Combustion engines are designed with complex designs and structures that work together to create a final product. Your car’s engine consists of much more than just pistons and internal components, one of them being ignition timing.
Sensors measure various parameters to keep your engine running properly. Ignition timing plays a fundamental role in any combustion engine: this is how it works and how it affects your engine.
What is ignition timing?
Ignition timing occurs during the compression stroke, making it relevant to most gasoline-powered vehicles. Compression stroke is how the piston and valves act in a joint during one revolution. Ignition timing is the timing of the spark in relation to the mixture of air and fuel in the combustion chamber. The vehicle’s ECU uses its equipped sensors to monitor engine speed, load, and other parameters to adjust ignition timing accordingly.
This ultimately results in better engine performance and fuel efficiency and is typically modified by performance shops for more power with little to no additional modification. Information about ignition timing, among other valuable parameters, can be collected using your OBD-II port and an OBD-II device (and a suitable diagnostic application).
How does ignition timing affect engine performance?
Many manufacturers have their own versions of Variable Valve Timing (VVT), which is highly beneficial and critical to engine performance. Valve open and close adjustability results in better efficiency and more power compared to those without VVTs.
You (or an authorized workshop) can advance or retard the ignition timing of your vehicle with the help of some ECU adjustments. If tuned correctly, you can get noticeably more power from the same setup. Conversely, you can lose additional power if you don’t do it correctly.
Even vehicles that are not tuned or modified can perform better with proper ignition timing and suffer from improper ignition timing. Certain manufacturers have dedicated software, such as VW/Audi’s VCDS, that can see past the check engine light to codes that can measure such parameters. For those who own other manufacturers, dedicated timing lights can be used to collect such information.
What happens if your engine is not timed correctly?
Ignition timing is also critical as it is one of the factors on which the efficiency of your engine depends, although that is the least of your worries. In prolonged cases, incorrect spark timing will inevitably damage the engine over its lifetime.
For interference engines with timing belts and chains, failure of such components will result in catastrophic engine failure, likely requiring direct replacement. Also, when the valves and pistons meet during one engine rotation, it leaves irreversible damage to the cylinder head, and usually even more.
The difference between interference and non-interference engines is the way the valves open. Interference engines open one or more valves to accommodate the full rotation of the piston. Alternatively, as the name implies, non-interference engines don’t have to deal with potential problems like pistons and valves that never meet.
Ignition timing is more important than you think
Ignition timing is one of many parameters that turn out to be important in any vehicle. However, a timing service will usually be a bigger expense, as the job requires many hours of work. Preventive maintenance can mediate potential problems, but it’s best to identify them using the right tools.
There’s no need to blindly replace parts to fix a problem when there are dedicated tools to help pinpoint the problem. Additionally, OBD-II scanners made it easy to spot any issues your vehicle might have.