Diagnosing Engine Noises can be the most difficult thing a mechanic can do. Misdiagnosis is the norm rather than the exception.

I almost laugh when people open up and say it's a "rod knock" for every noise from fuel pump rattle to rocker arm tap.

My personal favorite was a Chevette customer of mine who insisted he had a rod knock when in fact a bulge in one of his tires was hitting a shock absorber.

You might not have enough money to send your kid to college after you spend it fixing an audio illusion. On the other hand you may spend dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars replacing parts in an engine that is truly shot.

First thing you need to do is spend 20 bucks for a cheap stethoscope at the auto parts store or if you are going to do this a lot get the electronic ones from Steelman for about $160.

But, possessing human nature, you will convince yourself that a hose stuck in your uneducated ear will do just as well. No sense in arguing with you that the whole idea is to be able to discern infinitesimal changes in direction and intensity that require the use of two somewhat experienced ears AND the right tools.

So stick your dumb ol' hose in your stupid ol' ear and we'll start with some clues.

Remember that diagnosis of engine noises is nothing more than splitting possibilities down to only one

First off, eliminate all of the accessories like the alternator, power steering pump, A. C. compressor and vacuum pump by removing the belts one at a time. If the noise is gone, of course the problem is a belt driven accessory. If the naughty noise is still there you should be able to hear it more clearly by not having the accessories whirring away.

If the engine has a carburetor instead of fuel injection it probably has a mechanical fuel pump mounted to the engine. Before the engine gets too hot, put your hand on it. If it is making a noise you should be able to feel it.

Ticky tappy knocky clacky clicky nicky rap tap

Try to track the noise down with the stethoscope tip or the end of the hose suckered onto the engine surface, sealing the end. Spend a full ten minutes putting the hose all over the engine, not just where it is loudest. Try to envision the parts moving inside the engine. You are training your ear, not just listening, so don't get in a big rush except to be sure that the engine doesn't overheat. A trained ear can tell you which piston is slapping or which rocker arm is clacking from outside the engine so if you come out from under the car proudly saying, "it's the bottom end" get your dumb-ass back under there until you can tell me it's coming from the oil pump or the 3rd piston back on the driver's side or the flywheel or the camshaft.

Rod knocks are loudest at higher speeds (over 2500 RPM) Feathering the gas pedal may result in a distinctive back rattle between 2500 and 3500 RPMs.

Bad rod knocks may double knock if enough rod bearing material has been worn away allowing the piston to whack the cylinder head in addition to the big end of the connecting rod banging on the crankshaft rod journal. It will sound like a hard metallic knock (rod) with an alternating and somewhat muffled aluminum (piston) klock sound.

Wrist pin knock in modern engines is very rare today but is a favorite for the misdiagnosticians.

Determining which cylinder contains the noisy parts may be aided by shorting out the plug wires one by one with a common low voltage test light. Now you won't get the bulb to light up but it is a convenient way to short the cylinders without getting zapped or damaging the ignition coil.

Attach the alligator clip to a convenient ground, away from fuel system components, and pierce the wire boots at the coilpack  or distributor end of the wire.

If the noise is changed when the plug wire is shorted to ground, you can figure that the problem is in the reciprocating bottom end parts. (piston, wrist pin, connecting rod or connecting rod bearing)

The reason the sound changes is that when you short the cylinder plug wire you are stopping the combustion chamber explosions that are slamming the piston downward making the inside of the big end of the connecting rod bang against it's connecting rod journal. Or in the case of piston slap, no explosion changes how the piston is shoved hard sideways against the cylinder wall.

If you get a change in the sound when you short a cylinder out it may become moot as to what the problem is because the oil pan and cylinder head must be removed to correct the problem. [Generally speaking, an engine with damage to reciprocating parts (pistons, rings, connecting rods, wrist pins or rod bearings) and more than 70 thousand miles is not cost effective or risk free enough to attempt to repair. Replacing a crankshaft, for example while the rest of the engine has 70k perfectly maintained miles on it is risky enough but whatever killed the crank has scored the rings and packed the lifters with debris and smoked the piston pin bosses etc.]

If the sound doesn't change, look at parts other than the reciprocating ones. In many cases of rod-knock or piston slap, more than one is banging so even if you eliminate the noise from one rod the other one will still be a-banging away with a different, more singular tone.

Click to go to Engine Noise Diagnosis 102

4. Engine Noise Diagnosis 101




If you would like to learn a little bit about the internal combustion engine, go to


Diagnose Noises

with a timing light?

Valve train noises occur at half of crankshaft speed so even if your ear can't tell whether the noise is happening at 700 rpm (raps per minute) or only 350 rpm, your eyes can. Hook the timing light to any one cylinder and watch the flash illuminate the timing mark. Stare at it for a while and see if the flash jives with the knock. If it does, then it is more likely to be rocker arms, pushrods, lifters, camshaft, cam bearings, timing chain and gears. If the noise seems twice as fast it is probably in the crank, mains, rods, rod bearings, wristpins and pistons.

Engines problems, engine diagnosis, engine repair, engine repairs, rod knocks, lifter ticks, valve train noises, piston slap, engine smoking, oil consumption, engine noises, sound diagnosis

"stick your dumb ol' hose in your stupid ol' ear and we'll start with some clues.."

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