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How to Quit Noise Lifters

by Tom Price

As the miles pile upon a vehicle, parts start wearing out or requiring adjustment. The valve train is no exception; even the advent of hydraulic lifters has failed to eradicate the potential for valve train noises --- more commonly known as "tappet noises." Several possible causes exist for tappet noise, including improperly adjusted valves, worn rocker arms, bent push rods, worn valve guides and loose rocker arm studs. If the inspection of all these parts fails, the problem likely lies in the lifters. Before partially tearing down the engine and replacing lifters, take a few other steps to quiet noisy lifters.

Start the engine, let it warm up to operating temperature and then shut it off. Remove the engine oil dipstick. Wipe the dipstick off with a rag, then reinsert it all the way into the dipstick tube and pull it out again.

Inspect the oil level while the dipstick is out to ensure the engine doesn't contain an excessive amount of oil. Too much oil will cause the camshaft to churn in the oil, causing air bubbles in the system. If air bubbles enter the hydraulic lifters, the lifter will lack sufficient hydraulic pressure, causing it to make noise.

Inspect the oil on the dipstick for dirt, sludge, solid contaminants or excessive carbon content, noted by a blackening of the oil. Sludge in the oil pan will prevent the oil pickup tube inside the oil pan from the picking up the proper amount of oil to lubricate the engine. Change the oil and filter if necessary. Add one bottle of a penetrating oil product that breaks down sludge in the engine oil pan and the oiling system, including the oil journals. Lack of lubrication can cause lifter noise.

Remove the valve cover with whichever tools are necessary if you find no contaminants found in the engine oil. Start the engine.

Hold one end of a 2-foot length of heater hose against either ear while moving the other end of the hose from rocker arm to rocker arm, listening for tappet noises. Make note of the noisy rocker arms.

Adjust the valves to factory specifications. If the valves are out of adjustment, the lifters will make noise.

Loosen the rocker arm nut, and slide the rocker arm to the side if adjusting the valves does quiet the noisy lifters. Inspect the push rods to ensure that they are straight and not clogged with sludge. Replace any bent or clogged push rods, and adjust the valves again.

Remove the noisy lifters from the lifter bores in the engine, following the procedures laid out in the engine manufacturer's shop manual, if you find no defective push rods. Inspect them for external wear, and perform a leak down test on noisy lifters that do not show excessive wear (see the Tips section for details). Replace any lifters that show excessive external wear or fail a leak down test.

Disassemble the noisy lifters if they pass a leak down test: Compress the piston into the lifter, removing the snap ring that contains the piston inside the lifter with snap ring pliers and slowly releasing the spring pressure on the piston.

Remove the piston, spring and check ball from inside the lifter. Inspect the parts for excessive wear or breakage. Replace any defective lifters.

Tips

  • Since different manufacturers use different engine designs and repair techniques, the tools required to perform various diagnostic repair operations will vary from engine to engine.
  • A leak down test measures the rate at which oil is leaking out of the oiling hole in the lifter body. If oil is leaking from the lifter's lubrication hole too quickly, the hydraulic pressure inside the lifter is low and will cause noisy lifters. Perform the leak down tests as prescribed by the manufacturer of the testing equipment, following the leak down specifications in the engine manufacturer's shop manual.
  • Excessive scoring on the sides of the lifter body indicates a lack of lubrication, which may require you to perform a thorough cleaning on the engine block by immersing it in engine cleaning solvent to loosen sludge you cannot detect visually and blowing out all the oiling holes in the block with compressed air.
  • If the pickup in the bottom of the oil pan is not picking up enough oil and circulating it throughout the engine, the engine oil level inside the pan will remain high, possibly causing the camshaft to churn the oil and create air bubbles. If so, you may need to tear down and thoroughly clean the engine to remove any sludge from the parts in the engine oil journals.
  • If none of these steps works, problem man not lie in the lifters but rather in a flat spot on the cam lobe or a bad cam bearing.

Items you will need

About the Author

Tom Price began writing in 1989 after earning his master's degree in English at the University of Notre Dame. He has served in positions ranging from features writer to the managing editor of the "Daily Herald." Before college, Price was a GM factory trained tech and owner/operator/truck-driving instructor. He is also a private pilot as well as a lifelong expert boater and woodworker.

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