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A back-fire or backfire is an explosion produced by a running internal combustion engine that occurs in the air intake or exhaust system rather than inside the combustion chamber. The same term is used when unburned fuel or hydrocarbons are ignited somewhere in the exhaust system. A visible flame may momentarily shoot out of the exhaust pipe. Either condition causes an objectionable popping noise, together with possible loss of power and forward motion. A backfire is a separate phenomenon from the fire produced by Top Fuel dragsters.
The term was derived from experiences with early unreliable firearms or ammunition, in which the explosive force was directed out at the breech instead of the muzzle. From this came the use of the word "backfire" as a verb to indicate something that produces an unintended, unexpected, and undesired result.
Backfire in an automobile engine typically results from various malfunctions related to the air to fuel ratio. Backfiring can occur in carbureted engines that are running lean where the air-fuel mixture has insufficient fuel and whenever the timing is too advanced. As the engine runs leaner or if there is less time for the fuel to burn in the combustion chamber, there is a tendency for incomplete combustion. The condition that causes this is a misfire. The result of a misfire or incomplete combustion is that unburned fuel or flammable hydrocarbons are delivered to the exhaust manifold where they may ignite unpredictably. Another backfire situation occurs when the engine is running rich (with excess fuel) and there is incomplete combustion during the Otto cycle, with similar results.
Popularly the term is used to describe a sharp report produced by almost any type of engine. However, among engine professionals, "afterfire" is the term used to describe ignition of fuel within the engine exhaust system and "backfire" is the term used to describe this same process taking place in the induction system, primarily in internal combustion engines. The separate terms are useful when troubleshooting running problems.
When starting an engine, timing that is too advanced will fire the spark plug before the intake valve is closed. The flame front will travel back in to the intake manifold, igniting all of that air and fuel as well. The resulting explosion then travels out of the carburetor and air cleaner. A common air filter will allow the gases to escape, but will block the flame front. On many small marine engines, no air filter is used, but a screen is placed over the intake of the carburetor as a flame arrestor to prevent these flames from escaping the intake, and potentially igniting fuel, or fuel vapors in the enclosed sump or bilge of the boat and causing a fire or explosion. Improperly adjusted carburetors that create a lean condition during acceleration can cause the air fuel mixture to burn so slowly, that combustion is still taking place during the exhaust stroke, and even when the intake valve opens. The flame front can then travel up the intake and cause a backfire. In this situation it is conceivable that there is a backfire occurring in the intake manifold and exhaust manifold simultaneously.
Exhaust system backfires occur in engines that have an emission system malfunction, like an air injection system diverter valve problem, an exhaust leak, or when the catalytic converter has been removed. In some high-performance vehicles, when a driver shifts up and lets off the accelerator, the engine has a moment of running rich. This causes an incomplete burn which causes the fumes to explode in the exhaust system along with an audible pop or bang sound. This is a result of working equipment, and is unlikely to cause damage.
A fuel-injected engine may backfire if an intake leak is present (causing the engine to run lean), or a fuel injection component such as an air-flow sensor is defective.
Common causes of backfires are:
With older engine designs, backfiring can be common or unavoidable. Backfire is rare in modern vehicles with fuel-injection and computer-controlled fuel mixtures.
Cars with sports exhausts (both factory-fitted and aftermarket) are much more likely to backfire. In some circumstances the backfire is seen as an additional perk of the car. The TVR Cerbera is an example of a car with factory-fitted sports exhausts which produce frequent backfires on engine braking.
In high-powered supercharged aircraft piston engines such as the Rolls-Royce Merlin and Griffon, backfiring into the inlet manifold is prevented with flame traps inside the manifold, the traps preventing the flame propagating into the compressed air/fuel mixture within the manifold.
Tanks and naval ships may use the injection of fuel or special "fog oil" into exhaust tract to create smoke screens. Rather than burning, the oil normally evaporates and re-condenses at a particular droplet size, but under abnormal conditions it may catch fire or even produce a fuel-air explosion.
Cars extensively modified for visual appearance and not road use (stunts, ads, movies etc.) may be fitted with gasoline injectors in their exhaust systems, or even with small flamethrowers separate from the exhaust.
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