What You Need to Know About Engine Misfires

Engine misfires can be a mysterious, frustrating problem—and information around them often makes them sound worse than they are. The symptoms vary by vehicle but are usually described as a stumble or brief hesitation in power delivery. An engine misfire can be temporary or continuous and will sometimes generate a check-engine code. But don’t be alarmed. Though it seems like an expensive fix, it usually doesn’t have to be. Read on as we demystify misfires.

Vehicle engine bay

What is a Misfire?

First, let’s examine what causes a misfire. You already know an engine needs three components to fire the cylinder: fuel to ignite, oxygen to burn that fuel, and a spark to ignite the mix. Take away any of those elements, and the cylinder will not produce the expected bang. That sounds like an easy enough diagnosis, but other cylinder misfire causes are due to incorrect ignition timing, vacuum leaks, or valve spring wear.

If your engine is misfiring, it’s best to find the problem and fix it as soon as possible. Misfires reduce gas mileage and increase emissions, which can cause you to fail an emissions test. More seriously, cylinder misfires can cause damage to other engine parts, like the oxygen sensors or catalytic converter. Let’s look at what to do when diagnosing this issue.

When It’s the Spark

Ignition parts that control spark to an engine are primarily wear parts that are designed to provide maximum performance for their service life, then be replaced as needed. As these parts wear or corrode, they will gradually increase impedance to the point that little or no electricity makes it to the spark plug to ignite. Since this happens over time, you may initially have small intermittent misfires you don’t even notice that gradually get worse over time. This is a big clue that your misfire is caused in the ignition system, so start there. Fortunately, most of these items are affordable and easy to quickly replace.

Spark plugs are cheap and easily swapped in just a few minutes. Ignition wires that are old can show signs of wear and are simple to replace as well. Older vehicles with a traditional distributor might just need a new cap and rotor. The coil packs on modern vehicles are less affordable but are still easily serviced.

When It’s the Fuel

After the ignition system is checked out, move on to the fuel system. Parts here typically last longer but still wear out. Perhaps just the fuel filter is clogged, or the fuel injectors are dirty. If those are good, the fuel pump or the mass airflow sensor may be starting to fail.

The EGR valve might be sticking with age, letting exhaust dump into the intake manifold. Emissions systems are precisely designed, and spent exhaust in the wrong part of the ignition cycle will cause issues. Or maybe you are lucky and just filled up with a tank of bad gas.

Fuel-system misfire symptoms will suddenly appear and are often more noticeable at idle than at highway speed. If your engine is chugging at a stoplight but smooth at speed, take a hard look at the fuel system.

When It’s Mechanical

Engine misfires can also be a little more complicated. Check the vacuum lines connected to the intake manifold. Look for cracks and replace lines if you find any problems. Also check the condition of intake manifold gaskets, especially around the throttle body. Take a timing light under the hood to make sure the timing belt or chain has not slipped or jumped. Finally, pop off a valve cover and have a close look at the valve train for any obvious damage.

Unlike fuel misfire symptoms, mechanical misfire symptoms will not go away with higher engine speeds, and often get worse. The misfire can be serious enough to cause noticeable vibration in the cabin, or even backfires. By this point, your engine’s PCM should show a code.

About That Check Engine Light

If you have a “Check Engine” light, your car’s computer is storing information about what problem was detected. The great thing about diagnostic codes is that they can be very specific, even often narrowing down which cylinder is misfiring. That’s less time spent hunting down the problem, so it makes sense to use a code reader to get to the root of the problem.

Have you ever solved a misfire problem? Tell us your solution and advice in the comments below!

Motor Oil: What Do the Numbers Really Mean?

“220. 221. Whatever it takes.”

That infamous line of reasoning worked for Jack Butler (Michael Keaton) in the 1983 movie Mr. Momso it should work for you, too, when it comes to selecting the right motor oil grade, right? Simply pick a number? Nope! Just like with electricity, when it comes to car oil, numbers matter—especially if you want to protect your engine.

motor oil 1The skinny on engine oil weights

Oil “weights” or grades—such as 10W-30—are actually a numerical coding system developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to grade oils based on their viscosity.

Viscosity is measured by the how long it takes a specific amount of oil to flow through a specific-sized opening at a specific temperature. The longer the oil takes to flow through, the higher the viscosity. The tool used to conduct that test is a viscometer.

Think of pouring pancake syrup from the bottle—at warmer temperatures, the syrup pours fast and easy, while at colder temperatures, it’s thicker and more difficult to get flowing. The same can be said for engine oil.

The particular challenge with motor oil, however, is that automotive engines need engine oil to be both thin and free flowing when temperatures are freezing and the engine is cold, but thick when it’s hot out and the engine has reached operating temperature. That’s where multi-weight or multi-grade oils enter the picture and why they were created.

What does the “W” mean in oil weights?

American Petroleum Institute

SAE’s J300 standard, first published in 1911 and revised numerous times since, classifies oil into 11 viscosity grades—0W, 5W, 10W, 15W, 20W, 25W, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60—with the “W” signifying “winter,” not weight. Oils first received this “W” designation from SAE in the 1950s. The lower the number preceding the W, the lower the temperature for which the oil is rated.

Those winter numbers were modified further after a rash of catastrophic engine failures in the early 1980s. Unusually cold weather in the U.S. and Europe caused oil to gel. When this occurred, the engine would still start, but it couldn’t pull the gelled oil out of the oil pan, resulting in the failures. As a result, SAE added a low-temperature test to measure pumping viscosity as well, and indicated this oil with the W specification.

The importance of temperature

Back to the idea of multi-weight oils. A popular oil, such as 10W-30, performs like two oils in one when it comes to engine lubrication. At colder temperatures it is and delivers a 10W-grade oil performance, while at higher temperatures it is and performs like a 30-grade oil—according to SAE’s standards and tests—providing engine protection at both ends of the temperature spectrum, which is important since engines have to operate in a range of temperatures.

Think of it this way—that SAE 30 oil you might use in your riding mower has the same viscosity as the 10W-30 oil in your vehicle, but only at 210°, the maximum temperature that SAE requires. The difference arises at colder temperatures where the SAE 30 oil can’t perform, necessitating some enhancements that make it a multi-grade oil. At those lower temperatures, that’s where the 10W oil and its characteristics come into play.

Oil’s desired performance characteristics at varied temperatures, as specified by SAE, are achieved through the addition of Viscosity improvers (VI) or modifiers that increase the oil’s viscosity as temperatures rise. The result is oil that performs and provides engine lubrication no matter what the temperature.

Know what to look for

The good news for drivers is that they don’t need to be an engineer or chemist to know which car oil to use, and they don’t have to change their oil grade whenever the temperature changes. Simply follow the motor oil grade recommended by the vehicle manufacturer for optimal engine protection in all types of weather.

oil sealIt’s important to note that SAE also has a coding system for gear oil, such that used in a manual transmission, and that it’s different than the ratings for engine oil. So if there’s a bottle of 85W-140 oil sitting on the barn or garage shelf gathering dust, don’t put it in your engine.

And finally, when choosing an oil, look for one with the American Petroleum Institute “donut” seal on the bottle. It indicates that the oil meets API performance standards.

How a car engine works – an animated tale

Check out this amazing infographic on car engines by artist and car enthusiast Jacob O’Neal.

car-engine

When asked about his inspiration, Jacob gave us the following background info:

“I believe car engines are works of art, and thus, [make] the perfect subject matter. I designed this graphic to satisfy a deep need to produce something amazing and totally different from what’s currently out there in image-based infographics.”

We appreciate Jacob’s sense of creativity and keen knowledge on how car engines work. Feel free to share this page with friends!