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Automobile Ignition Systems

The internal combustion engine is an amazing machine that has evolved for more than 100 years. It continues to evolve as
automakers manage to squeeze out a little more efficiency, or a little less pollution, with each passing year. The result is an
incredibly complicated, surprisingly reliable machine.

Other HowStuffWorks articles explain the mechanics of the engine and many of its subsystems, including the fuel system, cooling
system, camshafts, turbochargers and gears. One could argue that the ignition system is where it all comes together, with a
perfectly timed spark.

In this article, we'll learn about ignition systems, starting with spark timing. Then we'll look at all of the components that go into
making the spark, including spark plugs, coils and distributors. And finally, we'll talk about some of the newer systems that use
solid-state components instead of the distributor.

Spark Timing
The ignition system on your car has to work in perfect concert with the rest of the engine. The goal is to ignite the fuel at exactly
the right time so that the expanding gases can do the maximum amount of work. If the ignition system fires at the wrong time,
power will fall and gas consumption and emissions can increase.

The spark plug fires before the piston reaches top dead center.

When the fuel/air mixture in the cylinder burns, the temperature rises and the fuel is converted to exhaust gas. This transformation
causes the pressure in the cylinder to increase dramatically and forces the piston down.

In order to get the most torque and power from the engine, the goal is to maximize the pressure in the cylinder during the power
stroke. Maximizing pressure will also produce the best engine efficiency, which translates directly into better mileage. The timing
of the spark is critical to success.

There is a small delay from the time of the spark to the time when the fuel/air mixture is all burning and the pressure in the
cylinder reaches its maximum. If the spark occurs right when the piston reaches the top of the compression stroke, the piston will
have already moved down part of the way into its power stroke before the gases in the cylinder have reached their highest

To make the best use of the fuel, the spark should occur before the piston reaches the top of the compression stroke, so by
the time the piston starts down into its power stroke the pressures are high enough to start producing useful work.

Work = Force * Distance

In a cylinder:

 Force = Pressure * Area of the piston
 Distance = Stroke length

So when we're talking about a cylinder, work = pressure * piston area * stroke length. And because the length of the stroke and
the area of the piston are fixed, the only way to maximize work is by increasing pressure.

The timing of the spark is important, and the timing can either be advanced or retarded depending on conditions.

The time that the fuel takes to burn is roughly constant. But the speed of the pistons increases as the engine speed increases.
This means that the faster the engine goes, the earlier the spark has to occur. This is called spark advance: The faster the engine
speed, the more advance is required.

Other goals, like minimizing emissions, take priority when maximum power is not required. For instance, by retarding the spark
timing (moving the spark closer to the top of the compression stroke), maximum cylinder pressures and temperatures can be
reduced. Lowering temperatures helps reduce the formation of nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are a regulated pollutant. Retarding
the timing may also eliminate knocking; some cars that have knock sensors will do this automatically.

Next we'll go through the components that make the spark. Let's start with the spark plug.

Spark Plug
The spark plug is quite simple in theory: It forces electricity to arc across a gap, just like a bolt of lightning.
The electricity
must be at a very high voltage in order to travel across the gap and create a good spark. Voltage at the spark
plug can be anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 volts.

The spark plug is in the center of the four valves
in each cylinder.

The spark plug must have an insulated passageway for this high voltage to travel down to the electrode,
where it can jump the gap and, from there, be conducted into the engine block and grounded. The plug also
has to withstand the extreme heat and pressure inside the cylinder, and must be designed so that deposits
from fuel additives do not build up on the plug.

Spark plugs use a ceramic insert to isolate the high voltage at the electrode, ensuring that the spark happens at the tip of the
electrode and not anywhere else on the plug; this insert does double-duty by helping to burn off deposits. Ceramic is a fairly poor
heat conductor, so the material gets quite hot during operation. This heat helps to burn off deposits from the electrode.

Some cars require a hot plug. This type of plug is designed with a ceramic insert that has a smaller contact area with the metal
part of the plug. This reduces the heat transfer from the ceramic, making it run hotter and thus burn away more deposits. Cold
plugs are designed with more contact area, so they run cooler.

The difference between a "hot" and a "cold" spark plug is in the
shape of the ceramic tip.

The carmaker will select the right temperature plug for each car. Some cars with high-performance engines naturally generate
more heat, so they need colder plugs. If the spark plug gets too hot, it could ignite the fuel before the spark fires; so it is important
to stick with the right type of plug for your car.

The Coil
The coil is the device that generates the high voltages required to create a spark. It is a simple device -- essentially a high-
voltage transformer made up of two coils of wire. One coil of wire is called the primary coil. Wrapped around it is the secondary
coil. The secondary coil normally has hundreds of times more turns of wire than the primary coil.

Current flows from the battery through the primary winding of the coil.

The primary coil's current can be suddenly disrupted by the breaker points, or by a solid-state device in an electronic ignition.

If you think the coil looks like an electromagnet, you're right -- but it is also an inductor. The key to the coil's operation is what
happens when the circuit is suddenly broken by the points. The magnetic field of the primary coil collapses rapidly. The secondary
coil is engulfed by a powerful and changing magnetic field. This field induces a current in the coils -- a very high-voltage current
(up to 100,000 volts) because of the number of coils in the secondary winding. The secondary coil feeds this voltage to the
distributor via a very well insulated, high-voltage wire.

The Distributor
The distributor handles several jobs. Its first job is to distribute the high voltage from the coil to the correct cylinder. This is done
by the cap and rotor. The coil is connected to the rotor, which spins inside the cap. The rotor spins past a series of contacts, one
contact per cylinder. As the tip of the rotor passes each contact, a high-voltage pulse comes from the coil. The pulse arcs across
the small gap between the rotor and the contact (they don't actually touch) and then continues down the spark-plug wire to the
spark plug on the appropriate cylinder. When you do a tune-up, one of the things you replace on your engine is the cap and rotor
-- these eventually wear out because of the arcing. Also, the spark-plug wires eventually wear out and lose some of their electrical
insulation. This can be the cause of some very mysterious engine problems.

Older distributors with breaker points have another section in the bottom half of the distributor -- this
section does the job of breaking the current to the coil. The ground side of the coil is connected to the
breaker points.

A cam in the center of the distributor pushes a lever connected to one of the points. Whenever the cam pushes the lever, it opens
the points. This causes the coil to suddenly lose its ground, generating a high-voltage pulse.

The points also control the timing of the spark. They may have a vacuum advance or a centrifugal advance. These
mechanisms advance the timing in proportion to engine load or engine speed.

Spark timing is so critical to an engine's performance that most cars don't use points. Instead, they use a sensor that tells the
engine control unit (ECU) the exact position of the pistons. The engine computer then controls a transistor that opens and closes
the current to the coil.

Solid State Ignition
In recent years, you may have heard of cars that need their first tune-up at 100,000 miles. One of the technologies that enables
this long maintenance interval is the distributorless ignition.

Instead of one main coil, distributorless ignitions have a coil for each
spark plug, located directly on the spark plug itself.

The coil in this type of system works the same way as the larger, centrally-located coils. The engine control unit controls the
transistors that break the ground side of the circuit, which generates the spark. This gives the ECU total control over spark timing.

Systems like these have some substantial advantages. First, there is no distributor, which is an item that eventually wears out.
Also, there are no high-voltage spark-plug wires, which also wear out. And finally, they allow for more precise control of the spark
timing, which can improve efficiency, emissions and increase the overall power of a car.

1. The raising of a substance to its ignition point, as by electric current, friction, or mechanical shock.
a. An electrical system, typically powered by a battery or magneto, that provides the spark to ignite the fuel mixture in an
internal-combustion engine.
b. A switch that activates this system.

ignition, apparatus for igniting a combustible mixture. The German engineer Nikolaus A. Otto, in his first gas engine, used flame ignition;
another method was heating a metal tube to incandescence. Ignition systems in modern automobiles use an electric spark to ignite the
compressed mixture of air and gasoline in the cylinders.

Battery Ignition Systems

A battery ignition system has a 6- or 12-volt battery charged by an engine-driven generator to supply electricity, an ignition coil to increase the
voltage, a device to interrupt current from the coil, a distributor to direct current to the correct cylinder, and a spark plug projecting into each
cylinder. Current goes from the battery through the primary winding of the coil, through the interrupting device, and back to the battery.

Interrupting the Current

In older automobiles, the interruption of the primary current was created by “breaker points,” a switch with tungsten contacts to retard erosion.
Driven at half engine speed, a breaker cam, a rotating object with a lobed surface (one lobe for each cylinder), opened and closed the points.
When the breaker points were closed, current flowed through the primary winding of the ignition coil. In electronic ignition systems,
introduced in the early 1960s, the interrupting device is a reluctor, a magnetic pulse distributor that produces timed electric signals that are
amplified to control the current to the primary winding of the ignition coil. Such systems generally reduce ignition maintenance and increase
engine efficiency.

The Ignition Coil and Distributor

The primary winding consists of wire coiled around an iron core. Over this is a secondary winding of many more turns of finer wire attached to
the distributor. Current flowing through the primary winding creates a magnetic field. When the breaker cam opens the breaker points or the
reluctor delivers its signal, the circuit is broken and current stops. The magnetic field collapses, inducing in the secondary winding a much
higher voltage that is led to the distributor. Inside the distributor a moving finger rotates at half engine speed. As it rotates it touches contacts,
each of which runs to a different cylinder. Rotation is timed so that when the finger is touching the contact for a particular cylinder, a high
voltage has just been induced in the secondary winding of the ignition coil and the piston has almost reached the top of the compression stroke.
Thus a high voltage is impressed across the spark plug gap.

The Spark Plug

The spark plug consists of a center electrode imbedded in insulating ceramic. Around the outside is a threaded metal shell that screws into a
hole in the top of the cylinder. A ground electrode extends from the shell over the end of the center electrode. Between the two electrodes there
is a small gap of .015–.040 in. (.038–.102 cm). At about 8,000 volts a spark jumps the gap and ignites the air-gasoline mixture. A centrifugal
advance makes the spark fire earlier at high engine speeds; a vacuum advance makes it fire earlier at small throttle openings above idle.

Magneto and Diesel Ignition Systems

A magneto ignition system is essentially the same as a battery system except that a permanent magnet generator supplies current directly.
Where compactness is an advantage or where there are no other accessories that require a battery, a magneto system may be preferred. Aircraft,
motorcycles, and farm equipment often have magnetos.

In a diesel engine the fuel ignites as soon as it is injected into the hot, highly compressed air in the cylinder. Diesel engines frequently utilize an
electric heating element, called a glow plug, inside the cylinder to preheat the air to facilitate starting and running until the engine has reached
its operating temperature.

ignition system

The ignition system of an internal-combustion engine is an important part of the overall engine system. It provides for the timely burning of
the fuel mixture within the engine. Not all engine types need an ignition system - for example, a diesel engine relies on compression-ignition,
that is, the rise in temperature that accompanies the rise in pressure within the cylinder is sufficient to ignite the fuel spontaneously. All
conventional petrol (gasoline) engines, by contrast, require an ignition system. The ignition system is usually switched on/off through a lock
switch, operated with a key or code patch.

The earliest petrol engines used a very crude ignition system. This often took the form of a copper or brass rod which protruded into the
cylinder, which was heated using an external source. The fuel would ignite when it came into contact with the rod. Naturally this was very
inefficient as the fuel would not be ignited in a controlled manner. This type of arrangement was quickly superseded by spark ignition, a system
which is generally used to this day, albeit with sparks generated by more sophisticated circuitry.

Glow plug ignition

Glow plug ignition is used on some kinds of simple engines, such as those commonly used for model aircraft. A glow plug is a coil of wire
(made from e.g. nichrome) that will glow red hot when an electric current is passed through it. This ignites the fuel on contact, once the
temperature of the fuel is already raised due to compression. The coil is electrically activated for engine starting, but once running, the coil will
retain sufficient residual heat on each stroke due to the heat generated on the previous stroke. Glow plugs are also used to aid starting of diesel

Magneto system

The simplest form of spark ignition is that using a magneto. The engine spins a magnet inside a coil, and also operates a contact breaker,
interrupting the current and causing the voltage to be increased sufficiently to jump a small gap. The spark plugs are connected directly from
the magneto output. Magnetos are not used in modern cars, but because they generate their own electricity they are often found on small
engines such as mopeds, lawnmowers, snowblowers, chainsaws, etc. where there is no battery, and also in aircraft piston engines, where their
simplicity and self-contained nature confers a generally greater reliability as well as lighter weight in the absence of a battery and generator or
alternator. Aircraft engines usually have multiple magnetos to provide redundancy in the event of a failure. Some older automobiles had both a
magneto system and a battery actuated system (see below) running simultaneously to ensure proper ignition under all conditions with the
limited performance each system provided at the time.

Switchable systems

The output of a magneto depends on the speed of the engine, and therefore starting can be problematic. Some engines, such as aircraft but also
the Ford Model T, utilized a system which relied on non rechargeable dry cells, (like large flashlight batteries, not what are usually thought of
as automobile batteries today) to start the engine or for running at low speed; then the operator would manually switch the ignition over to
magneto operation for high speed operation. In order to provide high voltage for the spark from the low voltage batteries, however, a "tickler"
was used, which was essentially a larger version of the once ubiquitous electric buzzer. With this apparatus, the direct current passes through an
electromagnetic coil which pulls open a pair of contact points, interrupting the current; the magnetic field collapses, the spring-loaded points
close again, the circuit is reestablished, and the cycle repeats rapidly. The rapidly collapsing magnetic field, however, induces a high voltage
across the coil which can only relieve itself by arcing across the contact points; while in the case of the buzzer this is a problem as it causes the
points to oxidize and/or weld together, in the case of the ignition system this becomes the source of the high voltage to operate the spark plugs.
In this mode of operation, the coil would "buzz" continuously, producing a constant train of sparks. The entire apparatus was known as the
Model T spark coil (in contrast to the modern ignition coil which is only the actual coil component of the system), and long after the demise of
the Model T as transportation they remained a popular self-contained source of high voltage for electrical home experimenters, appearing in
articles in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and projects for school science fairs as late as the early 1960s.

The magneto on the Model T (built into the flywheel) differed from modern implementations by not providing high voltage directly at the
output; the maximum voltage produced was about 30 volts, and therefore also had to be run through the spark coil to provide high enough
voltage for ignition, as described above, although the coil would not "buzz" continuously in this case, only going through one cycle per spark.
In either case, the high voltage was switched to the appropriate spark plug by the timer mounted on the top of the engine, the equivalent of the
modern distributor. The timing of the spark was adjustable by rotating this mechanism through a lever mounted on the steering column.

Battery operated ignition

With the universal adaptation of electrical starting for automobiles, and the concomitant availability of a large battery to provide a constant
source of electricity, magneto systems were abandoned for systems which interrupted current at battery voltage, used an ignition coil (a type of
autotransformer) to step the voltage up to the needs of the ignition, and a distributor to route the ensuing pulse to the correct spark plug at the
correct time.

Mechanical ignition

Most four-stroke engines have used a mechanically timed electrical ignition system. The heart of the system is the distributor which contains a
rotating cam running off the engine's drive, a set of breaker points, a condenser, a rotor and a distributor cap. External to the distributor is the
ignition coil, the spark plugs, and wires linking the spark plugs and ignition coil to the distributor.

The power source is a lead-acid battery, kept charged by the car's electrical system, which generates electricity using a dynamo or alternator.
The engine operates contact breaker points, which interrupt the current flow to an induction coil (known as the ignition coil).

The ignition coil consists of two transformer windings sharing a common magnetic core -- the primary and secondary windings. An alternating
current in the primary induces alternating magnetic field in the coil's core. Because the ignition coil's secondary has far more windings than the
primary, the coil is a step-up transformer which induces a much higher voltage across the secondary windings. For an ignition coil, one end of
windings of both the primary and secondary are connected together. This common point is connected to the battery (usually through a current-
limiting resistor). The other end of the primary is connected to the points within the distributor. The other end of the secondary is connected, via
the distributor cap and rotor, to the spark plugs.

The ignition firing sequence begins with the points (or contact breaker) closed. A steady current flows from the battery, through the current-
limiting resistor, through the coil primary, across the closed breaker points and finally back to the battery. This steady current produces a
magnetic field within the coil's core. This magnetic field forms the energy reservoir that will be used to drive the ignition spark.

As the engine turns, so does the cam inside the distributor. The points ride on the cam so that as the engine turns and reaches the top of the
engine's compression cycle, a high point in the cam causes the breaker points to open. This breaks the primary winding's circuit and abruptly
stops the current flow through the breaker points.

Without the steady current flow through the points, the magnetic field generated in the coil immediately begins to quickly collapse. This rapid
decay of the magnetic field induces a high voltage in the coil's secondary windings.

At the same time, current exits the coil's primary winding and begin to charge up the capacitor ("condenser") that lies across the now-open
breaker points. This capacitor and the coil’s primary windings form an oscillating LC circuit. This LC circuit circuit produces a damped,
oscillating current which bounces energy between the capacitor’s electric field and the ignition coil’s magnetic field. The oscillating current in
the coil’s primary, which produces an oscillating magnetic field in the coil, extends the high voltage pulse at the output of the secondary
windings. This high voltage thus continues beyond the time of the initial field collapse pulse. The oscillation continues until the circuit’s energy
is consumed.

The ignition coil's secondary windings are connected to the distributor cap. A turning rotor, located on top of the breaker cam within the
distributor cap, sequentially connects the coil's secondary windings to one the several wires leading to each engine's spark plugs. The extremely
high voltage from the coil's secondary – often higher than 1000 volts -- causes a spark to form across the gap of the spark plug. This, in turn,
ignites the compressed air-fuel mixture within the engine. It is the creation of this spark which consumes the energy that was originally stored
in the ignition coil’s magnetic field.

Except that more separate elements are involved, this distributor-based system is not greatly different from a magneto system. There are also
advantages to this arrangement. For example, the position of the contact breaker points relative to the engine angle can be changed a small
amount dynamically, allowing the ignition timing to be automatically advanced with increasing revolutions per minute (RPM) and/or increased
manifold vacuum, giving better efficiency. This system was used almost universally until the late 1970s, when electronic ignition systems
started to appear.

Electronic ignition

The disadvantage of the mechanical system is the use of breaker points to interrupt the low voltage high current through the primary winding of
the coil; the points are subject to mechanical wear where they ride the cam to open and shut, as well as oxidation and burning at the contact
surfaces from the constant sparking. They require regular adjustment to compensate for wear, and the opening of the contact breakers, which is
responsible for spark timing, is subject to mechanical variations. In addition, the spark voltage is also dependent on contact effectiveness, and
poor sparking can lead to lower engine efficiency. Electronic ignition (EI) solves these problems. In the initial systems, points were still used
but they only handled a low current which was used to control the high primary current through a solid state switching system. Soon, however,
even these contact breaker points were replaced by an angular sensor of some kind - either optical, where a vaned rotor breaks a light beam, or
more commonly using a Hall effect sensor, which responds to a rotating magnet mounted on a suitable shaft. The sensor output is shaped and
processed by suitable circuitry, then used to trigger a switching device such as a thyristor, which switches a large flow of current through the
coil. The rest of the system (distributor and spark plugs) remains as for the mechanical system. The lack of moving parts compared with the
mechanical system leads to greater reliability and longer service intervals. For older cars, it is usually possible to retrofit an EI system in place
of the mechanical one. In some cases, a modern distributor will fit into the older engine with no other modifications.

Other innovations are currently available on various cars. In some models, rather than one central coil, there are individual coils on each spark
plug. This allows the coil a longer time to accumulate a charge between sparks, and therefore a higher energy spark. A variation on this has
each coil handle two plugs, on cylinders which are 360 degrees out of phase; in the four cycle engine this means that one plug will be sparking
during the end of the exhaust stroke while the other fires at the usual time, a so-called "wasted spark" arrangement which has no drawbacks.
Other systems do away with the distributor as a timing apparatus and use a magnetic crank angle sensor mounted on the crankshaft to trigger
the ignition at the proper time.

During the 1980s, EI systems were developed alongside other improvements such as fuel injection systems. After a while it became logical to
combine the functions of fuel control and ignition into one electronic system known as an engine management system.

Engine management

In an Engine Management System (EMS), electronics control fuel delivery, ignition timing and firing order. Primary sensors on the system are
engine angle (crank or Top Dead Center (TDC) position), airflow into the engine and throttle demand position. The circuitry determines which
cylinder needs fuel and how much, opens the requisite injector to deliver it, then causes a spark at the right moment to burn it. Early EMS
systems used analogue computer circuit designs to accomplish this, but as embedded systems became fast enough to keep up with the changing
inputs at high revolutions, digital systems started to appear.

Some designs using EMS retain the original coil, distributor and spark plugs found on cars throughout history. Other systems dispense with the
distributor and coil and use special spark plugs which each contain their own coil (Direct Ignition). This means high voltages are not routed all
over the engine, they are created at the point at which they are needed. Such designs offer potentially much greater reliability than conventional

Modern EMS systems usually monitor other engine parameters such as temperature and the amount of uncombined oxygen in the exhaust. This
allows them to control the engine to minimise unburnt or partially burnt fuel and other noxious gases, leading to much cleaner and more
efficient engines.

Reading spark plugs for racing

Reading spark plugs is a technique used by auto mechanics to diagnose conditions within an engine. Spark plugs initiate combustion in internal
combustion engines. It is right inside the combustion chamber and more importantly can be removed for inspection. 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's
firing end will be affected by the internal environment and will bear the marks as evidence of what is happening inside the engine while
running. Usually there is no other way to know what is going on inside an engine running at peak power. The information so obtained is
especially important in high performance engines to refine the adjustment of all the systems.

Reading spark plugs for racing is a precision technique that should be distinguished from the more generic meaning of reading spark plugs,
as the published information intended for commercial mechanics to diagnose engine damage is insufficiently accurate. This is because tuning
racing engines is always done with engines in prime condition. These engines also require adjustment to much finer tolerances. Tuning must
end when any sort of damage occurs, therefore none of the symptoms given in traditional spark plug reading charts can apply.

The most relevant spark plug parts for reading are at the tip within the combustion chamber: the center and side electrodes as well as part of the
insulator. The operation of the spark plug ignites a fireball and creates the characteristic marks for spark plug reading. The size of this fireball

or kernel depends on the exact composition of the mixture between the electrodes and the level of combustion chamber turbulence at the time
of the spark. A small kernel will make the engine run as though the ignition timing was retarded and a large one like the timing was advanced
for that individual cycle.

Reading spark plug conditions

Spark plug reading flashlight/magnifiers aid in reading spark plugs.

Accurate Reading Conditions

The most accurate plug readings are obtained after an engine is well tuned with new plugs and after shutting the engine at the end of a strong
full throttle run. The engine shuttting down quickly and cleanly avoids misleading information giving evidence from the conditions of full
power. Idle conditions may be relevant for non-racing readings and general engine diagnosis. Reading racing for racing is focussed on
maximum power conditions.

Gap Type

Racers are concerned with only two gap styles illustrated in figure 2.

1. Projected Nose
2. Conventional gap

Most racing engines use projected nose, fine wire plugs, but some engines need the conventional gap fine wire plugs because of clearance
problems or difficulty in cooling the plug. Surface gap, retracted gap, etc., plugs are not suitable for high performance use.

Engine conditions and impact on spark plugs

Heat range

With respect to heat range, manufactured racing engines already have most of the selection done. The stock plug is usually within two heat
ranges of ideal. The only change that might be needed to use the fine wire version of the same plug (usually 1 or 2 steps hotter). For heavily
modified standard engines the choice is less clear. A plug 2 to 3 ranges colder than stock and of the fine wire type would be a good starting
point. Complete the ignition timing and fuel system adjustments first and then select the final heat range for the spark plug.

Figure 1 illustrates hot versus cold spark plugs. Spark plugs are capable of running anywhere from cold to hot in a given engine, depending on
plug design. Use the hottest plug that won't over heat itself under the worst conditions.

A hot plug does not make an engine run hot, nor a cold plug make an engine run cold. A hot plug merely means that the insulator nose will run
hotter and keep itself clean by burning off deposits.

A plug which is too cold collects carbon and fuel deposits on its insulator, which leaks energy from the ignition, causing loss of power, if
allowed to continue it will foul (not spark at all).

The length of the insulator determines the heat range of a plug. Use the hottest plug that doesn't burn the tip of the center electrode.

If your plug is too cold, you will see deposits on the nose of your plug. Figure 6 illustrates this. If your plug is too hot, the porcelain will be
porous looking, almost like sugar. The material which seals the center electrode to the insulator will boil out.

Voltage loss

As the voltage builds up in the plug, it may leak to ground through any deposits, which are on the insulator nose, robbing the spark gap of its
energy. This is what happens when you foul a plug. Any conductive deposits on the insulator nose will, (even if the engine doesn't misfire)
cause a reduction of energy in the spark leading to small,erratic kernels, slightly reducing power.

Ignition timing

Ignition timing can be seen on the center electrode tip. If the timing is too advanced by 2 to 4 degrees, the tip of the electrode will be scorched
clean for about one millimeter from the tip. The center electrode will have its edges rounded from heat. The material which seals the center
electrode to the insulator may boil out. This is illustrated in figure 3.

When the timing is correct or retarded, the fuel deposits on the electrode tip will extend right to the tip. So you can only see ignition advance on
the plug, not retard.

Fuel mixture

This is the most important part of plug reading and the most misunderstood. Mechanics are often talk about "color" on their plugs. However
there is only one color to look for on a plug and that is black. It is soot, the remains of combustion.

The brown color you see on a plug is only the result of gasoline additives and nothing more. In an engine which is running well, the plug will
run hot enough to burn off all the brown color, leaving only white and black. Under test conditions as there will be little time to accumulate fuel

The black will be found at the base of the electrode insulator nose where the porcelain meets the metal case. This is the only place on the plug
where you can see if the engine is rich or lean. This carbon forms a ring around the base of the electrode very quickly. It can be seen it after
only a few seconds of full throttle running, but a couple of full throttle runs should be made so that the ring will be very clear. (See figure 4).

While learning to read plugs it will be much easier to see the mixture ring if you cut apart the spark plug and remove the porcelain from the
metal case. (See figure 5.) You will see the mixture ring starting where the seal was and extending up the insulator some distance.

The optimum width of this ring is about 0 to 2mm millimeters with .5mm being ideal for many engines, more than this is too rich for most
engines and many engines respond to a mixture where almost no ring is visible but you must conduct power tests to find the ideal for your
situation. Make sure your heat range is correct because it may affect the mixture ring.

Engine power

Power produces heat and you can see the heat of combustion on the metal case of the plug. The only plugs that show this feature are the
cadmium-electroplated types. Don't use the black oxide plugs because they can't show engine heat. Racing engines will produce enough heat to
burn the plating off the end of the threads on the case as illustrated in figure 7. You should have 1 to 4 threads scorched by heat on your plugs.
If you can't get that heat, you have a problem. Even if every other indication on the plug is perfect, the engine is not making its potential power.

Ignition performance

You can see the performance of your ignition system on the electrodes where the spark jumps from one to the other. The spark should burn
clean a spot on both electrodes where the spark touches as illustrated in figure 8.

If the spot is small and irregularly shaped, your ignition is going bad. You should watch this spot when you are experimenting with spark plug


"Detonation" is one of the worst things that can happen in a powerful engine because they are running near the edge of the envelope. It can
occur for many reasons; high compression, overly advanced timing, fuel too low in octane rating, too high of a heat range spark plug or poorly
shaped combustion chamber. It can often be seen on the spark plug before serious damage occurs.

You will see small balls of fuel and metal deposits on the porcelain tip and smaller balls of debris on the electrode tip. The metal case will look
as if it were sandblasted (inside the engine the piston will also look sand blasted). See figure 9.

(Detonation is not entirely bad however, maximum power is always found with just a trace of detonation, not enough to be seen on the plug or
to be heard by the driver, but enough to leave a slight sandblasted look (just enough to remove the carbon deposits) on the edge of the piston,
after a race. (Drag racers may not have visible marks even though it is happening due to the short running time). It is theorized that the trace
detonation is partially burning the otherwise unburnable mixture in crevices of the piston and chamber.)

Other observable factors

The information mentioned above is used in concert with other observable factors such as the operator's impressions, exhaust pipe deposits,
combustion chamber and piston deposits, engine sound, actual measured performace of the engine, exhaust temperature and sometimes exhaust
gas analysis.