If your car is having problems, and you think that your engine is getting enough air and fuel, you’re probably having ignition system trouble. On traditional vehicles, the “spark” that lights the fuel/air mixture is really electric current that’s stored in the battery, replaced by the alternator, monitored by sensors, and directed by the ECU to the spark plugs in the cylinders at the proper time. If something along the way goes wrong and the spark fails to reach the plugs, all the air and fuel in the world won’t produce combustion in the cylinders, and your vehicle will not run. If the engine was running before it died, it’s probably not the fault of the battery, solenoid, or starter. It means that there is something amiss with your ignition system.
At its most basic, your ignition system consists of an ignition coil, distributor, distributor cap, rotor, plug wires and spark plugs. Your car’s engine needs three things to run: fuel, air, and spark. The purpose of the ignition system is to ignite, or fire, the spark plugs in order to generate power to run the engine. The ignition converts chemical energy of the fuel into wanted mechanical energy of motion (to propel your vehicle forward) and wasted thermal energy (which is released as exhaust). How does it do it? The process begins when your battery sends current to the ignition coil. That high voltage then goes on to the spark plugs — either through a distributor, if you have an older vehicle, or directly to the sparkplugs, if you have a newer one. There are many different types of ignition systems, however, most of these systems can be placed into one of three distinct groups: the conventional breaker point type ignition system, which is a non-electronic distributor ignition system, (in use since the early 1900s); the electronic ignition systems (popular since the mid 70s); and the distributorless ignition system (introduced in the mid 80s). Today’s vehicles use an electronic distributorless ignition system, which, as the name implies, has no distributor at all, and uses an ECU, a little brain in a box, to control the spark and make slight changes in ignition timing.
Ignition System Components
Changing technology has made major advancements in many parts of the ignition system. Over time some components were eliminated, others were added, while others stayed pretty much the same. The following is a list of the most common components on modern day vehicles:
- Ignition Coil or Coil Packs
- Ignition Module
- Distributor Cap and Rotor
- Spark Plug Wires
- Spark Plugs
- Crankshaft and Camshaft Sensors
The battery is a critical component in many systems: electrical, starting, charging, and the ignition. Electrical energy must be present to ignite the air-fuel mixture. It is the starting point of power. You can read more about how to care for your car battery by clicking here.
The ignition coil is the unit that takes your relatively weak battery power and turns it into a spark powerful enough to ignite fuel vapor. Older, traditional ignition coils consist of two coils of wire on top of each other. These coils are called windings. One winding is called the primary winding, the other is the secondary. The primary winding gets the juice together to make a spark and the secondary sends it to the distributor. The modern, distributorless generation of ignition systems has coil packs – a series of coils to induce voltage for each individual cylinder.
Distributor Cap and Rotor
Once the coil generates that needed powerful spark, it needs to send it someplace. In older cars, the distributor cap sends the spark to the spark plugs. The distributor cap and rotor, used on conventional and electronic ignition systems, distributes or sends high voltage to each spark plug. The rotor rotates inside the cap, connecting and sending high voltage to one terminal at a time Essentially, the distributor is basically a very precise spinner. As it spins it distributes the sparks to the individual spark plugs at exactly the right time. It distributes the sparks by taking the powerful spark that came in via the coil wire and sending it through a spinning electrical contact known as the rotor. The rotor spins because it’s connected directly to the shaft of the distributor. As the rotor spins, it makes contact with a number of points (4, 6, 8 or 12 depending on how many cylinders your engine has) and sends the spark through that point to the plug wire on the other end. Modern distributors have electronic assistance, in the form of an Ignition Module, that can do things like alter the ignition timing.
Spark plugs are located in the cylinders of your vehicle. They deliver the spark of voltage to the combustion chamber just when the fuel/air mixture is at the point of greatest compression. The resulting combustion provides the power to propel your vehicle. The location of the cylinders varies from one type of engine to another; the order in which the spark plugs fire the fuel in the cylinders differs from one engine to another as well. If the spark plugs aren’t firing properly, your engine is as “out-of tune” as an orchestra whose players aren’t keeping time.
The ignition module, used on electronic and distributorless ignition systems, is basically a switch that turns the low voltage from the battery on and off to the ignition coil(s). It is a transistor that is timed and controlled by an on-board computer. In conventional ignition systems, contact points controlled system spark mechanically. In the old days, a distributor relied on a lot of its own “mechanical intuition” to keep the spark timed perfectly. It did this through a setup called a points-and-condenser system. Ignition points were set to a specific gap that created optimum spark while the condenser regulated. These days this is all handled by computers. The computer that directly regulates your ignition system is called the ignition module, or ignition control module. Generally, there is no maintenance or repair procedure for the module, other than replacement.
If your car has an electronic ignition system, the ignition module may have gone bad. Because these vehicles have high-energy ignition systems that operate at 47,000 volts or higher, the old technique of pulling a distributor or spark plug cable to test for a spark is unsafe. Whether the vehicle has a distributorless ignition system or has an electronic ignition, you need to have a professional check it out. Come and see us at DNA Automotive. We’ll be able to diagnose what the problem may be.
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