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IGNITION TIMING

Most engines (except diesels) use an electric spark to ignite a fuel/air mixture. The
fuel burns and powers the car. This electric spark has to happen at exactly the right
time or the engine will not run properly. This is called "Ignition Timing". When a
mechanic "Sets your timing" during a tuneup he is adjusting your ignition system to
fire the plugs at the proper time.
Your ignition timing changes as you drive. The number of degrees BEFORE TOP
DEAD CENTER (BTDC) is called the ADVANCE. This is done mechanically
(centrifugal advance), or by vacuum (vacuum advance), or by computer, or by a
combination of these. Whatever the setup, advance increases with engine RPM and
decreases as the engine goes under a load.
SYMPTOMS OF INCORRECT IGNITION TIMING
Symptoms of incorrect ignition timing are poor fuel economy, sluggish acceleration,
hard starting, backfiring, or "pinging" or "spark knock". Too little spark advance will
cause low power, bad gas mileage, backfiring, and poor performance. Too much
advance will cause hard starting and pre-ignition.
PINGING, SPARK KNOCK, OR PRE-IGNITION
Pinging or spark knock is properly called "pre-ignition" and is often incorrectly called
"valve noise" because it sounds similar to loose valves that need adjusting. The
difference is that loose valves will make noise all the time, whereas pre-ignition
happens on acceleration or under a load. You might hear it when going up a hill on the
interstate: a rattling sound that goes away when you downshift or get off the gas.
Pre-ignition can be caused by too much spark advance or too low octane gas. Many
newer cars have "knock sensors" that retard the spark when pre-ignition occurs.
If your car does this from time to time, you may not need to do anything. You might
use a higher grade of gas, but that costs a lot of money! I tell people to just not let
their car do it: either get on the gas or get off the gas and the "ping" will go away.
Official word from the manufacturers is that a"little" ping is normal, although they
don't define "a little".
Basic Ignition System Components

Your ignition system supplies that spark to a spark plug via a set of spark plug wires,
or ignition cables. The thousands of volts used to fire the plug comes from one or
more ignition coils. Over the years manufacturers have used several different ways to
operate these coils:
BREAKER POINT IGNITION
Cars used to have BREAKER POINTS to fire the ignition, and as they wore the
timing would change and need to be adjusted. Whenever you replaced the points
during a tuneup (about every year) you had to reset the timing. This was when you
needed a tuneup every year or so.
ELECTRONIC IGNITION
Since the 1980's most every car has some type of electronic ignition. Since there are
no points to wear, the timing should never need to be adjusted unless you take the
distributor out of the car. The only timing change comes from the timing
chain loosening up as it wears. This is often the case on higher mileage engines. If you
have to advance the ignition timing a lot to make an engine run, it probably has a bad
timing chain and bad VALVE timing
On a lot of newer vehicles you can't adjust ignition timing (or idle speed, or nearly
anything else) because it's all controlled by the computer. WATCH OUT! A lot of
people have a rough run problem with their car, take it to 3 different shops for a
tuneup, and end up just getting 3 new sets of plugs without fixing the problem.
AVOID THIS! Don't go in just asking for a tuneup: give a specific complaint: like,
"It's hard to start in the morning", or "It's getting bad gas mileage".
COMPUTER IGNITION
Newer vehicles have their ignition and fuel controlled partly or entirely by the vehicle
computer. Many of these have no distributor: the computer fires multiple coils
directly. You cannot adjust the timing on a vehicle that has no distributor, unless you
reprogram the computer.

SPARK ADVANCE
To get the most power out of a motor the spark has to happen a bit before it gets to the
top of the cylinder. As the engine goes faster the spark needs to happen earlier and
earlier. This is called "Spark Advance". Older cars had vacuum advances, centrifugal

advances, or a combination of both. On newer cars the computer controls the spark
advance.
TYPES OF ADVANCE MECHANISMS
VACUUM ADVANCE
A vacuum advance is on the side of the distributor, usually a cone shaped metal unit
with a vacuum hose connected to it. As an engine comes under a load it cannot
tolerate as much spark advance. Also, when an engine comes under a load, intake
manifold vacuum decreases. So the vacuum advance works out well by retarding the
spark (less advance) when the engine comes under a load.
CENTRIFUGAL ADVANCE
As a motor goes faster it needs more spark advance. Picture the old flyball governors
on the old steam engines (and Frankensein movies) Centrifugal advance mechanisms
are inside the distributor. They have weights that oppose springs, and engage a pivot
mechanism that advances the spark as the distributor spins fasrter.
COMPUTER CONTROLLED ADVANCE
Newer cars use computer controlled electronic ignition to advance the spark. They use
a number of sensor inputs to calculate ideal ignition timing. On vehicles like this you
can sometimes check the ignition timing, but you can't adjust it.

TIMING MARKS
Timing is measured in degrees of crankshaft rotation. When a piston is at the top of
it's cylinder, it is said to be at "TOP DEAD CENTER, or TDC. A mark is placed
somewhere on the crankshaft to indicate this position and labeled "ZERO DEGREES
OR TDC. This mark is used to set the ignition timing.
BEFORE TOP DEAD CENTER (BTDC)
The spark advance varies as to engine speed, but it is set to an initial base setting,
called BASE TIMING. This is measured in "DEGREES BEFORE TOP DEAD
CENTER". In a manual, or on a sticker under the hood, you'll see something like this:
IGNITION TIMING: 12 DEG. BTDC. Rarely a car will set BASE TIMING to a few
degrees AFTER top dead center (Some VW Rabbits: 3 degrees ATDC), but these cars
have VERY agressive advance mechanisms that put the timing into the BEFORE top
dead center range really quickly.

TIMING MARK LOCATION


Somewhere on the motor's crankshaft there is a timing mark (usually on the front
pulley, or Harmonic Balancer.) Sometimes it's just a tiny pointer which you align with
notches on the front pulley. Some cars have a piece of tin about an inch long by the
pulley with dregrees embossed on it. Some have degrees engraved on the harmonic
balancer, with a pointer to align them with. Some vehicles have the timing marks at
the back of the engine on the flywheel: you view them through an acess hole in the
bell housing.
A CUTE TRICK
WITH THE ENGINE OFF !!! clean off your timing marks. Very often they are hard to
see because of dirt and grease. With some chalk or paint go over the timing mark so it
will be easy to see.
The typing correction fluid "White-Out" works really well for this.

ADJUSTING IGNITION TIMING: METHODS OF


"SETTING YOUR TIMING"
On newer vehicles you can't adjust the timing without reprogramming the computer.
You CAN buy performance computer chips, but that doesn't really count. Basically, if
you don't have a distributor, you can't adjust your timing.
WARNING!!! BEFORE YOU BEGIN: DISABLE THE ADVANCE
Many cars run a lot of advance at idle. If you don't disable this advance and set the
timing to the mark the spark will in reality be very retarded and the car will run
poorly.
DISABLING THE SPARK ADVANCE
Vacuum advance distributors
Disconnect and plug the vacuum line(s) going to the vacuum advance on the side of
the distributor
Centrifugal advance distributors
Set timing with engine RPM as low as possible: under 1000 RPM
Some folks with centrifugal distributors static time them: (see below)
Computer controlled distributors

On many cars you disconnect a wire, some you jump a wire between 2 terminals on a
connector, others you put into diagnostic mode. Check out the manual for your car:
the manufacturers have too many ways to list here!
TIMING LIGHTS
A timing light is the most common way to check ignition timing. It is a strobe which
is activated by whichever cylinder the engine "times" off of: #1 cylinder on most
every vehicle, except some International Trucks, which for some resaon time off the
back cylinders (6 or 8), and have timing marks on the flywheel . Some other motors,
especially front wheel drive motors, DO also have timing marks on the flywheel,
visible through a small hole in the bell housing. Some motors have timing marks both
places.
The strobe "stops motion" and shows the timing mark and pointer. You can also check
the advance operation: rev the engine and you'll see the timing mark move.
ELECTRONIC TIMING PROBE
Mostly on GM, a magnetic sensor fits into a tube by the front pulley (harmonic
balancer). You view the timing degrees on an LED digital readout. All cars set up for
this have traditional timing marks next to the hole for the timing sensor probe..
STATIC TIMING
When you put a motor together you HAVE to static time it or you'll never get it
started. Align the timing pointer on the harmonic balancer (front pulley) with
whatever degree setting the motor uses for its base timing. Loosen the distributor and
move it back and forth. Then use one of the following methods:
THE SPARK METHOD: WATCH OUT! IT BITES!
Turn the ignition on, remove the coil wire from the distributor, leaving it hooked to
the coil. Put the loose end of the coil wire near a good ground AWAY FROM THE
BATTERY: IT WILL EXPLODE!!!
As you rock the distributor the coil will spark. After you "play with it" a bit you can
see where the spark is happening as you rotate it. Find that spot and bolt the
distributor down.
THE VISUAL METHOD

When you build an engine the coil isn't working yet, but you can still static time it.
Remove the cap. On the older point ignitions set the distributor where the points are
just about to open, but are not open yet.
Electronic ignition distributors use 2 different sensors to fire the coil: the RELUCTOR
and the HALL EFFECT SENSOR.
RELUCTORS
Reluctors are star shaped and located just below the distributor rotor. The reluctor is
magnetic, and it induces a current in a PICKUP COIL (WHICH IS REALLY A
SENSOR) which fires the IGNITION COIL. Align one of the points on the reluctor
even with the center of the pickup coil and you are static timed. .
HALL EFFECT SENSORS
Hall effect sensors are also under the rotor, but they have a series of windows cut in a
piece of tin. These windows pass between a pickup assembly, where they interrupt a
magnetic field in a HALL EFFECT SENSOR.
These fire when the window just clears the center of the sensor.
In all cases static timing should be done like this: your "finishing turn" should be in
the direction OPPOSITE the rotor rotation direction. This way you are moving in the
direction the engine rotates and you get an accurate setting.
RACE TUNING, OR TUNING BY EAR
To get the most power out of an engine you really need to give it as much advance as
it will tolerate without preignition, or pinging, also more accurately called "spark
knock" This setting is varies according to how good your gas is, outside temperature,
humidity, and altitude above sea level, to name a few. A lot of racers (and mechanics)
I know set their timing by specs, but then leave their distributor slightly loose. They'll
advance the spark until it pings, then back off it a bit.
For a rough timing setting you can turn the distributor one way until the engine starts
to die. Turn it the other way until it starts to die. The correct timing is approximately
halfway between these 2 points.
A "CUTE" SETUP: MID 60'S TO MID 70'S TOYOTA COROLLAS
These Corollas had a small white knob on the side with "R" and "A" and a couple of
arrows. This knob when turned advanced or retarded the ignition timing a bit. The

reason was to allow drivers to compensate for various octanes of gas. Get a cheap tank
of gas and your engine pings a bit? Turn the knob a bit. Find some good gas? Advance
it a bit for better gas mileage. This in effect gave the driver the ability to easily "race
tune" his motor without tools or major hassle.