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Causes of Diesel Engine Oil Blow By

by Tony Oldhand

In a diesel engine, blow by is defined as the compressed fuel/air mixture in the combustion chamber leaking past the piston and entering the crankcase. Blow by is not good since it robs engine power and builds up gas pressure in the crankcase. There are reasons for blow by, and by understanding them, you can make the necessary adjustments.

Normal Blow By

Pistons.

All diesel engines have some degree of blow by. This is due to engineering. When metal heats up, it expands. Metals expand at different rates. When heated, aluminum expands faster than steel. Engineers have to compensate for the differences in temperature expansion. They do this by designing the aluminum piston slightly under size from the steel cylinder. If they designed the piston for a snug fit when the engine is cold, the piston would seize inside the cylinder when it heats up due to thermal expansion. An under-sized piston leads to blow by when the engine is cold. As the engine heats up, the piston expands, and blow by disappears under normal operation. This is considered typical cold engine blow by, and it is unavoidable.

Worn Cylinder Walls

Modern view of car engine.

As the diesel engine gets older, the cylinder walls wear out by constant piston and piston ring scraping. Over time, the cylinder bore becomes bigger by this constant scraping. The end effect is that "slop" or a gap is created between the piston and cylinder. The gap between the piston and the cylinder wall becomes significant; and as a result, compressed gases are free to go around the piston.

Worn Pistons

Worn piston on a car.

Worn pistons cause blow by. Just as the cylinder walls wear out and the bore becomes bigger, the piston becomes worn and becomes slightly smaller. Bear in mind that aluminum is a soft metal, and grit accumulation in the combustion chamber carves grooves into the piston. These grooves are an ideal place for the compressed fuel/air mixture to escape into the crankcase.

Worn Rings

Worn piston ring.

Researchers at the Helsinki University of Technology ran extensive studies of piston rings and concluded that worn rings are a source of blow by. What happens is the constant scraping of rings back and forth in the cylinder eventually wears them down, and their sealing capabilities fail. Blow by happens in front of the ring, but the gases also "sneak" around the backside of the ring when the sidewalls become worn.

About the Author

Tony Oldhand has been technical writing since 1995. He has worked in the skilled trades and diversified into Human Services in 1998, working with the developmentally disabled. He is also heavily involved in auto restoration and in the do-it-yourself sector of craftsman trades. Oldhand has an associate degree in electronics and has studied management at the State University of New York.

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