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Spark Plug Gap Settings

The rule of thumb for the spark plug gap on older engines is coil ignition 0.025 thou and magneto ignition 0.018 - 0.020 thou.

Spark plugs are typically designed to have a spark gap which can be adjusted by the technician installing the spark plug, by the simple method of bending the ground electrode slightly to bring it closer to or further from the center electrode. The belief that plugs are properly gapped as delivered in their box from the factory is only partially true, as proven by the fact that the same plug may be specified for several different engines, requiring a different gap for each. It can depend on the engine: new spark plugs might be pre-gapped for a V-8 engine, installing all 8 plugs unchanged; however if installed in a 6-cylinder engine, all (6) plugs would require re-gapping.

A spark plug gap gauge is a disc with a sloping edge, or with round wires of precise diameters, and is used to measure the gap. The simplest gauges are a collection of keys of various thicknesses which match the desired gaps and the gap is adjusted until the key fits snugly. With current engine technology, universally incorporating solid state ignitions and computerised fuel injection, the gaps used are much larger than in the era of carburetors and breaker point distributors, to the extent that spark plug gauges from that era are much too small for measuring the gaps of current cars.

The gap adjustment can be fairly critical, and if it is maladjusted the engine may run badly, or not at all. A narrow gap may give too small and weak a spark to effectively ignite the fuel-air mixture, while a gap that is too wide might prevent a spark from firing at all. Either way, a spark which only intermittently fails to ignite the fuel-air mixture may not be noticeable directly, but will show up as a reduction in the engine's power and fuel efficiency. The main issues with spark plug gaps are:

  • narrow-gap risk: spark might be too weak/small to ignite fuel;
  • narrow-gap benefit: plug always fires on each cycle;
  • wide-gap risk: plug might not fire, or miss at high speeds;
  • wide-gap benefit: spark is strong for a clean burn.

A properly gapped plug will be wide enough to burn hot, but not so wide that it skips or misses at high speeds, causing that cylinder to drag, or the engine to begin to rattle. Spark plug eroded: note the center electrode (dark bump) had been a cylindrical rod, and the top ground electrode (like a claw) formerly had square edges.

As a plug ages, and the metal of both the tip and hook erode, the gap will tend to widen; therefore experienced mechanics often set the gap on new plugs at the engine manufacturer's minimum recommended gap, rather than in the center of the specified acceptable range, to ensure longer life between plug changes. On the other hand, since a larger gap gives a "hotter" or "fatter" spark and more reliable ignition of the fuel-air mixture, and since a new plug with sharp edges on the center electrode will spark more reliably than an older, eroded plug, experienced mechanics also realise that the maximum gap specified by the engine manufacturer is the largest which will spark reliably even with old plugs and will in fact be a bit narrower than necessary to ensure sparking with new plugs; therefore, it is possible to set the plugs to an extremely wide gap for more reliable ignition in high performance applications, at the cost of having to replace or re-gap the plugs much more frequently, as soon as the tip begins to erode.

 

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