The carburetor is what mixes air and fuel in an engine to allow for the combustion reaction to take place. If you are a new car owner, you may have never even heard of one of these before because they don't actually exist in most vehicles any longer. Fuel injection has taken over as the way fuel and air are mixed in modern vehicles, but most older vehicles, ones from the early 80s and before, may still have carburetors in them and if you drive an older car it's important that you know how to keep your carburetor clean and well-maintained.
Carburetors will build up deposits overtime that can cause clogs. When the fuel is burning, you're going to get carbon build-up and there's potential for the air flowing through to move dirt and debris into the carburetor as well. Eventually this causes clogs and a poorly functioning part. So, cleaning the carburetor is an important part of routine maintenance.
How Do You Know If You Need to Clean Your Carburetor?
Like any part of your car that isn't functioning properly, there are some signs you can be on the lookout for to let you know that your carburetor isn't working properly and may need a cleaning.
Car Won't Start: If you're finding your engine is turning over but not starting then a dirty carburetor may be the root of the problem. When you have too much buildup inside the carburetor then the fuel and air needed to actually get your car started won't be able to travel through it to your engine. So, it will crank, but it simply won't start.
Engine is Flooded: If you have too much debris clogging your fuel bowl then the needle valve won't be able to close. When that happens, fuel is going to overflow into the carburetor. From there it will flow out of the bowl and your air fuel ratio will be completely off. It's also going to saturate your spark plugs, effectively killing your vehicle until you get the problem fixed.
Running Too Rich or Too Lean: An engine is said to be running too rich when you're burning too much fuel and not enough air. It runs too lean when the opposite happens and you've got too much air but not enough fuel in your mix. Both of these can happen when your carburetor isn't functioning properly to maintain the balance between fuel and air. Your engine will run poorly in either one of these circumstances, potentially causing a popping sound or causing black smoke to come out of your exhaust.
If you experience any of these problems, it's a good idea to take a look at your carburetor and see if you've got too much build-up.
Best Cleaners for Cleaning Your Carburetor
There are a number of products on the market right now that you can buy to handle cleaning a carburetor. Most of these are fairly affordable as well, single cans shouldn't cost you more than a few dollars. These are often far superior to any DIY methods that you're going to find on the internet and should definitely be your first choice when you're seriously interested in getting your carburetor cleaned.
CRC Carb and Choke Cleaner
CRC carb and choke cleaner is an environmentally friendly product that meets California standards for chemical contents and acts extremely quickly in getting your carburetor clean. In fact, it boasts being able to get the job done in about half the time of some similar cleaners. The downside is that it doesn't include that targeted straw so that you can more precisely spray the cleaner where you want it and you probably need to be careful using this around plastic and rubber parts in your vehicle.
Gumout Carb and Choke Cleaner
Another big name in cleaning carburetors is Gumout. Their formulation is quick drying, so you don't have to wait too long to get the job done, you certainly don't need to worry about some kind of overnight soak. You can spray it directly onto your carburetor components to dissolve all that carbon build-up. It's easy to store afterwards for a later use. The big downside of Gumout is that you need to be careful when using it around plastic and rubber, as it could cause those things to break down.
Berryman Carb Cleaner
Berryman carb cleaner is a non-chlorinated, nonflammable carburetor cleaner that works very fast to get the job done. It's safe for metallic, rubber and plastic surfaces which puts it ahead of some other similar cleaners out there that may not be safe for every surface. Best of all, Berryman carb cleaner comes with a small basket that you can put all the parts in while you're getting them clean so you don't have to worry about where you're going to store them.
Gunk Chlorinated Carburetor Cleaner
Because Gunk is chlorinated, that means it's actually very good at the job it's meant for, but should not be used for other jobs. Chlorinated cleaners are great at cleaning carburetors, but you want to keep them away from rubber and plastic parts. If you're going to take your carburetor apart completely and do the cleaning bit by bit, this is a great choice.
Can You Use WD-40 to Clean a Carburetor?
When most people think of WD-40 they think of that blue and yellow label that seemingly everyone has in their garage that you used to help loosen up any tight nuts and bolts, or any other rusted components you may be dealing with it in cars, bicycles, even household repair projects. That said, it's worth noting that the WD-40 brand does make a specific carburetor cleaner which is different from their all-purpose lubricant product that most of us know. For that reason, there are technically two answers to this question.
If you buy a can of WD-40 Specialist Fast-Acting Carb and Throttle Body and Part Cleaner then it should do a decent job of handling any issues with a dirty carburetor. The solvent that it uses is pretty good at quickly breaking away any carbon buildup and other contaminants to leave you with a clean carburetor. And it works on unpainted metal parts, making it safe for most vehicles whether they're brand new or vintage. The big downside to using this kind of cleaner is that, unlike old-school WD-40 that you're used to, they didn't bother to include that little handy straw with this to make it easy to target specific parts.
Now, if you're going to use old school WD-40, as in the lubricant kind, this is not the best option for cleaning a carburetor. It may get the residue off your carburetor with a little elbow grease, but the problem is it's going to leave its own residue behind. You don't necessarily have to worry about it wrecking the O rings or anything like that, but it will leave a film on everything that you may not want. Look at it this way, WD-40 is not marketed as a carburetor cleaner for a reason. It's not the best tool for the job, so you should probably not bother with it. It's best just to get a specific carburetor cleaner to get the job done.
Does Seafoam Clean a Carburetor?
Like WD-40, Seafoam spray is a brand name of cleaner that you can use to clean everything from intake valves, to chambers, to compression rings. It's a petroleum-based solvent that can clean up residue and other debris but it's not really a substitute for a proper carburetor cleaner. Many drivers and mechanics recommend it as more of a preventive maintenance cleanser rather than a way to fix up a badly soiled carburetor.
Technically, as the name might suggest, Seafoam is made for marine engine cleaning, but it is very powerful stuff. You can use it in gas and diesel engines and it has a variety of uses from cleaning injectors to stabilizing fuel to lubricating cylinders to even de-icing or anti-gel in your fuel mixture. But because it's such a multi use substance, you may find better luck with a carburetor specific cleaner. It really depends on the level of cleaning that needs to be done. As we said, a heavily built up and contaminated carburetor may require a different approach.
Can I Clean My Carburetor with Household Cleaners?
If you Google things enough you will probably find a YouTube video or a website that supports the idea of using just about any cleaner under the sun to clean your carburetor. There are videos that show you how to soak your carburetor in Pine Sol to get it clean, there are videos that recommend using brake cleaner to get your carburetor clean, and other ones that recommend using vinegar or nail polish remover, and more.
Is it possible that some of these homemade or alternate use cleaners can get a carburetor clean for you? Absolutely. Is it the best idea? Probably not. The fact is that a carburetor cleaner was formulated specifically to do the work of cleaning a carburetor. It's not going to damage any O rings or rubber parts, it's not going to eat away at the metal, it's not going to cause pitting and scoring, and it's not going to leave a damaging film behind. These are all things that you may potentially have to worry about when using off-brand cleaners, or homemade recipes from people on the internet. Again, that's not to say that these things won't work. You may have amazing luck with a recipe from a YouTuber who is also a mechanic and has devised a cheap cleaning method. But you are just as likely to end up causing some damage or doing something that ends up leaving your car producing a bizarre smell for a week because there is an unexpected chemical in your carburetor.
We wouldn't recommend using alternate cleaning solutions for trying to clean your carburetor when you can buy a can of carburetor cleaner for just a few dollars. A can of WD-40 Carb and Throttle cleaner on Amazon.com is just over $6. Really the only reason you would have to use a homemade mix to clean your carburetor, or some alternate cleaning fluids, would be if you just can't get up to the store to buy a specific carb cleaner. But if you're serious about cleaning your car and maintaining the carburetor, you really should put the effort into getting the proper solution so that you don't have any problems or risk not getting the job done properly. It's certainly not going to cost you any more money.
Why Use a Carburetor Specific Cleaner?
The reason you want to use a real carburetor cleaner rather than simply a homemade brew is that the formulation of these products is better at doing the job. If you were to look up the method for using Pine-Sol to clean your carburetor off it recommends soaking it for hours or even overnight. Many of these carburetor cleaners are no scrub solutions that you simply spray on and wipe off, at best you have to use a toothbrush to get off some really hard deposits. They're faster and more efficient at what they do.
Likewise, you may have noticed these carburetor cleaners also have diverse uses. Sure, you can use Pine-Sol to clean your floors or your toilet as well, but if you buy a carburetor cleaner it can also be used for cleaning other parts of your vehicle which makes it certainly more effective and worthwhile to have in your home garage then a bottle of Pine-Sol.
The Bottom Line
If you're a stickler for routine maintenance, you should be cleaning your carburetor every six months or so. This is going to enhance your fuel economy which will save you money in the long run. And, as we’ve seen, since carburetor cleaners typically cost only a few dollars, it's not an expensive proposition, just something that'll take a bit of your time maybe on a Saturday afternoon.
The potential damages caused by not getting your carburetor clean are going to end up costing you more money down the road, especially if you end up with a flooded engine or other problems. The loss of fuel economy and the frustration of burning your mixture too lean or too rich it's something that could easily be avoided as long as you take the proper steps for keeping your carburetor clean.