Barrie Home Inspection Tips

Home Maintenance Advice from a Professional Home Inspector

Spark Plugs that Power Your Auto

In 1860 tienne Lenoir used an electric spark plug in his first internal combustion engine and is generally credited with the invention of the spark plug. A spark plug is an electrical device that fits into the cylinder head of some internal combustion engines and ignites compressed fuels such as aerosol, gasoline, ethanol, and liquefied petroleum gas by means of an electric spark. Spark plugs have an insulated central electrode which is connected by a heavily insulated wire to an ignition coil or magneto circuit on the outside, forming, with a grounded terminal on the base of the plug, a spark gap inside the cylinder. Spark plugs may also be used in other applications such as furnaces where a combustible mixture should be ignited. In this case, they are sometimes referred to as flame igniters.

The plug is connected to the high voltage generated by an ignition coil or magneto. As the electrons flow from the coil, a voltage difference develops between the central electrode and side electrode. No current can flow because the fuel and air in the gap is an insulator, but as the voltage rises further, it begins to change the structure of the gases between the electrodes. Once the voltage exceeds the dielectric strength of the gases, the gases become ionized. The ionized gas becomes a conductor and allows electrons to flow across the gap. Spark plugs usually require voltage of 12,000-25,000 volts or more to ‘fire’ properly, although it can go up to 45,000 volts. They supply higher current during the discharge process resulting in a hotter and longer-duration spark.

Low heat range plugs have long insulator leg sections and the surface area affected by the flame and the gas pocket capacity are large.  Also, since the heat release path from the insulator leg section to the housing is long, heat dispersal is low and the temperature of the center electrode rises easily.  On the other hand, high heat range plugs have short insulator legs and the surface area affected by the flame and the gas pocket capacity are small.
Also since the heat release path from the insulator leg section to the housing is short, heat dispersal is high and the temperature of the center electrode does not rise easily.

The spark plug’s firing end will be affected by the internal environment of the combustion chamber. As the spark plug can be removed for inspection, the effects of combustion on the plug can be examined. An examination, or "reading" of the characteristic markings on the firing end of the spark plug can indicate conditions within the running engine. The spark plug tip will bear the marks as evidence of what is happening inside the engine. Usually there is no other way to know what is going on inside an engine running at peak power. Engine and spark plug manufacturers will publish information about the characteristic markings in spark plug reading charts. Such charts are useful for general use but are of almost no use in reading racing engine spark plugs, which is an entirely different matter.

A light brownish discoloration of the tip of the block indicates proper operation; other conditions may indicate malfunction. For example, a sandblasted look to the tip of the spark plug means persistent, light detonation is occurring, often unheard. The damage that is occurring to the tip of the spark plug is also occurring on the inside of the cylinder. Heavy detonation can cause outright breakage of the spark plug insulator and internal engine parts before appearing as sandblasted erosion but is easily heard. As another example, if the plug is too cold, there will be deposits on the nose of the plug. Conversely if the plug is too hot, the porcelain will be porous looking, almost like sugar. The material which seals the central electrode to the insulator will boil out. Sometimes the end of the plug will appear glazed, as the deposits have melted. An idling engine will have a different impact on the spark plugs than one running at full throttle. Spark plug readings are only valid for the most recent engine operating conditions and running the engine under different conditions may erase or obscure characteristic marks previously left on the spark plugs. Thus, the most valuable information is gathered by running the engine at high speed and full load, immediately cutting the ignition off and stopping without idling or low speed operation and removing the plugs for reading.

A matter of some debate is the "indexing" of plugs upon installation, usually only for high performance or racing applications; this involves installing them so that the open area of the spark gap, not shrouded by the ground electrode, faces the center of the combustion chamber, towards the intake valve, rather than the wall. Some engine tuners believe that this will maximize the exposure of the fuel-air mixture to the spark, also ensuring that every combustion chamber is an even in layout and therefore result in better ignition ; others, however, believe that this is useful only to keep the ground electrode out of the way of the piston in ultra-high-compression engines if clearance is insufficient.
Over the years variations on the basic spark plug design have attempted to provide either better ignition, longer life, or both. Such variations include the use of two, three, or four equally spaced ground electrodes surrounding the central electrode. Other variations include using a recessed central electrode surrounded by the sparkplug thread, which effectively becomes the ground electrode (see "surface-discharge spark plug", below). Also there is the use of a V-shaped notch in the tip of the ground electrode. Multiple ground electrodes generally provide longer life, as when the spark gap widens due to electric distcharge wear, the spark moves to another closer ground electrode. The disadvantage of multiple ground electrodes is that a shielding effect can occur in the engine combustion chamber inhibiting the flame face as the fuel air mixture burns. This can result in a less efficient burn and increased fuel consumption.

Reconnect any of the spark plug boots or ignition coils you may have removed and start the vehicle and make sure it doesn’t miss-fire. Once you’re sure the vehicle is idling and running properly, take the vehicle out for a test drive. It is important to operate the vehicle under a normal and a heavy load to determine if the plugs are indeed operating as designed. Once you are satisfied that everything is OK then return to your shop.

The Alliston Home Inspector drives over 40 K a year and uses Champion Platinum spark plugs in his vehicle.  He has found that changing his spark plugs every year gives better gas mileage and he has yet to have his vehicle start, even on the coldest mornings.

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