AfterMarketNews AfterMarketNews Auto Care Pro AutoCareCareerHub Brake&Frontend BodyShopBusiness Counterman EngineBuilder Fleet Equipment ImportCar Motorcycle & Powersports News Servicio Automotriz Shop Owner Tire Review Tech Shop Tomorrow's Tech Underhood Service Speedville

Diagnostic Dilemma: The Case of the Missing Code

When doing mobile diagnostic work, no-code stalling complaints are a major part of your agenda. In most cases, the client shop is simply too busy to duplicate the failure or, in some cases, a long test drive will yield nothing in the way of useful...

Read more...

Secondary Ignition: The Art of Spark

What is a coil? From the beginning of the internal combustion engine, several different ignition systems have been used to create a high-energy spark. The most popular system, and the one that’s in use today, is a step-up coil. A coil is nothing...

Read more...

Diagnosing Catalytic Converter Failure Symptoms

Although construction can vary according to engine application, the common three-way catalytic converter contains a reduction and oxidation stage. To create maximum surface area, each stage is generally a ­ceramic or stainless steel honeycomb substrate...

Read more...

Ford: ABS Light On With DTCs C1175, C1236, P0500 or P0503

Model: 2005-’07 Super Duty Some 2005-‘07 Ford Super Duty vehicles may exhibit an ABS light on and possible diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) C1175, C1236, P0500 and/or P0503. This condition may be due to faulty vehicle wiring, a failed wheel speed...

Read more...

Composite Rotors Are Back

Veteran technicians will remember the problems with composite rotors in the late 1990s. These rotors had hats of stamped steel cast into the iron rotor. They saved weight, but they were prone to runout and installation errors. These types of rotors...

Read more...

Power Steering Dynamics and Diagnostics

Twenty-five years ago, when the power steering failed, diagnosing the system was easy. The most difficult problem to diagnose was the “morning sickness” that plagued some ­vehicles when they were cold. Today, the introduction of speed sensitive steering,...

Read more...

Saab: Fuel Sending Unit Replacement

The 2006 Saab 9-3 Sport sedan came in on the hook and the tow truck driver said, “I think it needs a fuel pump.” The gas gauge was reading less than a quarter of a tank and the low fuel warning light wasn’t on, so a quick fuel pressure check was...

Read more...

KIA: Brake Light On, Tachometer And Speedometer Inoperative

Applicable Models: 2001 Kia Optima LX, 2.4L Complaint The customer states the red brake light is illuminated on the instrument cluster. The ­customer also states the tachometer and speedometer intermittently stop working. Cause Confirmed the customer’s...

Read more...

Mazda: Fuel System Servicing Precaution

Applicable Models: 2004-’07 Mazda3 2005-’07 Mazda6 2006-’07 MX-5 vehicles During service/removal of fuel system parts on the above vehicles, the memory of the malfunctions and the long-term fuel trim need to be cleared by either removing the...

Read more...

Pulling Codes: Multiple Misfire Personalities

A Story of Codes P0302, 04, 06, 08 & 03   This month’s diagnostic journey begins with a 2008 Land Rover Discovery that is taken in to a local testing facility for an emission test and fails due to a series of misfire codes. Misfire...

Read more...

Using Volumetric Efficiency to Determine the Health of an Engine

Measuring voumetric efficiency can diagnose problems like blocked catalytic converters, bad MAF sensors or vacuum leaks. Glen Beanard show you how to do it with a scan tool. For the complete article, click here.  ...

Read more...

Phoenix Systems Sends Facebook Giveaway Winner to Meet Larry McReynolds for All-Star Race

Phoenix Systems, maker BrakeShot, BrakeStrip and Reverse Brake & Clutch Bleeders, announced the winner of its 2015 Win Race Tickets Facebook Giveaway. Suzanne Cleary Drews from Edgewater, FL, is this year's grand-prize winner. Phoenix Systems will...

Read more...

Print Print Email Email

By Larry Carley
Technical Editor

Question: My engine burned a piston. What does that mean and why did it happen?

Answer: It means the piston failed due to excessive heat in the combustion chamber. A burned piston will typically have a melted appearance, or a hole burned completely through the top of the piston. Aluminum can only withstand so much heat, and when it gets too hot, it melts. The underlying cause is usually detonation and/or pre-ignition.

Detonation occurs when the temperature and pressure inside a cylinder exceed the fuel’s octane rating. Instead of igniting when the spark plug fires, the air/fuel ignites spontaneously much like a diesel engine. This creates multiple flame fronts within the combustion chamber that collide and hammer the top of the piston, producing a metallic knocking noise called “spark knock.”

Common causes of detonation include a buildup of carbon deposits in the combustion chamber and on the top of the piston that increase compression, no EGR (exhaust gas recirculation), overadvanced ignition timing, a bad knock sensor, a lean fuel mixture, low quality gasoline that does not meet minimum octane requirements, or any cooling problems that causes the engine to run hotter than normal (coolant leak, low coolant level, bad water pump, stuck thermostat, restricted radiator, defective cooling fan, even exhaust restrictions that back up heat into the engine.

Pre-ignition occurs if a hot spot develops in the combustion chamber that ignites the air/fuel mixture before the spark plug fires. The hot spot may be the spark plug itself, an overheated exhaust valve, carbon deposits in the combustion chamber, or a sharp edge in the combustion chamber.

Common causes of pre-ignition include the wrong heat range spark plugs (too hot for the application), carbon deposits in the combustion chamber and on the tops of the pistons, a lean fuel mixture, detonation or anything that makes the engine run hotter than normal.

On engines that are turbocharged or supercharged, too much boost pressure and/or not enough fuel can burn a piston very quickly. Check the operation of the wastegate and boost control system. If the turbo system has been tweaked to deliver higher than stock boost pressure for more power, the turbo may be pushing more air into the engine than the stock injectors can handle, causing the fuel mixture to lean out and burn the piston.

An often overlooked cause of piston burning is a weak or dirty fuel injector. If an injector is not spraying enough fuel into the combustion chamber, the air/fuel mixture in that cylinder may become too lean increasing the risk of detonation, pre-ignition and piston damage.

Diagnosis requires using a scan tool to check for lean codes and to look at fuel trim values. If a P0171 or P0174 code is found, or the long term fuel trim readings are 10 or higher (indicating a lean mixture), the engine may have one or more weak or dirty injectors.

The only way to know for sure is to remove the injectors, clean them on a fuel injector cleaning machine, then flow test all the injectors and compare the results. Any injector that does not flow within 5 to 8 percent of the rest should be replaced.

Question: What is a ‘scuffed’ piston?

Answer: A scuffed piston is one that has been damaged by rubbing against the cylinder wall. The metal-to-metal contact smears the metal on the skirt on the piston and damages the piston.

Scuffed pistons can be caused by too much heat in the combustion chamber, engine overheating or inadequate lubrication. The piston-to-cylinder clearances in most late model engines is much less than it used to be to reduce piston rock and noise. Consequently, if the piston or cylinder gets too hot, the clearance goes away and you get metal-to-metal contact.

In instances where piston scuffing occurred due to a loss of lubrication, the underlying cause may be a low oil level in the crankcase (due to a lack of maintenance or an oil leak), low oil pressure (a worn oil pump), poor oil quality, or oil breakdown (not changing the oil often enough).

When diagnosing a scuffed piston, note where the piston is scuffed. If the cause is overheating, the scuffing will mostly be on the upper ring lands and on the sides near the wrist pins.

There may also be oil carbon and lacquer burned onto the underside of the piston indicating it got too hot. Scuff marks on the lower skirt area often indicates a lack of lubrication (check the oil pump and pickup screen). Scuff marks on the edges or corners of the thrust sides of the piston may be the result of bore distortion. Scuffing on both thrust sides would indicate binding in the wrist pin.

Some original equipment pistons and many aftermarket performance pistons now have special anti-scuff skirt coatings to reduce the risk of scuffing.

Latest articles from our other sites:

Ultimate Underhood: Chrysler Slant Six

While the Chrysler Slant Six did not have the raw power of the Hemi, it was just a sophisticated. The Slant Six went into production in 1960 and lasted until 1983. The 30º tilt was borrowed from Mercedes-Benz...More

Lithium: An Element That Is Charging Ahead

What is an EMV? As you read the hybrid and plug-in articles that my company, ACDC, is writing this year, we have coined a new term: EMV (electric motor vehicle). Rather than use hybrid, plug-in hybrid,...More

PHOTO TECH: How a Brake Pad is Made

Even with zero moving parts, the common replacement brake pad is one of the most difficult to engineer and manufacture components on a vehicle. From the initial design to the final packaging, we...More

BRAKE JOB: 2003-2011 Honda Element

It may look like a car that was never removed from the box it came in, but Honda Element isn’t boxy when it comes to the brakes. The Element is based on the CR-V platform. There is nothing tricky, but...More

Saab: Fuel Sending Unit Replacement

The 2006 Saab 9-3 Sport sedan came in on the hook and the tow truck driver said, “I think it needs a fuel pump.” The gas gauge was reading less than a quarter of a tank and the low fuel warning light...More

Lithium: An Element That Is Charging Ahead

What is an EMV? As you read the hybrid and plug-in articles that my company, ACDC, is writing this year, we have coined a new term: EMV (electric motor vehicle). Rather than use hybrid, plug-in hybrid,...More

Pulling Codes: Multiple Misfire Personalities

A Story of Codes P0302, 04, 06, 08 & 03   This month’s diagnostic journey begins with a 2008 Land Rover Discovery that is taken in to a local testing facility for an emission test and...More

Snap-on Introduces New Software Upgrade 15.2

Keeping a technician’s diagnostic tool up-to-date is the only way a shop can ensure that they have the latest codes, tests, tips and data out of the box and miles down the road. With the new Snap-on...More