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Vacuum guage to diagnose engine problems

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SimpleOrange

Found this useful chart on how to read your vacuum test gauge.

Here is a quick summary of Engine Testing With A Vacuum Gauge from the internet.
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Vacuum Gauge Engine Performance Testing
A vacuum gauge shows the difference between outside atmospheric pressure and the amount of vacuum present in the intake manifold. The pistons in the engine serve as suction pumps and the amount of vacuum they create is affected by the related actions of:

Piston rings
Valves
Ignition system
Fuel control system
Other parts affecting the combustion process (emission devices, etc.).

Each has a characteristic effect on vacuum and you judge their performance by watching variations from normal. It is important to judge engine performance by the general location and action of the needle on a vacuum gauge, rather than just by a vacuum reading. Gauge readings that may be found are as follows:

Normal Engine Operation
At idling speed, an engine at sea level should show a steady vacuum reading between 17" and 21" HG. A quick opening and closing of the throttle should cause vacuum to drop below 5" then rebound to 21" or more.

General Ignition Troubles Or Sticking Valves
With the engine idling, continued fluctuation of 1 to 2 inches may indicate an ignition problem. Check the spark plugs, spark plug gap, primary ignition circuit, high tension cables, distributor cap or ignition coil. Fluctuations of 3 to 4 inches may be sticking valves.

Intake System Leakage, Valve Timing, Or Low Compression
Vacuum readings at idle much lower than normal can indicate leakage through intake manifold gaskets, manifold-to-carburetor gaskets, vacuum brakes or the vacuum modulator. Low readings could also be very late valve timing or worn piston rings.

Exhaust Back Pressure
Starting with the engine at idle, slowly increase engine speed to 3,000 RPM, engine vacuum should be equal to or higher than idle vacuum at 3,000 RPM. If vacuum decreases at higher engine RPM's, an excessive exhaust back pressure is probably present.

Cylinder Head Gasket Leakage
With the engine Idling, the vacuum gauge pointer will drop sharply, every time the leak occurs. The drop will be from the steady reading shown by the pointer to a reading of 10" to 12" Hg or less. If the leak Is between two cylinders, the drop will be much greater. You can determine the location of the leak by compression tests.

Fuel Control System Troubles
All other systems in an engine must be functioning properly before you check the fuel control system as a cause for poor engine performance. If the pointer has a slow floating motion of 4 to 5 inches - you should check the fuel control.


Performing A Vacuum Gauge Test
Connect the vacuum gauge hose as close to the intake manifold as possible and start engine. Run engine until normal operating temperature has been reached and then allow to idle.
 
NOTE: Vacuum readings will vary according to the altitude in different localities. From sea level to 2,000 feet elevation all normal engines should show a vacuum reading between 17 to 21 inches. Above 2,000 feet elevation the vacuum reading will be about one (1) inch lower per each 1,000 feet rise in elevation.

CHART OF VACUUM READINGS

Engine Speed Reading Indication of Engine Condition
Smooth and steady idle (800 to 1200 RPM) Between 17 to 21 inches Engine is in Good Condition, but perform next test to be sure.

Open and close throttle quickly Jumps from 2 to about 25 inches Engine is in Good Condition.

Smooth and steady idle Steady, but lower than normal reading Worn rings, but perform next test to be sure.

Open and close throttle quickly Jumps from 0 to 22 inches Confirms worn rings.

Steady idle Intermittent dropping back 3 or 5 divisions and returns to normal Sticky Valves. If injection of penetrating oil into intake manifold temporarily stops pointer from dropping back, it's certain the valves are sticking.

Steady 3000 RPM Pointer fluctuates rapidly, faster engine speed causes more pointer swing Weak valve springs.

Steady idle Fast fluctuation between 14 to 19 points Worn intake valve stem guides. Excessive pointer vibration at all speeds indicates a leaky head gasket.

Steady idle Constant drop Burnt valve or insufficient tappet clearance holding valve partly open or a spark plug occasionally miss firing.

Steady idle Steady 8 to 14 inches Incorrect valve timing. It must also be remembered that vacuum leaks and/or poor compression can result in a low vacuum reading.

Steady idle Steady 14 to 16 inches Incorrect ignition timing.

Steady idle Drifting from 14 to 16 inches Plug gaps too close or points not synchronized..

Steady idle Drifting 5 to 19 inches Compression leak between cylinders.

Steady idle Steady below 5 inches Leaky manifold or carburettor gasket, or stuck manifold heat control valve.

Steady idle Floats slowly between 12 and 16 inches Carburettor out of adjustment.

Blipping engine throttle speed Quick drop to zero then return to normal reading Muffler is clear.

Blipping engine throttle speed Slow drop of pointer then slow return to normal reading Muffler is choked or blocked.
 

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