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What does “four cylinder” mean anyway?
When you talk about cars, “cylinders” comes up often. Four-cylinder usually comes up with smaller
cars and is thought to be economical but not exactly powerful. Eight-cylinder comes up around men’s wagging
tails and is usually associated with power and speed. But what exactly is a cylinder and what does
it do for the car?
Long story short, a combustion engine
works by pushing gas into a chamber - you guessed it- the cylinder, mixing it
with air and then blowing it up. Now
don’t panic, the car is not going to blow up. These explosions are tiny and expertly timed
(that’s another article) to make the engine work. This process repeats over and over as the
cylinders move up and down. The process can be broken down into four
Intake: Inside the cylinder is a piston. The piston strokes down on a rack that moves
kind of like a bicycle pedal. The
downward movement draws the air and fuel into the cylinder. At the bottom of the stroke, the valve
closes, holding the air and fuel inside.
Compression: The piston then strokes up in the cylinder
and compresses the mixture according to the compression ratio of the
engine. Ratios range from 8:1 to 10:0
for the most part, meaning the mix is getting squashed to a tenth of it’s
original volume. Ratio varies, but the
point is it's getting tight in there.
Power: The fun part.
At the top of the cylinder there’s a spark plug which does just that:
sparks. The spark ignites the gas and
the explosion makes the compressed mixture get lots bigger. The expansion of the vapor creates enough
force when it pushes the piston down the cylinder that it turns the crank shaft
to move the car.
Exhaust: The clean-up.
If you behaved like I did as a child, you know blowing things up makes a
bit of a mess. Vapor is no
different. Your cylinder is now full of
burned gas, aka exhaust. When the piston
is at the bottom of the cylinder, the exhaust valve opens letting the exhaust
out to the exhaust system. This is super
pressurized and loud as it rushes out, sort of like the
car version of a loud fart, warranting the muffler on the exhaust system. As the piston moves up the cylinder, it
chases out the remaining exhaust in preparation to start the whole thing over
This happens in each cylinder, each
at a different time. This is the firing
order. Firing order and timing are a
whole other topic, but the Reader’s Digest version is:Each cylinder will have
fired once to turn the crank shaft two times.
So more cylinders, more “pushes” per turn. Not faster, but more oomph. This is what burns your gas, so fewer
cylinders may mean better fuel economy, dependent on factors such as
weight. Obviously, it takes more power
to push an older car made of heavy steel than a car made of newer, lighter
The Dreaded Timing Belt
So you’re sitting in the waiting room, catching up on issues of magazines you would never order for yourself when your mechanic steps out from the mysterious back shop and says you need a new timing belt. You don’t know what this is but you know by the price he just quoted you, they’re definitely proud of it. You may not have noticed a problem. Perhaps you came in for something else. And you may have heard stories about shady shops recommending work you don’t need in an effort to add items to the bill. So do I really need one? Or does my mechanic’s kid need braces? Well, what is it and why? A timing belt is a rubber belt with teeth that goes along one side of your engine to keep the crank and camshafts timed properly.
In English, it’s part of a system that keeps the top half of the engine- cylinder head, valves- synchronized with the bottom half- crankcase, pistons (thanks for the simplification, Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez). If you have a car that’s from the 90’s or before, you likely have a timing belt. Newer cars from certain manufacturers will have them still, but some have changed over to a timing chain which, in theory, lasts longer. Great, but I didn’t notice a problem. Why would I need a new one? You wouldn’t necessarily have any warning from the car if a timing belt is “going bad.” If it’s already broken, your car won’t start. If it’s on the way out, sometimes a squeak or an odd noise might give it away. If you were in for an oil change, a mysterious noise, or a service light from the dash, your mechanic may have noticed cracks on the belt or worn teeth that made him sound the alarm or he may be checking your mileage. Belt lifespan varies from model to model. At minimum, they’ll give you 60,000; some will double that and most will fall somewhere in between. Depending on your manufacturer recommendations, if you’re at 105,000 and you stare blankly at the tech when he asks if your belt has been changed, he’s likely going to recommend replacement. Even if you agree the belt needs to be changed, you have that dirty, four-letter word to contend with: COST. Parts are generally nothing special for this task, ranging from $150 to $250 in the most common models, even though certain models can be higher. What can often be misconstrued as fighting words is the labor cost. Also highly variable, labor could range from $170 to $600 or more.
The major factor is accessibility. To access the timing belt, you may be removing accessories, an engine timing cover, the water pump, pulleys, tensioners—no biggie if you have space to work under the hood but an unholy nightmare taking many labor hours if you’re poking around a V6 sedan with no easy access to inner parts. But that’s several hundred dollars I’m not prepared to part with yet. Do I really have to? No, the only things we have to do are pay taxes and die. Talk to your mechanic.
Cracks in the belt may not necessarily mean it’s bad. It could carry you a couple thousand more miles until you can sock away the cash. However, if your mechanic is particularly concerned for it’s condition, you may want to bite the bullet. No sense adding a tow bill and missing a morning of work to a project that’s already potentially costly.
Your exhaust produces harmful emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides that are damaging to the atmosphere if released into the air.
A catalytic converter substantially reduces the amount of harmful pollutants by taking these gases and converting them into water vapor and less harmful gases via a series of chemical reactions. All gas cars manufactured since the early 1990’s requires having a catalytic converter fitted to the exhaust.
The catalytic converter includes a core of ceramics spotted with pores that measure less than 1mm. The pores are coated with powdered catalysts that contain metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. Because the pores are close to the engine they heat up and the chemical structure of the exhaust gases passing though it changes so that harmful gases that cause smog are removed and converted into nitrogen and oxygen. Converters are so efficient that the difference in emission readings for cars with converters and those without are considerable. The good news is that catalytic converters are expected to have a good life, but still need to be checked periodically for internal and external damage.
Catalytic converter issues can lead to increased exhaust emissions and a decrease in engine performance. Most issues stem from temperature changes in the exhaust system. Excessive unburnt fuel in the exhaust can cause the catalyst to reach extremely high temperatures which can cause damage to the fine catalyst material. (An engine that is performing at peak efficiency will burn all the fuel in the combustion chamber during the combustion process. An engine that is not performing properly, that is not burning all the fuel, will allow unburned or excess fuel to enter the exhaust system. When this excess or unburned fuel contacts the hot core of the converter it will ignite.) As a result, the catalytic converter becomes less effective, less chemical conversions take place and the exhaust output contains more harmful gases.
Similarly, rapid cooling of the catalytic converter, such as by being submerged in water, can cause the internal honeycomb structure to break apart and obstruct the exit to the exhaust pipe. If the catalytic converter becomes plugged, engine efficiency will decrease noticeably.
There are ways to keep your CAT Clean, remember that having a CAT on your car is a necessity and is a violation of the Clean Air Act not to have one, even off roading.
Keep your CAT clean and your environment beautiful!
EVERONE loves a good road trip. You’re cruising along the open road, singing along with Tom Petty, free as a monkey escaped from the zoo-- life is great until you glance down at your cluster and notice your temperature gauge. You knew in theory that little needle could move, but this is the first time you’ve SEEN it happen. . . and it’s climbing. Panic-stricken, you pull over. The potential of being stranded is making your free monkey feel like a lame bunny in a forest full of wolves. What’s wrong with my car?
The first step is to understand your cooling system. Cars are either liquid-cooled or air-cooled. Air-cooled is less common and generally older. You’re more than likely dealing with liquid-cooled. In a liquid-cooled system, a water pump circulates coolant through a thermostat that regulates the temperature of the coolant using a radiator to cool the coolant and hoses to carry coolant through the engine and heater core. Are you getting that coolant is a big deal? This is your first step. Pop the hood and look at your coolant reservoir. If it’s empty, fill it and check for leaks. DO NOT try to fill it while it’s hot and sure as heck don’t open the radiator cap when it’s hot. Still have coolant in there? What about fan? You need the engine running to check this. You don’t need to be a master tech; stick your hand in the open space and you should feel air moving.
Be careful when checking, this is a running engine after all. The fan is necessary for temperature in town, but on the highway, not as much. Imagine the wind whipping through your hair—it does the same in the engine and cools it some by default. If it’s not so breezy under the hood, the fan itself or may be bad, the radiator switch may not be telling the fan to switch on or the fan belt could be broken (keep in mind, newer cars may not have a fan belt). Fan’s okay? And you’re sure there’s no puddle of coolant under the car? Okay, keep going. You could have a clogged radiator or your thermostat could be stuck. A clog means coolant can’t move through the engine, hence it can’t cool the system. A sticking thermostat allows coolant to move through the engine without being cooled, which doesn’t do you any good blazing down the highway at 70 mph. You may need some help to identify the offending component at this point and it’s not going to fix itself at the roadside, so now it’s time to move. Be nice as you go, your car is not feeling well. Turn off your air conditioner and crank up your heat. This will be less than amusing on your summer road trip through the New Mexico desert, but remember your cabin heater hijacks heat from the engine and will take some pressure off your car while you move toward help. Make doubly sure you have coolant in the reservoir and try to keep moving, avoiding stop and go traffic. Use your head here. Watch your temperature gauge and pay attention to how your car feels. Obviously, steam or smoke is a sign that you need to get off the road and probably out of and away from the car. If you’re not able to drive and keep the temperature down, get off the road and call a tow. Nobody likes an $80 tow but it’s much more palatable than a cracked engine block, a blown head gasket, warped cylinders—you get the idea.
exhaust manifold gasket helps seal the union between the exhaust manifold and
the side of the engine’s cylinder head. A blown exhaust gasket often protrudes
from the gap between the exhaust manifold and the cylinder head.
Determining if an exhaust manifold gasket has
failed is easy to do. First; SIGHT: A blown exhaust gasket often protrudes from
the gap between the exhaust manifold and the cylinder head.
the area where the manifold and head meet, if the engine is a V-6 or V-8,
compare both sides. Look for
pieces of gasket that are protruding far more than the rest which will indicate
the point of failure other visual sign is sooty exhaust which will stain the
side of the cylinder head or manifold. SOUND: Exhaust gas and noise are
expelled from the engine at a high velocity, down through the exhaust manifold
and into exhaust pipes, where they pass through the catalytic converter and
muffler before exiting from the tail. The event your manifold gasket is blown,
the exhaust gas will escape at the seal between the manifold and cylinder head,
resulting in a loud bang or pop noise each time that cylinder fires. SCENT: if
strong exhaust odor is present in the engine area, inspect the exhaust gaskets
to see if one or more has failed and is now allowing the untreated exhaust
fumes to escape into the engine well. A cracked or broken exhaust manifold is most often caused by one of two
things. The first reason is heat cycles and/or age.
Over time, the manifolds
just can't take the heat anymore and cracks begin to form in them. The second
common reason for exhaust manifold failure is because of broken exhaust system
hangers. In your Yearly emissions
inspections, you will find that having a cracked exhaust manifold will instantly
get you a rejection sticker. That's because when you have a hole in the exhaust
system, it throws off the oxygen sensor readings, and will cause your vehicle
to run inefficiently. You could also lose a few miles per gallon. Replacing an
exhaust manifold will be a different procedure for each vehicle, so grabbing a
service manual is a great start
A timing belt is the ribbed belt that is placed in a specific configuration along one side of your engine to keep the crank and camshafts timed properly basically it keeps the top half of the engine in sync with the bottom. If you have an older car from the 90s and below odds are you have a timing belt. Some new car manufacturers, such as Audi, still use timing belts in their engine designs but for longevity many manufacturers have switched to metal timing chains. It’s best to replace your timing belt every 60,000 miles or every 5 years.
A four stroke engine requires that the valves open and close once every other revolution of the crankshaft. The timing belt does this. In some engine designs the timing belt may also be used to drive other engine components such as the water pump and oil pump. Chains and gears may be more durable, rubber composite belts are quieter in their operation are less expensive, more efficient, by dint of being lighter, when compared with a gear or chain system.
An Indicator that the timing chain may need to be replaced includes a rattling noise from the front of the engine. The usual failure modes of timing belts are either stripped teeth or delamination and unraveling of the fiber cores.
Why Are Oil Changes Important?
Oil is like the blood of life for
your car. It keeps many parts of the engine working properly. It also helps
reduce the accumulation of varnish and carbons collecting on the engine. As you
might already know, the engine gets extremely hot from thousands of tiny
explosions that take place every minute. Oil helps to pull the heat away from
the combustion chamber, ultimately preventing the engine from blowing up. As
the oil collects heat, varnish and carbons build up and over time it becomes
more like sludge and less and less like liquid.
It doesn’t matter how good the
oil is, top brand or not. Over time, the oil degrades as the additives get
used. When this starts to happen is when it’s time for an oil change. You might
be asking yourself, “How often and what kind of oil do I need?” This all will
depend on the year, make and model of the vehicle, what kind of oil is used and
how often or far you drive. Your owner’s manual would be a good point of
reference. Typically, the suggested oil change time is either every 3 months or
3,000 miles, whichever comes first. The mileage is more important than the
amount of months elapsed. It’s very important to keep an eye on your odometer
to determine if it’s time for an oil change. If you’re a person who commutes a
lot or likes to take mini road trips, it’s safe to say that you’re going to
reach the recommended mileage (3,000) way before the 3 month mark.
Extreme weather can and will affect your oil
as well as towing. Left ignored, like I mentioned earlier, the engine can blow
up becoming more costly and time consuming. In some cases, the car all together
will have to be replaced. So when you put a price on it, a $30 oil change every
3,000 miles is worth it as opposed to spending thousands of dollars on a new
engine or a new car.