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ATV Idles Up and Down (This will fix it!)

An erratic idling ATV engine is so annoying but could point to a far more serious problem.

The four most likely causes of an ATV idling up and down include:

  1. Vacuum leak
  2. Bad gas
  3. Fuel restriction
  4. Tight Valves

In this post, you’ll learn why your ATV engine idles erratically and what you can do to fix it. Always check your spark plug condition and be sure the correct type is fitted. In addition be sure your gas is fresh. Both these errors are a common source of a wide variety of running issues.

1 Vacuum Leak

Air/fuel mix is drawn in through the carburetor under a vacuum which is created by the piston as it moves down the bore.


The air and fuel are mixed by the carburetor very precisely.

The AFR (Air Fuel Ratio) is 14.7:1 for gas engines. Any interruption of either gas flow or airflow causes the ratio to change, and that will affect how the engine performs.

Symptoms Of Erratic Idling

The classic symptoms of a vacuum leak include an erratic idle. The engine does its own thing revving up and down, but once on the move, the problem isn’t noticeable. Your spark plug may be a grey whitish color, and the engine may misfire.

Intake vacuum leak

What is a vacuum leak? Your carburetor is a clever bit of kit. It takes air in through the intake, where it passes over the venturi speeding up the airflow in the process and creating a vacuum that lifts gas from the fuel bowl.

The carb is designed to supply about 1 part gas for every 14.7 parts of air. Adjuster (s) on the carb allows for fine-tuning the ratio.

So what’s the problem? Air that doesn’t pass through the venturi isn’t calculated (un-metered), and that causes a lean condition inside the engine. A lean condition is a situation where there’s too much air in the mix or another way to look at it – not enough gas.

But why is the idling erratic? Erratic idling is likely caused by the erratic nature of the air leak.

Sources Of A Vacuum Leak

The most common sources of a vacuum leak include:

  • Loose carburetor
  • Damaged intake gaskets
  • Cracked intake manifold
  • Adjusting mix screw seal worn
  • Faulty carburetor
  • Damaged or valves out of adjustment
  • Headgasket failure

Locating Vacuum Leak

Check for obvious signs of damaged gaskets or loose carburetor bolts. A can of WD40 helps seal off vacuum leaks temporally. With the engine idling, systematically spray around the carburetor to engine union and around the carb adjusting screw. When the surging stops, you find the location of the leak.

2 Old Gas

Old gas causes lots of problems in small engines. Regular gas starts to go stale under certain conditions after just one month, and old gas doesn’t have any Oomph.

ATV gas tank drain

Erratic idling and poor running are symptoms of old gas. This is an easy problem to solve. Just drain the old gas out and fill it with fresh gas.

A gas stabilizer additive will help keep your gas fresh for up to two years and is advisable for all small engines, especially those that sit idle for more than a month.

3 Restricted Gas Flow

A restricted gas flow will cause lean erratic running. Common causes of gas restriction include:

  • Blocked idle (Pilot) jet
  • Float out of adjustment
  • Faulty float needle
  • Restricted gas filter
  • Restricted in tank
Slow and midrange

Blocked jets are common and cleaning will fix the problem.

4 Tight Valves

Your engine valves are responsible for allowing the gas mix in, and the spent gases out. The valves are opened by rockers which are driven by the crank and camshaft. The valve tip to rocker gap is known as a lash, and this gap is important.

Valve too tight

If your intake valve lash is too tight, it may not seat. This will allow extra air into the cylinder, lean out the mix and cause erratic idling.

A tight valve will cause your engine to run hot, and as the valve isn’t closing completely, it can’t transfer heat to the cylinder head. In addition, a tight valve is liable to float, reducing power at the top end.

Checking valve lash is preventative maintenance and is often neglected. It’s a job you can easily take care of yourself, just some basic tools and an inexpensive tool called a feeler gauge.

A tight valve, if not adjusted, will burn the valve and seat.

Engine Damage

Erratic idling, in most cases, is caused by a vacuum leak, which means your engine is running lean. A lean engine runs hot, and that can spell trouble, blown head-gaskets, seized bearings, seized piston, etc.

ATV head gasket

If your valves are tight, that can result in damaged valves, valve seats, valve guides, cylinder-head damage, etc.

Other Possible Causes

Ignition timing is important. An erratic spark will cause all sorts of issues. An incorrect plug type or plug gap may cause an incomplete burn.

Spark plug gap ATV and Dirt Bike

Check plug type and plug gap.

You’ll find the tools I recommend here on the ATV tools page and you’ll find common spare parts here on the ATV parts page.

You may find the following posts useful:

Why is my ATV bogging down?

Carburetor leaking gas

Why does ATV make popping noise?