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Pick the Right Plug For Power

Don't get it wrong! Know something about reach and heat range when deciding on the right spark plug to use for your car!

The Cold War Heats Up

Big horsepower means more heat, so when it comes to choosing a spark-plug heat range, the best advice is also the simplest-put spark plugs in the engine that will live. This goes for both race and street engines. Spark plugs are especially sensitive to heat, and as a result, designers offer spark plugs in several heat ranges to be able to handle the wide range of cylinder temperatures. A mild street engine idling around town prefers hot plugs to keep the center electrode at the optimum temperature to burn off deposits that otherwise lead to misfires and lost efficiency. An 850hp drag-race motor that spins to 9,000 rpm will require much colder plugs capable of quickly transferring all that additional heat away from the center electrode.

As you might have guessed, a strong street engine might actually need two different sets of plugs, depending on how the engine is being used. Those hot plugs for around-town cruising might well need to be one or perhaps two steps colder for those high-rpm, Saturday-night blasts at the strip if you're using nitrous or cranking up the boost on a supercharger.

How To Read Spark Plugs

Here is where the science of spark plugs diverges into more of an art form. We will begin to outline all the details of spark-plug reading, and even though there is much left to interpretation, there are a few simple techniques that can help you get closer to understanding what your plugs are telling you.

With unleaded gasoline, and especially the new ethanol-blended fuels like E85, the signs present on spark plugs will take some close scrutiny. Begin by finding a good spark-plug viewer. ZEX and others sell these inexpensive tools. The most expensive ones we've seen are medical-grade tools that let you see right down into the bottom of the plug porcelain, but they cost $150. It's also best to tune with new plugs that have perhaps two or three passes on them to help you read the results.

Think of spark plugs as windows into the combustion process. The end of the porcelain closest to the center electrode is used to read the idle mixture. The center portion of the porcelain will indicate part-throttle air/fuel (A/F) mixtures, while the bottom of the porcelain will indicate the wide-open-throttle (WOT) air/fuel ratio. Obviously, a black, sooty plug is way rich and a bone-white porcelain is probably way lean. The best way to judge WOT mixtures is to run the engine at WOT and then cut the ignition clean at the end of the track and safely shift into Neutral. Coast to a safe stop on the return road, pull a spark plug out, and use the viewer to closely inspect the plug.

Unleaded fuels do not color plugs as clearly as leaded fuels, so you have to look closely for the A/F ratio ring at the bottom of the center porcelain. The big things to look for are tiny flecks of aluminum that have transferred to the ceramic from the piston or perhaps the combustion chamber during an oh-too-lean condition that has caused aluminum to melt.

Ignition timing plays a huge part in terms of spark-plug temperature. The best place to read this is on the spark plug's ground strap. The tip of the ground strap will tend to color first, and then, as temperature increases, this coloring (called annealing) will travel down the length of the strap toward the shell. An ideal ignition-timing temperature range for a given spark plug will create a light blue ring around the strap about halfway down its length. If the ground strap shows no coloration, the engine could respond to more timing. If the ground electrode begins to color in blues and greens or the tip begins to melt, the timing is over-advanced. Of course, if you are tuning at the dragstrip, these conditions will have raised red flags in terms of lost e.t. or trap speed as well.

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