Most engines have at least four ignition coils, on for each spark plug. They are responsible for generating the high voltage current needed to power the spark plugs that start the combustion process.
The symptoms of a bad ignition coil include engine misfires, a rough engine idle, a decrease in power, poor fuel economy and an engine that is difficult to start.
In most cases, if even one ignition coil has failed you should not drive the vehicle. You run the risk of damaging the engine and causing catalytic converter failure.
It's fairly easy to diagnose a faulty ignition coil with a diagnostic code reader. The standard error code for a problem with one or more ignition coils is P0351.
In this article, I'll explain the symptoms of a bad ignition coil and how to diagnose and repair the problem, with approximate costs.
9 Symptoms Of A Bad Ignition Coil
Properly functioning ignition coils are vital for an engine to run properly. If one or more of them fail, then the car is going to run really badly and will probably stall if you push it beyond a few miles per hour.
The engine control module controls the power to the ignition coils. It decides the frequency and timing of the firing of the spark plugs. If one of the ignition coils has failed, this will knock out the engine timing and will severely impact how the engine runs.
It is possible for an ignition coil to fail intermittently. They can also become damaged due to excessive heat and vibration. This can damage the internal windings of the coil causing shorts. Ignition coils can also be damaged by through voltage overload caused by bad spark plugs. This will lead to intermittent misfires, and will lead to poor fuel economy.
Here are some of the symptoms of one or more bad ignition coils:
1. Check Engine Light coming on
Due to its crucial role in the ignition system expect the CEL lit after few driving cycles with a damaged ignition coil.
2. Poor fuel economy
Without proper spark energy the combustion process will not be efficient and a noticeable decrease in fuel economy will be evident. It's worth noting that poor fuel economy can also be caused by a failing MAF sensor or dirty engine filters such as the fuel filter.
3. Rough Engine idle
Depending on the vehicle year and maker the ECU may not compensate for this failure during idle. This might cause a rough idle or even an engine dying occasionally while idling.
4. Difficulty starting the engine
Depending on the number of defective coils you may experience difficulty during engine start. A difficult to start engine can also be caused by other problems with the electrical system such as a flat battery, so it's worth ruling these out too.
5. intermittent and Recurring engine misfires
If the primary or secondary winding within the ignition coil becomes damaged, it may not be able to generate sufficient voltage to power the spark plug properly.
This reduction in power will affect the efficiency of the combustion process, and will cause engine misfires that will affect overall performance.
6. Engine hesitation during acceleration
Having one or more faulty ignition coils will cause a severe lack of power in the engine, especially during acceleration. This can also be caused by bad injectors, so it's worth looking at these too.
7. Exhaust Back-fire
Fuel particles won’t burn in the combustion chamber as they usually do and will enter the exhaust pipe with a high energy charge. That energy will be unleashed in the form of mini explosions. It is also possible for the catalytic converter to become damaged by the unburnt fuel in the exhaust emissions.
8. Increased emissions
A bad ignition coil will increase emissions, particularly hydrocarbon emissions, which could be a problem if you live in an area with strict emissions laws.
9. Gas smell from exhaust pipe
The failure to burn the fuel in the combustion chamber will cause a more noticeable gas smell coming from your exhaust pipe, especially when the engine is cold.
What does an ignition coil do?
The Ignition Coil (also known as a spark coil) is the heart of the ignition system. Its job is to transform the battery voltage (12V) into the thousands of volts necessary to initiate the ignition on the spark plug. In other words, the ignition coil is in charge of providing the energy required by spark plugs to create the spark for combustion to occur.
A weak coil will not be able to accomplish its mission, having as a possible consequence, a “no spark” condition. But how you can tell if an ignition coil is weak?
Several factors determine the amount of energy required to create the electric arc in the spark plug. Some of them are the engine compression, air-fuel ratio, combustion chamber temperature, spark plug materials, spark plug calibration (aperture), etc.
Over the years, vehicle manufacturers have focused on developing more efficient engines. That implies engines with higher levels of compression and leaner fuel delivery. These changes demanded more and more energy from the ignition system. As a consequence, single coil engines became obsolete opening the way to multi-coil systems.
Nowadays, the most common multi-coil system is known as Coil-On-Plug (COP). This particular design consists of one ignition coil per cylinder. Each coil is directly attached to the spark plug, which contributes eliminating electrical loses from spark plug wires. Unless stated otherwise, this article will assume that your vehicle is using a COP system.
How Does An Ignition Coil Work?
Basically, an ignition coil is a small transformer. As with any transformer, it has a primary winding and a secondary winding. It receives battery voltage on the primary winding and when the current is disrupted the magnetic field collapses causing a huge voltage output on the secondary winding.
Modern ignition coils have output voltages in excess of 45,000 volts. This is often necessary to ignite the ultra-lean mixture of fuel injection systems.
Unlike traditional single-coil ignition systems, on current COP systems, the Electronic Control Unit is in charge of activating each individual coil when it's needed.
Most COP electrical connectors consist of three wires: one for ground, one for battery voltage and one for ECU activating signal. It’s not uncommon that all three wires connect directly with the ECU because many designs incorporate current and/or ground monitoring for each coil.
How To Diagnose A Failing Ignition Coil
For the purpose of this article, it’s assumed that you have a basic knowledge of safety precautions while working on your vehicle.
Depending on the type of ignition coil installed on your vehicle, you may need one or more of the following tools:
- OBD2 Code Reader
- Digital multimeter (DMM)
- Automotive diagnostic scanner with live data capabilities
- Inductive type ignition analyzer (inductive pickup tool).
Always refer to the appropriate OEM literature when possible. Original manufacturer diagnostic procedures should always have precedence over a generic workflow.
1. Preliminary steps
Recommended tools: OBD2 Code Reader / automotive scan tool
> Data trouble codes: using an OBD2 code reader take note of any DTC present in the ECU memory. For doing so you only need to connect your code reader and turn the ignition key on (engine off), a state usually known as KOEO.
> Data trouble codes clear: now that you know what codes were stored into memory you need to clear them. This is usually done selecting “clear codes” in your tool.
> Driving cycle: disconnect your OBD2 code reader and start the engine, this state is commonly known as KOER (Key On Engine Running). If the Check Engine Light turns on then stop the engine and continue with the diagnostic. If the Check Engine Light remains off then drive the vehicle for 5 to 10 minutes. If the light remains off you may have an intermittent problem. If the light lit during your driving cycle then continue with the diagnostic process.
2. Visual Inspection
Recommended tools: none
> Coil wiring: perform a meticulous visual inspection of each coil wiring. Look for burnt, damaged, corroded or deteriorated wires. Pay special attention to possible shorts to ground or open circuits produced by a faulty insulation.
> Coil harness and connector: similar than before, perform an exhaustive visual inspection of each coil connector. Ensure that the ignition key is switched off and unplug each coil harness connector. Look for bent terminal pins, loosely connections, corrosion or any other possible indication of a bad connection.
> Coil condition: in order to check the coil condition you’ll need to remove each coil from the engine. Refer to the last section if you have any doubt about the procedure. Perform a meticulous visual inspection of each coil. Look for burnt, damaged, cracked, corroded or deteriorated coil boot, spark wire or coil housing. Pay special attention to any sign of water, oil or moisture. Any liquid in contact with the coil will damage it very quickly. Repair as necessary.
Fix any wiring problem before continuing.
3. Electrical Tests
Recommended tools: digital multimeter (DMM)
> Supply voltage: refer to the proper wiring diagram and identify the terminal corresponding to the +12V line. In order to measure the supply voltage, you will need to enter in KOEO mode (Key On Engine Off) and turn the digital multimeter dial to “voltage” test mode. Now place one multimeter probe in a known ground (battery negative is a good one) and the other probe tip in the terminal of the coil wiring harness corresponding to the +12V supply. If the measured value is below 95% of the battery voltage then you will need to check the entire line from the coil harness all the way to the ECU itself.
> Ground test: enter in KOEO mode (Key On Engine Off) turn the digital multimeter dial to “voltage” test mode and place one probe tip on the coil harness terminal corresponding to the supply voltage and the other on the terminal that should be the ground. Ideally, the voltage would be the same value as the previous test, if the difference is greater than 10% then you will need to check electrical resistance and continuity of the ground line from the coil harness all the way down to the ECU.
4. Scan Tool Tests
Recommended tools: automotive scan tool with live data capabilities.
> Cylinder Misfire live test: using an automotive diagnostic scanner you can indirectly diagnose faulty coils. Enter in live data mode and look for cylinder misfire values. Most modern engines discriminate the misfires for each cylinder. Ideally, no cylinder should report misfire problems. If a particular cylinder has a high misfire count you can suspect from fuel injection, spark plug or ignition coil as the most probable causes.
> Coil On Plug functional test: some manufacturers include special tests or functional tests for the ignition coils. Follow on-screen instructions to complete those tests.
5. Ignition Coil Direct Tests
Recommended tools: Inductive type ignition analyzer.
> Coil live test: using an Inductive type ignition analyzer you can test the coil activation in real time. Depending on the model of your tester you may check ignition coil activation, spark plug duration time, coil output voltage, and even graphing the ignition coil pattern. The great advantage of this tool is that you only need to “touch” the coil that you want to test. It uses inductive technology (the same electrical principle that drives the ignition coil) so is the most practical way to test COP systems quickly and accurately.
How much does it cost to replace a broken ignition coil?
Ignition coils are relatively cheap to buy, and easy to replace if you've got the right tools. A new ignition coil will set you back anywhere from $30 to $100, depending on the vehicle make and model.
If you plan on changing a broken ignition coil yourself, it is usually an easy job if you take your time. If you plan on getting a mechanic to do the work for you, expect to pay $120 to $200. If more than one coil needs to be changed you may save some money on labor as a lot of the work involves removing parts to access the ignition coils.
How To Replace A Broken Ignition Coil
Coils part of COP systems are usually located above each spark plug on the valve cover.
Recommended tools: OBD2 Code Reader, safety glasses, mechanics gloves, appropriate screwdrivers, torque wrench, proper illumination (LED flashlight),
- > Preliminary steps: ensure that the ignition switch is off and then disconnect the vehicle battery. Detaching the negative terminal is usually enough.
- > Remove coil connector: this step may be tricky in some models. Generally speaking, the connector has a plastic tab that you should push down while you pull out the harness. But in many cases, there is a small security clip (sometimes plastic, sometimes metallic) that must be removed first using an adequate screwdriver.
- > Remove coil: most COP systems use a plastic cover to protect the coils. Lift the cover and use the appropriate tool to remove the coil. You will find it an easy task since usually, coils are attached with two bolts.
- > Install the new coil: retire the old coil and then install the new one. Double check that you’re using the adequate part number.
- > Reconnect the coil and battery: once you are done, reconnect the coil (don’t forget security clips) and then the battery terminal.
- > Clear DTC memory: using the OBD2 code reader clear the ECU memory to prevent any false code been stored. You will need entering in KOEO mode for doing so.
- > Perform driving cycle: once you are done, drive the vehicle for more than 10 minutes. Try to accelerate as you would normally do.
Here's a video showing the replacement of broken ignition coils on a Nissan Altima: