Sparks plugs: What do they do and how can they go wrong

Sparks plugs: What do they do and how can they go wrong

Find out how spark plugs fire up the engine.

Spark plugs are a small but essential part of any engine. They are almost tiny bolts of lighting that are going to get your car going. It doesn’t matter whether it is a V12 turbocharged engine capable of producing several hundred horsepower, if you haven’t got the right spark plugs in a car, your are going nowhere fast. They help to put the engine’s moving parts in motion, keep the engine running, and make sure that there the air-fuel mixture burns smoothly. That said, these little guys can have a pretty rough life and it is always important to ensure that they are checked and maintained regularly.

As engines become more electronically complex, spark plugs are thankfully one of the few remaining things that are relatively simple to replace at home and lots of people get satisfaction out of being able to get their hands dirty and change spark plugs themselves. Although it takes a code reader and a masters degree in engineering to diagnose and fix the majority of problems with your engine, spark plugs remain accessible and easy to understand. To help keep your car running as it should do, we’ve put together all of the need to know info about spark plugs and how to change them if you need to.

What are spark plugs?

What are spark plugs

The definition of spark plugs is insulated plugs that are screwed into the cylinder head of an internal combustion engine. These plugs provide the spark that ignites the air-fuel mix in the combustion chamber. This mix needs to be ignited so that the combustion process can start and the pistons can start moving, which in turn power the engine. Spark plugs also have a second function as they transfer heat away from the combustion chamber.

Basically, this is what happens: The spark plug sits at the top of the cylinder head. The piston first travels down the cylinder, drawing in a mixture of fuel and air. The piston then goes back up toward the spark plug, compressing the mixture. At the very last second, when the piston is at its fullest reach or top dead center (TDC), the spark plug sparks and ignites the mixture. The piston is forced back down to create power for the vehicle, then pushed back up again to clear out the exhaust. At that point, the process starts all over again.

What other components do they work with?

The location of the spark plugs is always the same. They are threatened into the engine’s cylinder head, with one in each individual cylinder. They can sometimes be tricky to find because manufacturers like to hide them a bit. To try and create the idea of a sleek, flat looking engine bay, they cover some components, spark plugs being one, behind plastic. If you find a group of wide, heavy gauge wires all connected together in the cylinder, the ignition wires, these will lead you to the spark plugs.

Since spark plugs are part of the ignition system, they work in conjunction with ignition coils, which act as an electromagnet and inductor to generate electricity using the car battery, and with distributors that take electricity from an ignition coil and distributes it to the spark plugs and engine.

Many newer vehicles are equipped with a ‘distributorless’ system that doesn’t have a distributor in it. The work of the distributor is done directly through the use of modified spark plugs. This type of system also does not contain spark plug wires. These vehicles are more environmentally friendly and fuel efficient as well as reducing the need for frequent tune-ups.

Why do we need them?

As we said above, spark plugs ignite the air/fuel mixture, creating the explosion that powers the engine. An arc of electricity jumps between two leads which are not touching, but close enough together that electricity can jump the gap between them. This spark is what ignites everything. Without them, no power to the engine!

What are spark plugs made of?

What are spark plugs made of

Since they have to withstand a lot of heat, generally spark plugs are made from extremely durable material and can withstand many millions of explosions before they wear out.

The electrodes in a spark plug typically consist of high-nickel alloys, while the insulator is generally made of aluminum oxide ceramic and has a steel wire shell.

As electrodes erode, the spark plug gap between them widens, and it takes more voltage than the ignition system can provide to fire them, so stopping them from eroding is key. High-nickel alloys have been improved and thicker electrodes have been used to reduce engine performance loss. Sometimes manufacturers add precious and exotic metals to help with this. Many modern plugs feature silver, gold, and platinum in the electrodes, and some have copper cores. These metals have various different properties, such as silver being a great heat conductor and platinum resisting corrosion.

What are some spark plug problems?

  • ! Worn electrodes
    As sparks jump from the ground electrode to the centre electrode over thousands of times per minute, over the life of the electrode these can wear out and the spark becomes much less efficient.
  • ! Carbon buildup
    The by-products of the combustion process can build up in the combustion chamber to produce a thick layer of carbon on the tip of the spark plug. This often occurs if the engine is running ‘rich’ (there is more fuel than air in the air-fuel mix). This buildup can prevent the spark from firing correctly, and will cause a less efficient or non-existent spark. If you are consistently using poor quality fuel in your engine, this can be a common problem. You can see this if your spark plugs are black when you inspect them.
    What are some spark plug problems
  • ! Excessive pressure and heat
    It is easy to forget with our comfortable seats and luxury features that as we drive thousands of explosions are taking place per minute. These explosions cause massive amounts of heat and pressure repeatedly within the combustion chamber. The tip of each spark plug is exposed to all of this and over time this is going to cause some damage.
  • ! Oil leaks
    Whether it is on the cylinder head, rocker cover, or elsewhere, seals and gaskets are the first things to go in many vehicles and this can lead to leaks. How fast this will happen will depend on if they are rubber, plastic, or silicone, with rubber offering the least protection and silicone the most (silicone retains its durability for longer while rubber becomes rigid relatively quickly).
    If your O-ring seal deteriorates, oil can leak onto the tip of the plug. Spark plugs covered in oil can prevent a spark. This becomes increasingly more likely as the vehicle ages, so changing the seals and gaskets regularly or when you notice that your spark plugs are oily.

What are failing spark plug symptoms?

Even though they are tailored made to resist heat and the explosive nature of combustion, the explosions and corrosion lead to smaller or weaker sparks over time, which leads to reduced efficiency in your engine and possibly even engine misfire, where the engine fails to start at all.

 Here are some of the things that could indicate spark plug issues: 
  1. Slow acceleration
    Ignition system problems are the most common cause of acceleration problems. As in modern systems the ECU controls the ignition problems and tells it when to send electric pulses to fire the spark plug, the issue may be with a faulty sensor. But a worn-out spark plug is just as likely to be the cause. If you notice that your car is running sluggishly or does not accelerate as quickly as it used to, it may be attributed to a faulty spark plug that needs to be replaced.
  2. Poor fuel economy
    Fuel burns efficiently in the combustion cycle in part due to the smooth operation of the ignition system. When spark plugs don’t work like they should, it is frequently because the gap between the spark plug electrodes is either too close or too far apart. A solution for this can be for a mechanic to adjust this gap and restore it to factory settings; you might not even need to replace the spark plug. So if you notice your car has become a bit of a gas guzzler, ineffective spark plugs could be the cause.
  3. Engine misfire
    Engine misfire is almost always down to problems in the ignition system. It could be due to a sensor malfunction, or damage to a spark plug wire or the tip of the spark plug that connects to the wire. An engine misfire can be noticed by intermittent stumbling or sputtering sounds from the engine. Misfiring is dangerous for the engine and if the engine is allowed to keep misfiring, exhaust emissions will increase, engine power will decrease, and fuel economy will drop.
  4. Engine lurching forward or hesitating
    If the engine is not responding correctly to the driver, meaning a sudden surge in power then slowing down or simply not responsive to the pedal, it could be that the engine is sucking in more air than it should do in the combustion process. This causes the delay in power delivery that results in it lurching forward and this is also a potential indicator of spark plug failure.
  5. Rough idle
    There are numerous causes of rough idling, but a bad spark plug can be one of them. You will hear a jittery sound and your car can vibrate if it is rough when idling. A bad spark plug may cause your engine to sound rough while idling. If this is happening, checking your spark plugs could help you solve the problem. It can indicate a spark plug problem in which a cylinder misfires only while idle.
  6. Not starting
    Since you need spark plugs to start your car, when it doesn’t start faulty spark plugs can often be the cause. Since there are numerous causes, though, it’s always best to get a mechanic to take a look and work out what the problem is. If it is the spark plugs, you can change them yourself or get it done at the garage.

Regardless of what the issue might be, you might end up needing new spark plugs when yours eventually wear out. If you’re proactive and change the spark plugs at regular intervals, it can extend the lifespan of your vehicle.

How often should I change my spark plugs?

How often should I change my spark plugs

But when to change spark plugs? What counts as a regular interval? This depends of course on the type of spark plugs, the car you are driving, and a whole host of other factors. There are a few milestones, however, that experts recommend as good moments to change your spark plugs.

30,000 miles was for a long time the recommended interval for changing your spark plugs. Low quality spark plugs (made with less durable material like copper) should be replaced every 20,000 to 30,000 miles. You can do this yourself or get it done at a garage. If you want them to last slightly longer, it could be worth thinking about upgrading your plugs. Modern cars will come with longer lasting spark plugs as standard.

60,000 miles, however, is now a much more common change interval nowadays. Most quality spark plugs are suggested to be changed at 60,000 miles and this is currently the most widely accepted change interval for most spark plug types of today.

If you have high-quality spark plugs, you could leave it as long as 80,000 to 100,000 miles before changing your spark plugs. Most manufacturers advise that you can travel at least 80,000 miles before a change is required for the newest vehicles. High-performance spark plugs might even last 100k miles. E3 spark plugs, for example, specifically advertise themselves as long lasting spark plugs capable of going for 100,000 miles. This might be true in theory, but most mechanics recommend changing them before this and driving conditions can affect performance as well.

What spark plugs should I get?

With all this in mind, there are several factors to consider when choosing spark plugs and there are several spark plug types.Here is a general overview of a couple of the key things you might consider.

You could buy a single- or multi-electrode spark plug. While single have one centre and one side electrode, multi have up to 4 side electrodes. This simple design of single electrodes makes sure combustion takes place seamlessly, but multi electrodes last much longer.

The centre electrodes can also be made of different materials, as we have briefly mentioned before. They can be copper-nickel, platinum iridium, or silver. Each of these has their own unique advantages, but platinum and iridium spark plugs are relatively expensive. For the price, though, you do get good quality goods. Check the article above for more information!

Spark plugs can also have different heat ranges, either cold, medium, or hot. To put it simply, hot spark plugs have a low heat dispersal and are useful in engines with a low compression ratio. Cold spark plugs have high heat dispersal and are used in engines that have a high compression ratio. Medium plugs are a balance of these two. It really depends on what car you have and what type of driving you’ll be doing.

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