While it might not sound like it to the untrained ear, the orchestration of components to achieve the ideal combustion cycle is nothing short of a symphony.
For fuel-injected engines, two important instruments in this precise arrangement are the mass airflow (MAF) sensor and the manifold absolute-pressure (MAP) sensor.
The MAF sensor, typically situated between the air-filter housing and the intake manifold, might be considered the maestro. Also known as an air meter, the MAF sensor uses a heated element to measure the amount of air by weight that’s entering the engine. As the air cools the heated element, this cooling effect changes the electrical resistance of the element. The amount of cooling the element experiences is directly proportional to airflow, and the sensor conveys this information to the engine computer by way of changing voltages or digital frequencies.
The engine computer then uses this information – along with other inputs – to adjust the amount of air entering the engine.
Other inputs that help determine the proper air-fuel ratio include: oxygen sensors, which measure the amount of air in the exhaust gases; throttle-position sensors, which tell the computer if the throttle is closed, partially open or wide open; knock sensors, which monitor for signs of engine knocking; and (on some vehicles) MAP sensors, which measure the amount of pressure or vacuum in the intake manifold.
While most fuel-injected engines today utilize a MAF sensor to obtain a precise measurement of airflow, MAP sensors play a starring role in fuel-injected vehicles with speed-density engine-management systems. However, turbocharged engines often have both a MAF and a MAP sensor.
“In turbocharged engines, the partnership between MAP and MAF sensors isn’t just a technicality – it’s the secret behind the vehicle’s ability to harness forced induction with unparalleled precision,” Walker Products explains.
Let’s take a closer look at each type of sensor and what they bring to the table.
Air changes its density based on temperature and pressure. In automotive applications, air density varies with the ambient temperature, humidity, altitude and the use of forced induction (turbochargers and superchargers). Compensating for changes in air density due to these factors is essential for maintaining the optimal air-fuel mixture and efficient engine operation.
Consequently, MAF sensors are better-suited than volumetric-flow sensors to provide an accurate measurement of what the engine needs. MAF sensors offer a more direct and accurate measurement of the critical parameter for engine combustion: the mass of air. This facilitates better engine performance, fuel efficiency and emissions control compared to relying solely on volumetric-flow measurements.
There are two types of MAF sensors used in automotive engines: the vane-meter sensor and the hot-wire sensor.
The vane-type MAF was the first one out there, and it was used on import vehicles from the 1970s and 1980s.
“It didn’t have many actual problems,” Charles Dumont explains in a 2020 Counterman article. “However, many of them were replaced, because back then the vehicles didn’t have onboard diagnostic capabilities. Usually after mechanics and DIYers had replaced all the other ignition parts and sensors, the MAF sensor was the last-ditch effort.”
These days, you’re more likely to encounter the hot-wire style of MAF sensor. The hot-wire MAF sensor is smaller, faster and more accurate than the older vane-type MAF sensor, making it the preferred choice in most late-model vehicles.
Delphi provides a great explanation of the hot-wire MAF sensor on its website.
“Put simply, a MAF has two sensing wires,” Delphi explains. “One is heated by an electrical current, the other is not. As air flows across the heated wire, it cools down. When the temperature difference between the two sensing wires changes, the MAF sensor automatically increases or decreases the current to the heated wire to compensate. The current is then changed to a frequency or a voltage that is sent to the ECU and interpreted as air flow. The quantity of air entering the engine is adjusted accordingly.”
MAF sensors are pretty dependable, but there are a few things that can undermine their performance.
Any air or vacuum leaks downstream of the sensor can allow “unmetered” air to enter the engine. This includes loose fittings or clamps in the plumbing between the air-filter housing and throttle, as well as any vacuum leaks at the throttle body, intake manifold or vacuum-hose connections to the engine.
Anything that contaminates the surface of the sensor also can hinder its ability to respond quickly and accurately to changes in airflow. This includes fuel varnish and dirt deposits as well as any debris that might get past or flake off the air filter itself.
A frequent cause of MAF-sensor failure is directly related to the air filter. Low-quality or incorrectly installed air filters can allow paper particles or dirt to accumulate on the hot wire, effectively insulating it and affecting the reading of the sensor.
Oil-soaked air filters also can have an effect on MAF-sensor operation, so it’s important to warn someone of this possibility if they’re installing a performance high-flow filter. In some cases, modified intake systems can cause increased air turbulence, which can affect the performance of the MAF sensor as well.
A dirty MAF sensor can cause performance problems and, in some cases, trigger a diagnostic trouble code. You can recommend MAF-specific cleaners (any harsher solvents can ruin the sensor) and air filters as maintenance items before your customer spends the money on a replacement sensor.
Symptoms of a failing MAF sensor could include rough idling or stalling; RPM fluctuations without driver input; and a decline in fuel economy and engine performance. A problem with the MAF sensor often triggers a “Check Engine” light.
As the name implies, the primary function of a manifold absolute-pressure sensor is to measure the pressure within the intake manifold of an engine (usually a fuel-injected engine). Essentially, a MAP sensor is measuring the barometric pressure – the atmospheric pressure that’s pressing down on earth. Barometric pressure is influenced by changes in elevation, air density and temperature.
The pressure reading from a MAP sensor is an indicator of engine load, and it helps the engine computer calculate fuel injection for the optimal air-fuel mixture. The MAP sensor helps the engine adapt to different operating conditions, such as changes in altitude or driving up a steep incline, where air pressure can vary significantly.
A MAP sensor contains a sealed chamber that uses a flexible silicon chip to divide the sensor vacuum from the intake-manifold vacuum. As soon as the driver starts the vehicle, the MAP sensor is called into action, performing “double duty as a barometric-pressure sensor,” according to Delphi. With the key turned on but prior to the engine starting, there’s no vacuum in the engine applied to the MAP sensor, so its signal to the engine computer “becomes a baro reading helpful in determining air density.”
“When you start the engine, pressure in the intake manifold decreases, creating a vacuum that is applied to the MAP sensor,” Delphi explains on its website. “When you press on the gas accelerator pedal, the pressure in the intake manifold increases, resulting in less vacuum. The differences in pressure will flex the chip upward into the sealed chamber, causing a resistance change to the voltage, which in turn tells the ECU to inject more fuel into the engine. When the accelerator pedal is released, the pressure in the intake manifold decreases, flexing the clip back to its idle state.”
Typically, you’ll find the MAP sensor in the air cleaner, fender wall, firewall, intake manifold or under the dash, Standard Motor Products (SMP) explains in a fact sheet.
Given their location, MAP sensors commonly fail “due to the constant contact of the movable wiper arm over the sensor element and the exposure to the high underhood heat,” according to SMP. The high heat can melt or crack the electrical connectors. MAP sensors also are susceptible to contamination.
“If the MAP sensor uses a hose, the hose can become clogged or leak and unable to read pressure changes,” Delphi explains. “In some cases, extreme vibrations from driving can loosen its connections and cause external damage.”
A failing MAP sensor will compromise the engine’s ability to maintain the proper air-fuel ratio, leading to a number of potential symptoms. These symptoms could include noticeably poor fuel economy, sluggish acceleration and an odor of gasoline (signs of a rich air-fuel ratio); surging, stalling, hesitating, overheating and a general reduction in engine power (signs of a lean air-fuel ratio); higher emissions that can lead to a failed emissions test; erratic or unusually high idle; and hard starting or even a no-start condition. A faulty MAP sensor also can set off a “Check Engine” light.
MAF and MAP sensors are small components that play a big role in modern fuel-injected engines. With turbocharged engines becoming more and more prevalent in some of the most popular models on the road today, these sensors should continue to play an important role in automakers’ fuel-economy and emissions-control strategies.
“As turbocharged technology evolves, understanding and optimizing the cooperative function of these sensors becomes the key to unlocking the full potential of modern turbocharged engines,” Walker Products explains.