What’s In An Intake?

Dec 2, 2009

Surveys demonstrate time and again that intakes are among the first purchases performance enthusiasts make for their vehicles, making them one of top-selling products in the industry. But how much do you really know about the intakes your shop sells? For this article, we talked with a few of the industry’s top manufacturers of intake systems, and they provided us with a variety of information intended to help your shop breathe life into its intake system sales.

Intake Power & Efficiency

Let’s begin with the benefits of adding a cold-air intake system. Of course they add horsepower and improve efficiency, but by how much? That’s actually a trickier question to answer than it would seem. Let’s start with efficiency gains, because as fuel continues to increase in price, the fuel efficiency of any product and intake system especially, becomes a major selling point.

Chris Thompson of Airaid in Phoenix, Ariz., says, “First of all, any gains are based on the driving habits of the consumer. Horsepower gains are the easiest to recognize, and they depend on the engine and the efficiency of the original intake system. Now, for any driver to get improved fuel economy, they have to drive for improved fuel economy. Those that do will notice fuel efficiency gains with a intake system on their vehicle. The problem is that they usually discover the horsepower first,” says Thompson.

Roger Tibbetts of Injen in Pomona, Calif., agrees, saying that when an enthusiast puts a new system on, their first instinct is to play.

“They start punching it all of the time. So, for the shop owner selling, it’s a good idea to suggest the customer not even look at their mpg for the first couple of weeks. Once they’re back to driving their normal way, then they can track it. But, it’s hard to provide numbers for miles per gallon (mpg) gains, because every driver is different, and fuel efficiency depends on their driving patterns. But generally speaking, there are claims from consumers that say they get one to two more mpg if they drive rationally.”

Tony Quezada, owner of Volant Cool Air Intakes in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., agrees with that sentiment. “Our slogan is, ‘Save gas, or go fast.’ We say that because if a guy puts on an intake and then gets into the gas to feel the horsepower, it could go the other way. The efficiency is there – that’s where the gains in the horsepower are coming from. But, if he tends to put his foot in it, there’s a good chance he could lose gas mileage.”

Quezada adds that for those drivers who spend most of their time on the freeway, the gains in efficiency can be up to two mpg more than those reigned in on city and suburban streets.

Tim Stewart of K&N Filters in Riverside, Calif., notes that horsepower and efficiency gains are all dependent on the vehicle and the motor. “K&N has Acura kits that make as little as three horsepower, and on the upper end, we have the Shelby GT 300 kit that made 53 horsepower. We just had the new Dodge Challenger in here with the 6.1L Hemi, and it made 30 horsepower.”

Other companies mention a similar range of gains for different vehicles. Commenting on why some engines benefit more than others, Tibbetts says, “Obviously, the size of the engine has a great deal to do with it. Also, if the factory design is more restrictive of airflow, or it is designed in such a way that it creates a lot of turbulence with the airflow, that affects what you’re capable of producing for horsepower.”

Jason Bruce at aFe in Corona, Calif., adds that horsepower and mpg gains aren’t the only things consumers are looking at. “Torque is also improved. We have some kits that produce over 100 ft./lbs of torque over factory.”

He also notes that in addition to gains depending on vehicle type, size and driving technique, other performance add-ons that may already be on the vehicle will have an impact.

“One of the hidden advantages of the intake is it enhances all of the other performance add-ons (chips, exhaust, etc.), as all components of performance are based on burning more fuel and air. Without introducing additional air, the power equation hits a wall,” says Bruce.

Quality Determinates

Anyone who shops for an intake system is sure to see a wide range of price points, as one would when researching any product. The question is, why are some systems more valuable than others, and what factors determine that value?

Thompson says that oftentimes, when a consumer looks at a premium intake system versus others, it’s obvious how much more they’re getting for their dollar.

“Most cold air intake systems fall within a range of pricing for the quality units, whether it be an Airaid, an aFe, a K&N, whoever. They’re all similar in pricing because the quality of those kits is high. The lower priced kits are probably not made in the U.S.,” says Thompson.

Thompson adds that doesn’t necessarily preclude them from being of good quality, but it does mean that it is a good idea to educate the consumer to look at the quality of the components used in those systems, as well as the warranty on the product and reputation of the company. He also cautions that some of those that sell lower-priced systems will compete with the jobber and sell direct to consumers.

However, Thompson says many of those issues aren’t of concern to performance shops. “Most jobbers would prefer to sell a better quality intake system because they’ll make more net dollars off of it. Also, they’re less likely to have a premium product returned with problems for fitment, instructions or quality,” says Thompson.

Quezada adds that premium intake manufacturers tend to do a lot more R&D versus your typical, very basic sheet-metal bent tubes that just don’t have the same effort put into them. That R&D is factored into the price.

“Some don’t see the benefits of having closed intake systems versus open intake systems. Consumers can purchase a $120 intake system with a bent shield and filter, but it’s not going to be as efficient as a premium intake with a sealed box, an engineered tube and a high-quality, multi-layered filter that protects the motor. Consumers should be taught to look for those things,” says Quezada.

Quezada states it’s pretty simple to mimic the stock intake tube. However, the goal is to gain horsepower, and to gain horsepower, the tube has to be modified to let in more air. The obvious modification is to increase the tube’s diameter, but that only goes so far. To truly add horsepower, the velocity of the air movement must also be increased, and that requires R&D.

“You have to really be careful on where and how you position the tube,” says Quezada. He adds that it’s also very important to test and make sure the check engine light doesn’t come and that the air/fuel ratio is correct. If they’re not correct, an engine could run lean and that could cause future problems.

Tibbetts concurs, “The design of the intake system is so important. You need to consider several factors: the air filter to use – that’s where everything starts – the type of material used for the filter, the dirt retention, the dirt capacity, the airflow, the overall efficiency, is it cleanable? All of those things count, because with the filter alone, you really have three major areas: You’ve got the air flow itself, and you’ve got the dirt capacity and how fast it loads. You could have a great flowing air filter, but if it loads extremely fast in a capacity in which the air can’t flow around the dirt, then you’ve just defeated the purpose and are losing horsepower and torque.”

Stewart notes that K&N’s prices often depend on the materials that go into a particular system. Different vehicles and different engines require different components to make horsepower. They don’t know what will be best suited for any given car until it’s been brought into the R&D facility and tested.

“The criteria we use is performance versus style. If we use carbon fiber in a kit, there’s a reason. We don’t use materials just because they look good, but for their performance properties,” says Stewart.

According to Bruce, the devil is in the details. He notes that the price of intakes varies primarily due to design features, performance levels and types of filter media. The key issue is to put the customer in the right intake for their needs. Identify whether the customer is out for performance, style or ease of installation. He mentions details to look for include good customer support, quality one-piece housing, built in MAF sensor pads, clamp stops and stainless hardware.

Filters And Tubes

In explaining what makes a good intake system to customers, it may also help to communicate the desirable characteristics of the two most key components: the air filter and the tube.

Tackling the filters, Thompson says there are a few things that consumers can look at. “A good a gauge is the structure of the filter. Is it a solid structure? Is the filter going to collapse when it starts to get dirty and pleats close up? You don’t want that. You want a filter that has some substrates to it that provide strength so that it won’t load up with dirt and it won’t restrict airflow the dirtier it gets. It also needs to be rigid enough to hold up to engine vibration. You also want to look at the material the filter’s made out of. We use a urethane construction for the body of the filter. The urethane allows us to build something that’s going to hold its tolerance over a number of years without failing due to heat variations in the engine compartment. It shouldn’t curl or crack.”

For the tube, Quezada begins with materials and explains that basically, there are two options: metal or plastic. “Metal intakes retain heat longer and conduct heat, while plastics don’t. However, Chevy did some test on some of their intake tubes, and they say that it doesn’t really matter because the velocity of the air that goes through the tube is such that its temperature isn’t distorted by the tube.”

As for the design, Tibbetts says several aspects need to be considered, including pipe dimensions, air travel (how the air travels through the tube), the air speed, its turbulence, mass air sensor adapters and materials used in the tube to make sure it’ll hold up to heat and not warp.

“That’s important, because just a slight change in tube dimension, and it’ll totally change the air-flow ratios. An engine could end up running lean, slowly damaging the engine, or it could run rich, which means that you’re putting more fuel in than you need, and at today’s prices for gas, no one wants to do that,” says Tibbetts.

Stewart adds that for the overall intake, customers should look for a combination of flow, dirt retention, filtration efficiency and durability. “We test for all of those factors. We want to make sure, number one, to protect the motor, and number two, we want to increase the performance.”

CARB EO Numbers

We’ve discussed the horsepower, torque and fuel efficiencies gains of intake systems. We’ve discussed their value and the quality of key materials and components. But, there is another factor to consider when selling intake systems: Are they legal?

State air boards are paying more attention and more strictly enforcing regulations than ever before, and intake systems fall under their jurisdiction. How important is it to pay attention to their influence?

“It’s very important; you need to abide by the law. California is all about preventing more smog, and I think in the last couple of years, we’ve done pretty good,” says Quezada.

He adds that a lot of sales within the intake industry are determined by CARB exemptions. They’re not easy to get these days, because now these sensors are so sensitive that the manufacturer has to walk a fine line. He says the manufacturers that do get CARB exemptions (Exemption Order Numbers) are true players in this industry.

“I think those are the guys that really take the time to make a good intake,” says Quezada. He adds that if a product is approved by CARB, it’s safe to sell anywhere – one of the reasons he says CARB helps improve sales.

Stewart notes, “If I’m a shop owner installing a system, I need to recognize my responsibility to the consumer and my liability and make sure I install a legal part. If the shop owner is in doubt as to whether or not a system is legal, he can go to the site for CARB and look up the application. It’s also important to know that it’s not just the part number alone that carries the exemption but the application as well.”

Blowin’ In The Wind

A final bit of information to add has to do with mass air flow sensors. Many talk about the influence of intake systems on this sensor – concerned that it may lead to canceled warranties. But, according to the companies interviewed in this article, there’s much more talk about this issue than actual problems for it, as premium intake systems are engineered to take account of the sensor in their creation.

Thompson says the problem seems to have taken on the characteristics of an urban legend. “Everyone seems to have heard of it, but almost no one has actually had it happen to them.”

However, if a customer’s warranty is voided by a dealership’s overzealous service writer, they should know they’re protected by the Magnuson Moss Act. If problems persist, some intake companies will get involved. K&N will even step in on behalf of the customer and resolve the issue with the dealership, legally if need be.