This article relies largely or entirely on a single source. (May 2008)
A back-fire or backfire is combustion or an explosion produced by a running internal combustion engine that occurs in the air intake or exhaust system rather than inside the combustion chamber. Unburnt fuel or hydrocarbons that are ignited in the exhaust system can produce loud sounds even if flames are not present at the tailpipe. A visible flame may momentarily shoot out of the exhaust pipe where the exhaust system is shortened. Fire may also travel into the air intake piping. Either condition may cause a loud popping noise, together with possible loss of power and forward motion. A back-fire is a separate phenomenon from the fire produced by Top Fuel dragsters.
If a backfire does occur in the exhaust, it is known as an after-fire. Strictly speaking, the term backfire refers to unburned fuel moving back into the intake and combusting, whereas an after-fire combusts unburned fuel in the exhaust side of the combustion cycle. A common cause of after-fire is from running a too-rich fuel mix, which is often the result of combustion not achieving high enough temperatures to cleanly burn all of the fuel. This is usually the result of a fouled (dirty) spark plug, coil, or plug wire. After-fires are considered undesirable due to the combustion occurring within the muffler or exhaust system, which over time causes damage to the mufflers and exhaust piping. Ultimately this can result in an exhaust leak, and even a burned out muffler/catalytic converter. Less critically there will also be reduced performance due to a weaker combustion.
The term derives from parallel experiences with early unreliable firearms or ammunition, in which the explosive force was directed out at the breech instead of the muzzle. From this came the use of the word "backfire" as a verb to indicate something that produces an unintended, unexpected, and undesired result.
Backfiring in internal combustion engines occurs outside of the combustion chamber, and is typically the result of an improper air to fuel ratio. An overly lean air-fuel mixture (i.e. an overabundance of air) can lead to a failure to ignite in the combustion chamber, also called a "misfire". The unburnt fuel then enters the exhaust system, where hot components can cause the fuel to ignite unpredictably. Alternatively, rich air-fuel mixtures (i.e. an overabundance of fuel) can result in incomplete combustion, again causing unburnt fuel to enter the exhaust system.
Backfires may also occur before the combustion chamber. One possible cause of this is timing. If the timing is too early, the spark plug fires before the intake valves close, causing the combustion to propagate into the intake manifold, further igniting the air-fuel mixture there; the resulting explosion then travels out of the carburetor and air filter. On many small marine engines, a screen is placed over the intake of the carburetor as a flame arrestor, to prevent these flames from escaping the intake and potentially igniting fuel or fuel vapors in the enclosed sump or bilge of the boat, causing a fire or explosion. Alternatively, the ignition timing may be late, in which case the combustion is not completed by the time the exhaust valves open, allowing the combustion to propagate into the exhaust system.
Additionally, improperly adjusted carburetors that create a lean condition during acceleration can cause the air–fuel mixture to burn so slowly that combustion is still taking place during the exhaust stroke, and even when the intake valve opens. The flame front can then travel up the intake and cause a backfire. In this situation it is conceivable that there is a backfire occurring in the intake manifold and exhaust manifold simultaneously.
In both cases (combustion occurring before and after the combustion chamber), the result is a sharp pop, which is colloquially referred to as a "backfire". However, for troubleshooting, engine mechanics more strictly define an ignition of fuel within the engine exhaust system as an "afterfire", while a "backfire" is this same process taking place in the induction system.
Exhaust system backfires occur in engines that have an emission system malfunction, like an air injection system diverter valve problem, an exhaust leak, or when the catalytic converter has been removed. In some high-performance vehicles, when a driver shifts up and lets off the accelerator, the engine has a moment of running rich. This causes an incomplete burn which causes the fumes to explode in the exhaust system along with an audible pop or bang sound. This is a result of working equipment, and is unlikely to cause damage.
A fuel-injected engine may backfire if an intake leak is present (causing the engine to run lean), or a fuel injection component such as an air-flow sensor is defective.
Common causes of backfires are:
- Poor or unregulated engine timing is often a cause of intake backfires, but can also be responsible for exhaust backfires. Backfires and loud explosion-like sounds are common when an antilag system is present and active.
- Improper wiring in the ignition can also lead to timing issues and backfires.
- Low fuel pressure, clogged fuel filters, and weak fuel pumps could cause a severely lean air-to-fuel ratio during the fuel injection process.
- A missing or damaged catalytic converter can result in backfires out the tailpipe.
- Broken exhaust-system piping, especially if located immediately downstream of the exhaust manifold, can result in backfiring underneath the vehicle.
With older engine designs, backfiring can be common or unavoidable. Backfire is rare in modern vehicles with fuel-injection and computer-controlled fuel mixtures.
Cars with sports exhausts (both factory-fitted and aftermarket) are much more likely to backfire. In some circumstances the backfire is seen as an additional perk of the car. The TVR Cerbera is an example of a car with factory-fitted sports exhausts which produce frequent backfires on engine braking.
In high-powered supercharged aircraft piston engines such as the Rolls-Royce Merlin and Griffon, backfiring into the inlet manifold is prevented with flame traps inside the manifold, the traps preventing the flame propagating into the compressed air/fuel mixture within the manifold.
Tanks and naval ships may use the injection of fuel or special "fog oil" into exhaust tract to create smoke screens. Rather than burning, the oil normally evaporates and re-condenses at a particular droplet size, but under abnormal conditions it may catch fire or even produce a thermobaric explosion.
Cars extensively modified for visual appearance and not road use (stunts, ads, movies etc.) may be fitted with gasoline injectors in their exhaust systems, or even with small flamethrowers separate from the exhaust.
- Dieseling, an after-run condition in which an engine continues to run without the spark plugs firing
- Ignition timing
- Valve timing
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- Afgan, Naim; Maria da Graça Carvalho (2004). New and Renewable Energy Technologies for Sustainable. CRC Press. p. 332. ISBN 90-5809-626-2.