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Point Type Ignition Systems


Point Type Ignition Systems

   I've gotten a few letters in the past few weeks asking me how to set up standard ignition points. It seems there are enough antique cars out there that still use them and need replacing from time to time. So I'm going to explain how they work and how to set them up. For you young guys who weren't around when points were in use, this will let you see all the fun you missed.

   All cars up until 1975 or so used this type of ignition system. After 1975 most cars went to Electronic Ignition systems. Basically electronic ignitions were "improved points." The principles were the same and it simplified the ignition system.

   The basic ignition system consists of the ignition coil, points, condenser, distributor and spark plugs. A ballast resistor may also be included in this system. When all of these parts are connected and working properly, we will get the spark the engine needs to run. Now, what are these parts and what so they do?

The Parts

   Ignition Coil: This is the part that makes high voltage, up to 40,000 volts, for the spark plugs from the low voltage that is supplied to it by the battery. The reason an ignition coil works lies in the physical properties of electrical current. When a current flows through a conductor it generates a magnetic field around the conductor. Conversely, when a conductor is moved through a magnetic field, a voltage will be induced in the conductor. The coil takes advantage of these principles of inductance by winding one coil over the top of another around an iron core. The changing voltage in the primary winding serves as the 'movement' needed to induce a voltage in the secondary winding. The voltage in either winding is proportional to the number of coils in the inductor; if there are more turns in the secondary, its induced voltage will be higher than the voltage in the primary.

   When the points close, current through the coil primary increases from zero to maximum in an exponential manner, rapidly at first, then slowing as the current reaches it's maximum value. At low engine speeds, the points are closed long enough to allow the current to reach a higher current level. At higher speeds, the points open before the current has time to reach this maximum level. In fact, at very high speeds, the current may not reach a level high enough to provide sufficient spark, and the engine will begin to miss. This current through the coil builds a magnetic field around the coil. When the points open, the current through the coil is disrupted, and the field collapses. The collapsing field tries to maintain the current through the coil. Without the Condenser, the voltage will rise to a very high value at the points, and arcing will occur.

   Points: Ignition points are a set of electrical contacts that switch the coil on and off at the proper time. The points are opened and closed by the mechanical action of the distributor shaft lobes pushing on them. The points have a tough job, switching up to eight amps of current many times per second at highway speed. Indeed, as engine speed increases the efficiency of your ignition system decreases, thanks to heating problems and fundamental electrical laws. This declining efficiency has a serious effect on your spark voltage and results in poor high-speed performance, incomplete combustion and other drivability problems.

   Condenser: Those same principles of inductance create a kind of paradox, because when the points open and the magnetic field collapses it also induces a current in the primary as well. It's not very much because there are only a few windings in the primary, but it's enough to jump a small air-gap, such as the one between the just-opening points in the distributor. That tiny spark is enough to erode metal away from the points and you'll 'burn' the points. It prevents the points from arcing and prevents coil insulation breakdown by limiting the rate of voltage rise at the points.

   Ballast Resistor: This is an electrical resistor that is switched in and out of the supply voltage to the ignition coil. The ballast resistor lowers voltage after the engine is started to reduce wear on ignition components. It also makes the engine much easier to start by effectively doubling the voltage provided to the ignition coil when the engine is being cranked. Not all car manufacturers used a ballast resistor in their ignition systems So you should check to see if yours does.

   Copyright © 2001 - 2003 Vincent T. Ciulla All Rights Reserved

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