When diagnosing an ignition problem, the first thing to note is that the ignition fault codes in your Powertrain Control Module (PCM) are not related to the ignition key.
These fault codes are related to the air and fuel mixture inside your engine not combusting properly.
Ignition diagnostic trouble codes and what they mean
Ignition means the spark in the cylinder, which is applied at a specific time to create combustion.
Diagnostic trouble codes are based on numbers assigned to each system of the car, which means P0300-P0399 are the ignition-related codes.
Cylinder misfire trouble codes
These trouble codes are easy for first-time do-it-yourselfers to read and make sense of. For instance, a P0300 refers to a random cylinder misfire, meaning multiple cylinders are having an issue that could be related to the ignition. A misfire is the improper firing of the spark/fuel/air in a cylinder.
P0301-P0312 are the individual cylinders having problems that would be read as 301—cylinder one, 302—cylinder two, etc.
Camshaft and crankshaft trouble codes
Some other examples of ignition codes include the camshaft sensor, which reads the timing marks on a camshaft gear to ensure proper timing.
In relation to the camshaft, the crankshaft also reads just the same via a reluctor wheel on the crankshaft by counting revolutions. These codes would typically appear as P0340 for camshaft sensor malfunction, or P0335 for a crankshaft reading incorrectly.
Ignition coil trouble codes
Diagnosing ignition trouble codes
Use a reliable OBD2 scan tool to diagnose and troubleshoot
Higher-end scan tool benefits for diagnosing ignition codes
You rarely need an expensive OBD2 scan tool to diagnose an ignition issue—an inexpensive one will do just fine.
While most scan tools will tell you the (P0300-P0399) ignition fault codes, some will also have a misfire counter, which shows you the misfiring cylinders in real-time. This feature can be very helpful when diagnosing an engine with ignition problems because it will narrow down the problem part fast.
Using a simpler scan tool will still allow you to narrow down the issue to a specific cylinder, you may just need to take the car for a few quick additional test drives to narrow the problem down to a precise part.
How to diagnose a failing ignition coil
This example is the easiest way to diagnose a failed ignition coil: If you have a code P0302 showing cylinder 2 is a misfire or code P0352, you can swap the ignition coil with the cylinder next to it and clear the codes with a scan tool. Start the engine and monitor that cylinder to see if the misfire code has moved to that cylinder, or if it’s still cylinder 2.
How to diagnose a misfire
To understand how the cylinders could be affected by the ignition failure, you must first understand how the cylinders are laid out in the engine.
Typically, cylinder 1 is the forward most cylinder to the harmonic balancer or timing components.
In an inline engine, the cylinders will read, “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-,” etc.
In a V-series engine, they can be odds on one side and evens on the other, like in most GM vehicles, or in order from the right-back and then the front-back on the driver side.
The best way to find out your car’s cylinder layout is to look up “Firing Order” in your owner’s manual.
If you’re diagnosing a misfire, you’ll mostly be looking at external components, such as spark plugs, injectors, spark plug leads/wires, ignition coils, distributors, or caps when applicable, bad fuel or electrical parts, such as plugs or wiring, or an ignition module when applicable.
Is it safe to drive with an engine misfire?
The answer here is no. Whenever the engine isn’t firing properly, you run the risk of internal damage. If the engine is misfiring, you want it addressed immediately before the catalytic converter or internal engine components are damaged as a result.
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