Spark Plug Inspection and Maintenance – Ignition Harness

in Engine Ignition and Electrical Systems

Ignition Harness Maintenance

Although the ignition harness is simple, it is a vital link between the magneto and spark plug. Because the harness is mounted on the engine and exposed to the atmosphere, it is vulnerable to heat, moisture, and the effects of changing altitude. These factors, plus aging insulation and normal gap erosion, work against efficient engine operation. The insulation may break down on a wire inside the harness and allow the high-voltage to leak through the insulation to the harness shielding instead of going to the spark plug. Open circuits may result from broken wires or poor connections. A bare wire may be in physical contact with the shielding, or two wires may be shorted together.

Any serious defect in an individual lead prevents the high tension impulse from reaching the spark plug to which the lead is connected. As a result, this plug will not fire. When only one spark plug is firing in a cylinder, the charge is not consumed as quickly as it would be if both plugs were firing. This factor causes the peak pressure of combustion to occur later on in the power stroke. If the peak pressure in the cylinder occurs later, a loss of power in that cylinder results. However, the power loss from a single cylinder becomes a minor factor when the effects of a longer burning time is considered. A longer burning time overheats the affected cylinder, causing detonation, possible preignition, and perhaps permanent damage to the cylinder.

High-Tension Ignition Harness Faults

Perhaps the most common and most difficult high-tension ignition system faults to detect are high-voltage leaks. This is leakage from the core conductor through insulation to the ground of the shielded manifold. A certain small amount of leakage exists even in brand new ignition cable during normal operation. Various factors combine to produce first a high rate of leakage and then complete breakdown. Of these factors, moisture in any form is probably the worst.

Under high-voltage stress, an arc forms and burns a path across the insulator where the moisture exists. If there is gasoline, oil, or grease present, it breaks down and forms carbon. The burned path is called a carbon track, since it is actually a path of carbon particles. With some types of insulation, it may be possible to remove the carbon track and restore the insulator to its former useful condition. This is generally true of porcelain, ceramics, and some of the plastics because these materials are not hydrocarbons and any carbon track forming on them is the result of a dirt film that can be wiped away.

Differences in location and amount of leakage produce different indications of malfunction during engine operation. Indications are generally misfiring or crossfiring. The indication may be intermittent, changing with manifold pressure or with climate conditions. An increase in manifold pressure increases the compression pressure and the resistance of the air across the air gap of the spark plugs. An increase in the resistance at the air gap opposes the spark discharge and produces a tendency for the spark to discharge at some weak point in the insulation. A weak spot in the harness may be aggravated by moisture collecting in the harness manifold. With moisture present, continued engine operation causes the intermittent faults to become permanent carbon tracks. Thus, the first indication of ignition harness unserviceability may be engine misfiring or roughness caused by partial leakage of the ignition voltage.

Figure 4-63. Cross section of an ignition harness.

Figure 4-63. Cross section of an ignition harness.

Figure 4-63 demonstrates four faults that may occur. Fault A shows a short from one cable conductor to another. This fault usually causes misfiring, since the spark is short circuited to a plug in a cylinder where the cylinder pressure is low. Fault B illustrates a cable with a portion of its insulation scuffed away. Although the insulation is not completely broken down, more than normal leakage exists, and the spark plug to which this cable is connected may be lost during takeoff when the manifold pressure is quite high. Fault C is the result of condensation collecting in the lowest portion of the ignition manifold. This condensation may completely evaporate during engine operation, but the carbon track that is formed by the initial flashover remains to allow continued flashover whenever high manifold pressure exists. Fault D may be caused by a flaw in the insulation or the result of a weak spot in the insulation that is aggravated by the presence of moisture. However, since the carbon track is in direct contact with the metal shielding, it probably results in flashover under all operating conditions.

Harness Testing

The electrical test of the ignition harness checks the condition or effectiveness of the insulation around each cable in the harness. [Figure 4-64] This test involves application of a definite voltage to each lead, and then measurement with a very sensitive meter of the amount of current leakage between the lead and the grounded harness manifold. This reading, when compared with known specifications, becomes a guide to the condition or serviceability of the cable. As mentioned earlier, there is a gradual deterioration of flexible insulating material. When new, the insulation has a low rate of conductivity; so low that, under several thousand volts of electrical pressure, the current leakage is only a very few millionths of an ampere. Natural aging causes an extremely slow, but certain, change in the resistance of insulating material, allowing an ever-increasing rate of current leakage. The procedures for testing ignition harness and leads were discussed earlier in this chapter.

Figure 4-64. Harness tester.

Figure 4-64. Harness tester.