How to Check engine for Spark - No Start Troubleshooting
In this guide, you will learn how to check if spark plugs are firing. The easiest way to check for spark by yourself is to use inline spark plug tester. Alternative methods to test an engine for spark include removing the spark plug and grounding it or testing for spark with a screwdriver. Regardless of which method you choose, checking if your spark plugs are firing is important to diagnose no start conditions.
You can test for spark without removing the spark plug using one of the following methods.
Table of Content
How to test for spark
- How to test for ignition spark
- How to check for spark with a screwdriver
- An alternative method to test for spark
- Inline Spark Plug Tester
- The engine won't start, no spark troubleshooting
- Frequently Asked Questions
- When you test your ignition system for spark, keep your hands off ignition coils, wires or spark plugs while cranking the engine. Ignition coils generate in average 30,000 volts enough to cause injuries and shock.
- If you will be cranking the engine for an extended period to test your car for spark, keep a backup battery source connected to avoid draining the main car battery.
1 - How to test for spark
How to test for ignition spark
The safest way to check for spark is by using an inline test light. Why do we start off checking an engine for spark using a test light? This method works if you are trying to:
- Check for spark from ignition coil
- Check for spark from coil pack
- Check for spark from distributor
Checking if you are getting an ignition spark with a test light is quite simple. Simply plug the test light between the spark plug and your plug wires or ignition coil.
Step 1: Remove engine cover
If you have a vehicle model year 2000 and newer it will most likely have an engine cover. Remove the cover by lifting it up. Engine covers are simply held in place with tabs.
Step 2: Locate the spark plugs
If you have a four cylinder engine, the spark plugs will be right on top of the engine. This is typically true for inline six engines as well. If your car is a V6 then you will have three cylinders on one side of the engine block and the other three on the other side.
Step 3: Disconnect the injector
We don't want to flood the engine with fuel. Therefore as a best practice, it is recommended to unplug electrical connector from the fuel injectors or remove the relay for the fuel pump. If you are going to check only one of the cylinders for a spark for a couple of seconds, you may be fine without disconnecting the spark plugs. If you crank the engine for an extended period of time with the injecor connected you will flood the cylinders with gasoline which can foul the spark plugs.
Step 4: Remove the ignition coil
Remove the ignition coil from the spark plug that you want to test. Unplug the igntion coil from the spark plug but keep it connecte the wire harness.
Step 5: Connect spark plug tester
Connect the spark plug tester in series between the ignition coil and the spark plug. One end of the spark plug testers fit on the ignition coil and the other on top of the spark plug.
Step 6: Check for spark
Set the spark plug tester aside. Now it is time to check if your engine is getting a spark. Keep your hands away from the ignition coil and the spark tester. Have a helper turn on the ignition and try to start the engine.
As the engine turns over, look if there is a spark on the test light. If there is a small light flashing, it means you are getting a spark. If your car doesn't start, it is possible that you have a fuel related issue, timing issue. Also, check for bad spark plugs.
If there is no light at all at the test light, you are not getting a spark.
How to check for spark with a screwdriver
The quick and dirty, old school way of checking for spark is using a screwdriver. Follow these steps to check for spark using a screwdriver.
Step 1: Locate spark plug
You will need to pop the hood open. Remove that large engine cover and find the spark plugs.
Step 2: Remove spark plug wire or ignition coil
If you have a newer car you will most lily have an ignition coil on top of each of the spark plugs. Remove one of the ignition coils. If you have plug wires, remove one wire from the spark plug.
Step 3: Connect screwdriver to test for spark
Stick your screwdriver into the ignition coil or the plug wire boot.
Step 4: Place screwdriver near engine block
Place the screwdriver about 1/8" from the engine block. While someone else cranks the engine you should closely look at the gap between the engine and the screwdriver. If your ignition system is working properly you should see a spark here.
If your spark plugs aren't firing, then you won't see a spark here. Which means you have an ignition problem you need to address.Back to top
2 - An alternative method to test for spark
Another method to check if you are getting spart at the spark plugs is to remove the spark plug from the engine.
Plug it back on your ignition coil or spark plug wire and ground the threaded part of the spark plug to the engine block.
Make sure you unplug the injector or remove the fuel pump relay. As you crank the engine, you should see a small spark at the tip of the spark plug.
There are several other ways to check a car engine if it is getting a spark. You can check for spark using a multimeter, test light, screwdriver or even by removing the spark plug and grounding it on the engine block or frame.
Check for spark by yourself without any help
If you can see the top of the engine from the driver's side with the hood is open, you can practically check for spark by yourself without anyone's help using an inline test tool. The light on the test tool is bright enough for you to see it from the car seat. It is hard to see the spark when using the screwdriver method.Back to top
3 - Inline Spark Plug Tester
The safest and easiest method to test an engine for yourself would be to use an inline spark plug tester designed to check spark plugs. A commonly used tool to check for spark is to use an inline spark plug tester shown below.
Check Price: Inline Spark Plug Tester
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4 - The engine won't start, no spark troubleshooting
The engine cranks but it will not start and you have already verified that the engine is getting a spark the problem could be any of the following:
- No fuel or low fuel pressure
If your engine is not getting fuel, your car engine will not start. Check for fuel pressure. Check fuel pump operation.
- Ignition Module Defective
If your vehicle is equipped with an ignition module it is possible that it can be bad.
- Bad Crankshaft Position Sensor (CPS)
On newer vehicles, the crankshaft position sensor plays a key role in determining the position of the crankshaft. If it fails you will notice intermittent starting issues. Typical symptoms include car starts fine when cold but when it warms up. The problem with CPS sensor is that it may not even trigger the check engine light on in some cases.
- Timing Issue
If there is a timing issue and valves don't close when the pistons hit Top Dead Center (TDC), your car won't start.
- Low compression
Low cylinder compression can also cause no start conditions.
If you are getting spark at all ignition coils except one of them, the most lily cause is a bad ignition coil or a cut wire for that particular ignition coil.Back to top
5 - Conclusion
The methods described here helps you learn how to check for ignition spark. If your car doesn't start it is important to look at other possible issues such as fuel pressure. This guide only shows you how to check if the spark plugs are firing nothing more.
While these instructions were meant to help learn how to check for spark on a car engine, these methods can be used to check for spark on lawn mower and motorcycles as well or any large or small gasoline engine.Back to top
6 - Frequently Asked Questions
How to check if a spark plug is firing without a test light?
An alternative method to check if a spark plug is firing is to remove the spark plug from the engine. Plug the spark plug on your ignition coil. Ground the threaded part of the spark plug to the engine block. Crank the engine and see if you are noticing any spark at the spark plug tip.
How do I know if I need new spark plugs wires?
Most owners realize they need new spark plug wires when their car starts to miss fire, struggle to accelerate uphill or sets the check engine light with codes such as P0300 P0301 P0302 P0303 P0304 P0304 P0304.
There are ways to tell if you need new spark plug wires. Use an insulated screwdriver and move it along the spark plug wires (at least two wires). Do you notice any arc from the wire to the screwdriver? If you do, it means you need new spark plug wires.
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