of getting clogged more quickly than usual. Have replacements ready, and look up online how you can change the filter yourself to save some time and money. Check your cabin air filter every month until the ashfall completely subsides.

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On a related note, keep your air-conditioner in recirculate mode rather than having it draw in dusty air. In some cars, the A/C automatically reverts to the latter setting each time you start the engine, so switch it back to recirculate before the start of every trip.

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2) Engine air filter

This is the filter that cleans the air your engine sucks in for the combustion process. Again, get a few replacements and learn how to change the filter yourself—there’s most likely a YouTube tutorial for your car model. If you don’t want to replace the filter with a new one, you should at least check and clean it on a weekly basis because it’s continuously drawing in outside air whenever you’re using your vehicle.

3) Oil filter and engine oil

If, for example, you usually change your oil filter and engine oil every 5,000km, it would be prudent to change them at half that interval while we’re undergoing this dusty period. Again, volcanic ash is very fine and hard; it can contaminate your engine oil and cause abrasions to every part of your engine. The rationale for halving the regular service interval is that it’s at least twice as dusty these days. If you’re in an area that has been more severely affected by the ashfall, your car will require servicing at shorter intervals.

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4) Brakes

The brakes also need attention to reduce the presence of abrasive dust that could cause premature wear on the pads and the rotors. Have them cleaned using pressurized air.

5) Dust boots

Our cars have dust boots over various parts: CV joints, shock absorbers, steering rack, shifter, and so on. As the name implies, dust boots keep the protected parts free of dust. Make sure the dust boots as well as their clamps are in good condition and have no cracks; otherwise, ash can find its way into various components. If the boots are torn, replace them.

6) Radiator, A/C condenser, and oil cooler

These parts have cooling fins that need to be kept clean to facilitate air flow. Again, because of all the ash and the higher levels of dust in the air these days, we need to be more aggressive in keeping these cooling components clean. They are more often than not located behind your car’s grille and can be cleaned with a pressure washer. Car washes don’t normally do this, but you can ask them to do so—just make sure water doesn’t get into air intakes and electrical components.

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7) Key barrels and hinges

Ash can dry out lubricated parts and cause accelerated wear on hinges and key barrels. We can prevent this by making sure our the said parts are well-lubricated. Get a good spray lubricant and give them a good blast the next time you have your car serviced.

8) Transmission fluid and gear oil

Once this period of ashfall is over and our roads are back to normal, it would be a good idea to change the transmission gear oil if you have a car with a manual transmission or the automatic transmission fluid if your ride is automatic. The same goes for the gear oil for the differential. Although these systems do not typically draw in air from the outside, changing the corresponding fluids is cheap insurance for the longevity of your car.

These measures are nothing more than a more frequent, more aggressive version of our regular maintenance procedures, and they’re necessary because carmakers likely never intended for their cars to be operated in an ash-filled environment for extended periods. Let’s hope this doesn’t last too long.

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PHOTO: Leandre Grecia
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