Spark Plug Inspection and Maintenance – Fouling

in Engine Ignition and Electrical Systems

Spark plug operation can often be a major source of engine malfunctions because of lead, oil, graphite, carbon fouling, and spark plug gap erosion. Most of these failures, which usually accompany normal spark plug operation, can be minimized by good operational and maintenance practices. A spark plug is considered fouled if it has stopped allowing the spark to bridge the gap either completely of intermittently.

Carbon Fouling of Spark Plugs

Carbon fouling from fuel is associated with mixtures that are too rich to burn or mixtures that are so lean they cause intermittent firing. [Figure 4-48] Each time a spark plug does not fire, raw fuel and oil collect on the non-firing electrodes and nose insulator. These difficulties are almost invariably associated with an improper idle mixture adjustment, a leaking primer, or carburetor malfunctions that cause too rich a mixture in the idle range. A rich fuel-air mixture is detected by soot or black smoke coming from the exhaust and by an increase in rpm when the idling fuel-air mixture is leaned to best power. The soot that forms as a result of overly rich idle fuel-air mixtures settles on the inside of the combustion chamber because the heat of the engine and the turbulence in the combustion chamber are slight. At higher engine speeds and powers, however, the soot is swept out and does not condense out of the charge in the combustion chamber.

Figure 4-48. Carbon fouled spark plug.

Figure 4-48. Carbon fouled spark plug.

Oil Fouling of Spark Plugs

Even though the idling fuel-air mixture is correct, there is a tendency for oil to be drawn into the cylinder past the piston rings, valve guides, and impeller shaft oil seal rings. At low engine speeds, the oil combines with the soot in the cylinder to form a solid that is capable of shorting out the spark plug. Spark plugs that are wet or covered with lubricating oil are usually grounded out during the engine start. In some cases, these plugs may clear up and operate properly after a short period of engine operation.

Engine oil that has been in service for any length of time holds in suspension minute carbon particles that are capable of conducting an electric current. Thus, a spark plug will not arc the gap between the electrodes when the plug is full of oil. Instead, the high-voltage impulse flows through the oil from one electrode to the other without a spark as though a wire conductor were placed between the two electrodes. Combustion in the affected cylinder does not occur until, at a higher rpm, increased airflow has carried away the excess oil. Then, when intermittent firing starts, combustion assists in emitting the remaining oil. In a few seconds, the engine is running clean with white fumes of evaporating and burning oil coming from the exhaust.

Lead Fouling of Spark Plugs

Lead fouling of aviation spark plugs is a condition likely to occur in any engine using leaded fuels. Lead is added to aviation fuel to improve its anti-knock qualities. The lead, however, has the undesirable effect of forming lead oxide during combustion. This lead oxide forms as a solid with varying degrees of hardness and consistency. Lead deposits on combustion chamber surfaces are good electrical conductors at high temperatures and cause misfiring. At low temperatures, the same deposits may be good insulators. In either case, lead formations on aircraft spark plugs prevent their normal operation. [Figure 4-49] To minimize the formation of lead deposits, ethylene dibromide is added to the fuel as a scavenging agent that combines with the lead during combustion.

Figure 4-49. Lead fouled spark plug.

Figure 4-49. Lead fouled spark plug.

Lead fouling may occur at any power setting, but perhaps the power setting most conducive to lead fouling is cruising with lean mixtures. At this power, the cylinder head temperature is relatively low and there is more oxygen than needed to consume all the fuel in the fuel-air mixture. Oxygen, when hot, is very active and aggressive. When all the fuel has been consumed, some of the excess oxygen unites with some of the lead and some of the scavenger agent to form oxygen compounds of lead or bromine or both. Some of these undesirable lead compounds solidify and build up in layers as they contact the relatively cool cylinder walls and spark plugs. Although lead fouling may occur at any power setting, experience indicates that the lead buildup is generally confined to a specific combustion temperature range. Combustion temperatures outside this specific range minimize the lead fouling tendency.

If lead fouling is detected before the spark plugs become completely fouled, the lead can usually be eliminated or reduced by either a sharp rise or a sharp decrease in combustion temperature. This imposes a thermal shock on cylinder parts, causing them to expand or contract. Since there is a different rate of expansion between deposits and metal parts on which they form, the deposits chip off or are loosened and then scavenged from the combustion chamber by the exhaust or are burned in the combustion process.

Several methods of producing thermal shock to cylinder parts are used. The method used depends on the accessory equipment installed on the engine. A sharp rise in combustion temperatures can be obtained on all engines by operating them at full takeoff power for approximately 1 minute. When using this method to eliminate fouling, the propeller control must be placed in low pitch, or high rpm, and the throttle advanced slowly to produce takeoff rpm and manifold pressure. Slow movement of the throttle control provides reasonable freedom from backfiring in the affected cylinders during the application of power.

Another method of producing thermal shock is the use of excessively rich fuel-air mixtures. This method suddenly cools the combustion chamber because the excess fuel does not contribute to combustion; instead, it absorbs heat from the combustion area. Some carburetor installations use two position manual mixture controls that provide a lean mixture setting for cruising economy and a richer mixture setting for all powers above cruising. Neither manual mixture control setting in this type of configuration is capable of producing an excessively rich fuel-air mixture. Even when the engine is operated in auto-rich at powers where an auto-lean setting would be entirely satisfactory, the mixture is not rich enough.

Graphite Fouling of Spark Plugs

As a result of careless and excessive application of thread lubricant, called anti-seize compound, to the spark plug, the lubricant flows over the electrodes and causes shorting. Shorting occurs because graphite is a good electrical conductor. The elimination of service difficulties caused by graphite is up to the aircraft technician. Use care when applying the lubricant to make certain that smeared fingers, shop towels, or brushes do not contact the electrodes or any part of the ignition system except the spark plug threads. Never apply to the first set of threads.