Spark plug reading for paramotors
by Had Robinson
updated May 18, 2021
The condition of the spark plug tells a lot about how an engine is performing. Reading spark plugs from carbureted 2 stroke engines is much more informative than reading plugs from fuel injected automobile engines. This is because the fuel mixture in carbureted engines is, basically, all over the place. In addition, ultralight engines are exempt from U.S. E.P.A. and E.U. emission restrictions so our engines can be tuned broadly, even to extremes.
How to read a 2 stroke spark plug
- Launch and fly the engine that you are testing.
- Set up to land in some convenient place.
- Run the engine at full throttle for about 3 minutes i.e. climb out.
- Immediately stop the engine with the kill switch (do NOT use the choke) and land.
- Remove the spark plug and examine it. Take a photo if you can and store it for comparisons later.
Here is an example of a spark plug in perfect condition. Note: there will always be a small amount of burned oil around the base of the plug. If the oil extends beyond the base, the plug probably has not been torqued down properly and is leaking.
Pilots are always welcome to send high resolution photos of spark plugs to our contact email address. I will take a look at them and give my opinion.
Examples of spark plugs
In addition to the photos below, Champion has this excellent website page with photos and explanation on reading spark plugs. The page, however, is mostly about the extremes of what happens to plugs in water-cooled automobile engines. Below I have posted actual photos from 2 stroke paramotors that may be studied.
Engine maintenance is less and pollution is lower with non-leaded fuels but these are the only advantages. A plug that is too cold will be covered with black (unburned fuel) deposits and the engine may be hard to start and not reach peak horsepower. Most paramotor manufacturers specify spark plugs for hot and cold running environments and it is important to have the correct one. Generally, if the air temperature is usually over 80F (27C) use a cooler running spark plug.
Here is a healthy spark plug from an engine running non-leaded gasoline. It is slightly on the "cold" side. That is, the engine was running slightly more rich than it needed to be. This is better than running too lean. There is a very small amount of harmless fouling.
This spark plug is fouled from an engine that is running rich. The pilot of this engine used Amsoil's Dominator so there should be no issue with the oil burning at too low a temperature (and forming "cake", a potentially harmful deposit that can cause piston ring sticking). Also, note the black gunk at the base of the plug. It is likely that the plug was not torqued down properly and was leaking. When replacing a spark plug it is important to chase the hole with the special tool which will remove cake. Failure to do this will prevent the spark plug from being torqued to the correct value.
Here is a new plug, same engine as above, but the pilot closed the adjustable high speed jet 1/8th turn. Head temperature increased some but the plug is not fouled.
Engines that use ethanol blends will not last as long and why any other kind of fuel is preferable. Regardless of what kind of fuel is used, the spark plug will wear out and/or foul. It is so inexpensive to change out the spark plug and improve starting and high end performance and is why it should always be done.
The spark plug below is from an AVGAS burning engine. Note that lead monoxide is present close to the grounded electrode and absent from the cooler parts of the plug. The problem of using AVGAS in paramotors is that the lead deposits can also foul the lands on the piston resulting in ring sticking. This is less of a problem when operating at high altitudes (>4,000' MSL) but can be severe at sea level and in hotter climates. The addition of fuel additives e.g. TCP can lessen the problem but does not eliminate it.
Pilots should not change their spark plug type from the manufacturer's specification unless there is a clear and understandable reason to do so e.g. the plug is getting too hot (need a cooler plug) or fouls easily (needs a hotter plug). The quality of the fuel and the general environment where the engine is run (hot & humid or cold & dry) can help determine whether the plug should be hotter or colder.