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How Volcanic Ash Can Damage Vehicles and What You Can to Do To Protect Your Car

Better to be safe than sorry.
IMAGE Paul John Caña
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An erupting volcano may be beautiful to look at from afar, but its effects can be incredibly damaging to lives and property, as anyone who’s dealing with the aftermath of Taal Volcano’s recent outburst can tell you. 

Besides the obvious—evacuation, interruption to livelihood, and consequences to our health—one particularly cumbersome side effect of volcanic activity is on our vehicles. I experienced this firsthand when I drove a car in Tagaytay on Sunday afternoon, just as Taal Volcano was spewing smoke and ash everywhere. Ash by itself can be infuriating, but when it started to rain, that’s when it got especially aggravating and dangerous. Before long, the car’s windshield and windows were caked with the ash-and-water combo and it became increasingly difficult to drive over the streets coated in mud and ash.

According to the US Geological Survey, volcanic ash can infiltrate nearly every opening and scratch most surfaces, especially between moving parts of vehicles. Ash particles can clog air-filtration systems, which can then lead to overheating and engine failure. Inside the engine, small concentrations of ash particles can cause extra engine wear.

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In addition, seals on hydraulic components may wear out faster than usual, and brakes and brake assemblies are especially vulnerable to abrasion and clogging from ash.

And as most of us already know, ash caught between windshields and wiper blades can scratch and permanently mark the windshield glass. Windows are also susceptible to scratching each time they are raised, lowered, and cleaned. It’s also possible that paintwork and exterior fittings may get corroded where ash gets in contact with the exterior. 

Photo by Paul John Caña.
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So what can we do to protect our cars?

The USGS has a few tips to reduce the effects of ash on vehicles, which we are reposting here:

Driving

- Avoid driving in heavy ash conditions unless absolutely required.

- When required to drive in ashy conditions, keep speed below 55 kilometers per hour or lower. Do not follow too close to the car ahead, and use headlights on low beam.

Oil change and air filters

- Change oil often. In very dense ash conditions change oil at 80 to 160 kilometers intervals. In light ash conditions change oil at 800-1,600 kilometers intervals. Lubricate all chassis components at each oil change.

- Clean air filters by back-flushing filter paper with compressed air (30 lbs/in2). Caution—blow element from inside (clean side) to outside (dirty side). DO NOT strike filters against anything. Air clean only. If unsure, have a qualified mechanic perform the air filter service. Inspect filters for dents or torn paper.

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- Clean the inside of filters and the filter cover with damp cloth before reinstalling filter.

- Commercial truck filters can be installed to increase the filtering capacity of the cleaner. This would be beneficial for vehicles operating continuously in extreme dust conditions.

- Air filter restriction gauges can be installed by qualified mechanics. The gauge will tell you when your air filter requires servicing in order to avoid over-servicing.

- DO NOT install hose from carburetor air intake (air clean) to inside of car. Outside dust and ash will be drawn into vehicle.

- Rags, or any other intended filtering material, should not be placed over the carburetor inlet inside the air cleaner element; serious damage to the engine and/or loss of vehicle control may result.

Photo by Paul John Caña.
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Outside vents

- Cover passenger compartment vent inlet (located at base of wind-shield and usually under hood) with thick, loosely woven felt-type material to filter air into vehicles. With vent filter in place, keep heater blower high. Blower will slightly pressurize inside of vehicle and keep dust from entering through body gaps or holes. If a vent filter is NOT installed, keep air conditioner and heater blowers off.

- Utilize 'internal-only' circulation option available on many modern cars.

Cleaning

- Have a service garage clean wheel brake assemblies every 80 to160 km for very severe road conditions, or every 800 to 1600 km for heavy dust conditions. The brake assemblies should be cleaned with compressed air. 

- Have service garage clean alternators winding with compressed air after heavy accumulation or every 500 to 1000 miles or after severe dust exposure.

- Clean the vehicle, including the engine, radiator, and other essential parts daily, if necessary, using water to flush the ash. Wash the engine compartment with a garden hose or steam cleaner. Be sure to seal off air intakes and electrical components before cleaning.

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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