The internal combustion engine inside of your car can appear to be very complex with many different components that make the engine and the combustion process work. One of those components is the engine piston. Your car’s engine will have between four and twelve pistons each located inside its corresponding engine cylinder. The movement of the pistons are a critical part of engine operation and ensuring they are firing properly is a part of engine maintenance for your car. Let’s examine exactly what an engine piston is and what it does as well as common problems that can occur with pistons and how to avoid and resolve them.
What is a piston and how does it work?
A piston is a piece of metal located inside of each cylinder in your engine that moves up and down to allow the engine to run. As the air-fuel mixture that powers the engine enters through the fuel injection system, the downward movement of the piston will compress it and cause the internal combustion reaction to take place in the engine. The resulting combustion reaction forces the pistons back upward and all of that force is transferred from the pistons to the crankshaft via a connecting rod. The combustion force turns the crankshaft, which allows engine power to be received by the transmission that will distribute it among the car’s wheels.
Essentially, the pistons start the fuel combustion process and are at the beginning of the chain of engine power transfer that starts with the pistons and ends at the wheels. Without the pistons, there would be nothing collecting engine power from the combustion reaction and power from your engine would never reach the wheels.
Common piston problems
Although your engine’s pistons are durable and do not require a lot of routine maintenance, problems can occur that can affect your overall engine performance, especially in older engines. Below are the most common problems that can occur with your engine pistons.
The “piston slap” is the name given to the noise that the pistons create when they get worn out. As your pistons wear, the gap between the piston and the cylinder it is incased in increases. When this gap gets too large, the extra space will cause the piston to get noisy, creating the piston slap sound. This is a sign to get your engine pistons replaced.
Worn piston rings
Piston rings are wrapped around the outside of the piston and are essential in removing heat off from the piston and dissipating it alongside the cooler cylinder wall. They also create an airtight seal that ensures that engine oil does not flow past the piston and into the firing chamber of the engine. Piston rings will wear over time and you can usually notice that the seal is broken through when you notice a drop in engine oil level or white smoke coming out of the exhaust tailpipe.
When errors are made in the setup of your car and engine components, the tops of your pistons can get torched as a result. In severe cases, holes can be created in your pistons as well. This is usually due to a dirty fuel injector or the wrong type of spark plug being installed in your car. Burnt pistons will greatly reduce your engine’s output power.
Consistent use of poor quality gasoline will lead to your pistons becoming cracked, which may impact your car’s ability to run at all. Cracked pistons can also be the symptom of larger vehicle problems, such as a failure in the exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system.
Piston maintenance and repair
Piston repair is labor-intensive and expensive since it requires the engine to be taken apart and reassembled with the repair or replacement is complete. The best way to avoid problems with your piston is through preventative maintenance with the rest of your vehicle, particularly the engine.
Perhaps the most important piece of engine maintenance is staying on top of your engine oil and filter changes. Oil changes should occur every 5,000 – 7,500 miles for most cars, but double-check with your manufacturer’s recommendations in your owner’s manual for the precise interval that your engine oil and engine filter should be changed. Doing so will prevent your engine from overheating, which will also prevent the bulk of possible piston problems.
Along the same lines of overheating prevention, your antifreeze coolant should always be at the proper level. Make it a habit to check your coolant level regularly and top it off when the level gets too low. Take your car in to get a coolant flush whenever you notice that the coolant has gotten brown and dirty.
Lastly, spark plug maintenance will help prevent your pistons from cracking. The interval to get your spark plugs replaced is about every 60,000 miles. Make sure you get the correct type of spark plugs installed for your car – a car care professional will be able to best assist you in this.
Get piston maintenance and repair done through CarAdvise
With pistons being such an important part of the engine, you want to make sure that you get their maintenance and repair done by professionals you can trust. CarAdvise makes car care simple and guarantees that you’ll save money whenever you book your maintenance appointments through our app. CarAdvise users save an average of 25% on each appointment and you can book services for your car in minutes!
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