A spark plug is a device for delivering electric current from an ignition system to the combustion chamber of a spark-ignition engine to ignite the compressed fuel/air mixture by an electric spark, while containing combustion pressure within the engine. A spark plug has a metal threaded shell, electrically isolated from a central electrode by a porcelain insulator. The central electrode, which may contain a resistor, is connected by a heavily insulated wire to the output terminal of an ignition coil or magneto. The spark plug’s metal shell is screwed into the engine’s cylinder head and thus electrically grounded. The central electrode protrudes through the porcelain insulator into the combustion chamber, forming one or more spark gaps between the inner end of the central electrode and usually one or more protuberances or structures attached to the inner end of the threaded shell and designated the “side”, “earth”, or “ground” electrode(s).
Spark plugs may also be used for other purposes; in Saab Direct Ignition when they are not firing, spark plugs are used to measure ionization in the cylinders – this ionic current measurement is used to replace the ordinary cam phase sensor, knock sensor and misfire measurement function. Spark plugs may also be used in other applications such as furnaces wherein a combustible fuel/air mixture must be ignited. In this case, they are sometimes referred to as flame igniters.
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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.
A light brownish discolouration 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.