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Keep Plugging Away at Ignition Systems

Adapted from Larry Carley’s article in Underhood Service

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Distributorless Ignition Systems (DIS) have been around for more than two decades – which is probably longer than most of you reading this have been even been alive. However, in recent years the trend has been to multi-coil systems such as Coil On Plug (COP) or Coil Per Cylinder (CPC) ignition systems, and Coil Near Plug (CNP) ignition systems.

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COP systems have become the hot setup for a number of packaging, performance, emissions and maintenance reasons. Placing individual ignition coils directly over each spark plug eliminates the need for long, bulky (and expensive) high voltage spark plug cables. This reduces radio frequency interference, eliminates potential misfire problems caused by burned, chaffed or loose cables, and reduces resistance along the path between the coil and plug. Consequently, each coil can be smaller, lighter and use less energy to fire its spark plug.

Why Coil?
From a performance standpoint, having a separate coil for each cylinder gives each coil more time to recharge between cylinder firings. With single coil distributor systems, the coil must fire twice every revolution of the crankshaft in a four-cylinder engine, and four times in a V8. With a multi-coil system, each coil only has to fire once for every revolution of the crankshaft. This provides more saturation time for a hotter spark, especially at higher rpm when firing times are greatly reduced. The result is fewer misfires, cleaner combustion and better fuel economy.

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Where You’ll See It
The typical multiple-coil ignition system may have one of several different configurations. On Chrysler, Toyota and many other imports, the coils are mounted directly over the spark plugs. Many of these are the thin “pencil” style coils that extend down into recessed wells in the engine’s valve covers. On other applications, such as GM’s Quad 2.2L Four, the individual coils are mounted in a cassette or carrier that positions the coils over the spark plugs. On late-model Corvette, Camaro and other V8s, a Coil Near Plug setup is used because the spark plugs protrude from the side of the cylinder head, and there isn’t room to mount a coil on the end of each plug. Here, the individual coils are mounted on the valve cover and attached to the plugs by short plug wires.

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In most of the older distributorless ignition systems, an electronic module was part of the coil pack assembly and controlled the switching of the coils on and off. On most of the newer systems, the switching function is handled by the powertrain control module, though there may be some additional electronics and diodes built into the top of each coil. The PCM receives a basic timing signal from the crankshaft position sensor and sometimes a camshaft position sensor to determine engine speed, firing order and timing. It then looks at inputs from the throttle position sensor, airflow sensor, coolant sensor, MAP sensor and even the transmission to determine how much timing advance to give each plug. Most of today’s multi-coil ignition systems are capable of making timing adjustments between cylinder firings, which makes these systems very responsive and quick to adapt to changing engine loads and driving conditions.

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Coil Tech
All coils are essentially transformers that consist of an iron core surrounded by primary and secondary windings. The primary windings are a much larger diameter wire than the secondary windings, but have fewer turns around the core. The ratio of turns between the primary and secondary windings determines the coil’s output potential (the higher the ratio, the higher the maximum output voltage). Most coils have about 10 times as many secondary windings as primary windings. High-performance coils have more.

Conventional canister or can-style coils used with older distributor ignition systems usually have a common primary and secondary ground connection. High-energy coils may use a similar design or have isolated primary and secondary windings.

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DIS coils may have isolated primary and secondary windings (typical of the waste spark systems) or a common primary circuit with an isolated secondary circuit. COP and CNP coils usually have a common primary and secondary ground junction.

With all types of coils, the primary and secondary windings are insulated from one another and do not touch. The resistance of the primary winding is typically very low, usually less than a couple of ohms and as low as 0.6 to 0.7 ohms on some individual coils. The resistance of the secondary windings, by comparison, is quite high. Segmented bobbin designs are usually in the 5,500 ohm range, while serial bobbin designs usually fall in the 10,000 to 14,000 ohm range. Always look up the resistance specifications for the coils you are testing because the numbers vary considerably depending on the application.

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Coil Diagnosis
Though coils are very reliable, they sometimes fail. Coils run hot because of the voltage that is constantly surging through them. Over time, the combination of heat and voltage may break down the insulation between the windings, coil housing or tower. If a coil problem is suspected, the coil’s primary and secondary resistance can be measured with an ohmmeter. If either is out of specifications, the coil needs to be replaced.

A short or lower-than-normal resistance in the primary windings allows excessive current to flow through the coil, which can quickly damage the ignition module. This also may reduce the coil’s voltage output resulting in a weak spark, hard starting and hesitation or misfire under load or when accelerating.

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An open or high resistance in the coil primary windings will not usually damage the ignition module or PCM driver circuit right away, but it may cause the module to run hot and shorten its life. With this condition, coil output will be low or non-existent (weak spark or no spark).

A short or low resistance in the coil’s secondary windings will result in a weak spark, but will not damage the module or PCM driver circuit. An open or high resistance in the coil’s secondary windings will also cause a weak spark or no spark, and it may also damage the ignition module due to feedback induction through the primary circuit.

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An important point to keep in mind with respect to all types of ignition coils is that when the magnetic field collapses, the high-voltage surge has to go someplace. If it can’t go to the spark plug, it will find another path to ground – which may be back through the ignition module, PCM driver circuit or through the insulation inside the coil itself. This can be very damaging to these parts. So never disconnect a plug wire or COP coil while the engine is running. It can be very damaging as well as dangerous to you should you become the path to ground. When a coil failure occurs on a distributor ignition system, it affects all of the cylinders. The engine may not start, or it may misfire badly when under load. But with multi-coil ignition systems, a single coil failure will only affect one cylinder (or paired cylinders in the case of waste spark DIS systems).

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On 1996 and newer vehicles, the OBD II system should detect coil problems as well as misfires and generate fault codes that identify the problem coil or cylinder. A misfire code P0301, for example, would indicate a misfire problem in cylinder #1. Of course, misfires can be caused by a lot of things. It could be a worn or fouled spark plug, a weak coil, a bad plug wire or connection in the case of a DIS or CNP system, a dirty or dead fuel injector, or a loss of compression (burned exhaust valve or leaky head gasket). Further diagnosis is always needed to isolate and identify the cause – which creates a problem on multi-coil systems that do not have spark plug wires because you can’t observe the secondary ignition pattern unless you use some type of adapters or inductive pickups that fit on the coils themselves.

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Replacing the Coils
Replacement coils must always be the same basic type as the original and have the same primary resistance as the original. Using the wrong coil may damage other ignition components or cause the new coil to fail.

If an engine is experiencing repeated coil failures, the coil may be working too hard. The underlying cause is usually high secondary resistance (bad spark plug wire or spark plugs), or in some cases, a lean fuel condition (dirty injectors, vacuum leak or leaky EGR valve).

Future coil problems can often be avoided by cleaning the connectors and terminals when the new coil is installed. Corrosion can cause intermittent operation and loss of continuity, which may contribute to component failure. Applying dielectric grease to these connections can help prevent corrosion and assure a good connection.

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On high-mileage engines with distributors or DIS systems, the spark plug wires also should be replaced following a coil failure to assure a good hot spark. New plugs also should be installed if the original plugs are fouled or are at or near their service limit (45,000 miles for conventional plugs, 100,000 miles for long-life plugs).

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