So, you have some black smoke billowing out of your exhaust. Otherwise known as “rolling coal”. Nothing more fun to a diesel guy than seeing a Prius with the windows down and blowing a bunch of black smoke that way. Diesel engines are known for blowing black smoke during acceleration but, is that bad? Is it a sign of trouble? What causes black smoke? Let’s answer those questions and more.
What does Black smoke from a diesel engine mean?
When you see black smoke billowing out of a diesel engine, it’s a sign that not all of the fuel is being burned properly. Normally, diesel engines are designed to completely burn the fuel, which results in the emission of water vapor and carbon dioxide. Black smoke, on the other hand, indicates an issue with the air-to-fuel mixture, which causes only partial combustion. This can be caused by various factors, including a dirty air filter, low engine operating temperature, or excessive fuel being added. In any case, it’s important to address the issue promptly to ensure your diesel engine runs smoothly and efficiently
Whether or not is bad for your engine depends on what the cause of the black smoke is. A little black smoke is normal on a properly functioning diesel engine, but if the number of smoke changes at different RPMs and loads you have an issue. Here are the things it could be and then we will go into what to look for and the steps to diagnose the problem…
Causes of black smoke (In no particular order)
- Incorrect timing
- Dirty, worn or malfunctioning injectors
- Faulty turbocharger
- Incorrect valve clearance
- Incorrect air/fuel ratio
- Low cylinder compression
- Dirty air cleaner
- Restricted induction system
- Carbon in intake manifolds
- Incorrect engine tune
- Poor quality fuel
- Excessive carbon builds up in the combustion chamber
- Cool operating temperatures
Let’s start as always with the most likely problems first 🕵️
There is a delicate mixture of air and fuel that needs to be achieved in order to have a clean burn from your diesel engine. When you are having black smoke, the balance has not happened. Air restriction is the most common cause of black smoke. So, where is the restriction?
1. Air filter
First, you’ll want to check the air filter and make sure it’s not dirty or clogged. If it is, replacing it with a clean one will help improve the airflow to the engine and reduce black smoke. If the air filter looks fine, the next step is to check the injectors. Over time, diesel fuel can leave deposits on the injectors, causing them to clog and reduce the amount of fuel that’s burned in the combustion chamber. Cleaning or replacing the injectors can often solve the problem of black smoke.
How dirty is it? When is the last time you opened it up and looked at it? Sometimes there is what is called a “air minder”.It is an indicator for your air filter and should be changed when it reaches a specified mark. That could be it! and a majority of the time this is the problem.
2. Inlet restriction
Check your inlet piping. Is one collapsed? Look for anything abnormal in the housing. Run the engine while you are looking at a weak hose that may suck together when operating. What about that missing shop rag 🧐? Anyway, you get the idea. Look for obstructions to air freely flowing into the engine intake.
3. Leaks or damage around or in the turbocharger
Look at all the piping around the turbocharger and intercooler. Listen when the engine is under a load and sometimes it will squeal and let you know that there is a leak somewhere. Tighten all the connections. They can always use a little quarter turn. Listen for abnormal noise from the turbo itself. When you have the hose removed give the turbine and wiggle. It should have only a small amount of ‘play’.
4. Exhaust or DPF damaged
Inspect the entire exhaust and DPF system. Look for any crushed or damaged parts. Look at the muffler if it’s under the vehicle. It is easy to damage when you have a driver who likes running over things.
5. Sensor faults
Modern engines have control units that actively measure air mass and make appropriate adjustments. You could have a sensor giving bad information to the module.
Fuel or Tune
1. Poor Driving
You are going to see this in manual transmission vehicles. If the gear is too high for load and the driver attempts to just give it more fuel the engine will inject more diesel and there will not be enough air for the engine to burn the diesel fully. This doesn’t mean that the engine is malfunctioning; it just means that the driver needs training.
2. Bad Fuel
Check your fuel quality. Bad fuel can cause all sorts of issues. Be careful where you fuel up and pay attention as best as you can to the fuel you are putting in. It is no fun draining tanks. A great place to check fuel quality is to drain your fuel filter. Note: kerosene emits black smoke
3. Bad tune
Has your fancy tune betrayed you? You may just need to reset your tune if you are not intending to blackout everyone at every stoplight. Maybe you lost power and it reverted to an incorrect tune. Worth looking into if you are having issues.
Mechanical Issues (So much for the easy stuff)
1. Injector timing
It could be that your injector timing needs adjusting.
2. EGR issues
Look at the specific steps to inspect and test your EGR system. Make sure the EGR valve doesn’t need to be replaced.
3. Faulty injectors
Dirty, sticking, or leaking injectors. Common rail injectors stay open for too long giving the engine too much fuel. One thing you can do to determine this is to measure the temperature of the exhaust manifold at each cylinder. You are looking for cooler temperatures in certain cylinders to indicate the fuel is passing through unburnt.
4. Incorrect Valve Lash
This can happen when you have had damage to the top of the engine or a recent repair where the overhead was run. This can be indicated by a “rattle” 👂under the valve cover. It is easy enough to pop the cover off and have a look.
5. Cylinder problems
Worn or sticking rings can cause low cylinder compression, and excessive carbon built up in the combustion chamber can all be the cause. This can be indicated by excessive blow-by. Diesel engines are prone to this over time because they typically run for longer periods of time and diesel fuel doesn’t include any detergent from the refinery. This can be avoided by adding a detergent additive (Links to Amazon) to your diesel fuel on a regular basis.
6. Incorrect pistons
It’s on here because I have seen it first-hand. Continuous black smoke and just could not diagnose it. Turns out the company we bought a short block from had installed the incorrect pistons. Go figure.
Note: Some systems are intentionally set up with chips/programs to blow black smoke on demand. While this is not recommended it will not necessarily hurt any of your engine components and can be fun if that’s your thing.
Black smoke can be difficult to diagnose but, if you follow the signs and look at the simple things first you can get to your answer fairly quickly. As with any repair be careful to think about what’s going on before you act. The damages that can occur from the problems denoted by blue smoke can be catastrophic but, if you can catch it early you can likely avoid even more costly repairs. Have questions about white smoke or blue smoke? Click the links to read those articles.
See something I missed? Help me make it better, comment below. Thanks!
Does Black Smoke Cause poor fuel economy
Yes. If you are having black smoke as mentioned in this article, it is caused by a poor air/fuel mixture. Too much fuel or too much air will cause poor fuel economy. Your engine needs the right mixture in order to achieve a clean burn and produce the intended amount of power. If your blowing black smoke, it does not mean more power, it means more wasted fuel.
Black smoke from diesel engine when starting
If this is a modern engine you likely have an injector problem. On older engines, this can happen. On older or worn engines blow smoke when the turbo is still spooling up because the amount of air has to catch up to the amount of diesel being injected.
My diesel has random puffs of black smoke
I would say this is caused by turbocharger Lag. If you have a large turbocharger this can happen when there is an acceleration from a stop. Larger turbochargers take more time to “spool up”. While this is happening, the engine will be “rolling coal” waiting for the turbocharger to get up to speed. Fuel is injected into an engine that is turning at low RPM. It is possible to prevent this by adding a combustion catalyst to the fuel to improve the amount of that diesel burned at low RPM.
The Environmental Impact of Black Smoke
Diesel engines produce particulate matter (PM), which is a mixture of tiny particles that can have negative impacts on human health and the environment. Black smoke is a major source of PM, and it’s essential to reduce it to protect the air we breathe and the environment we live in.
How to Prevent Black Smoke
There are several steps you can take to reduce the amount of black smoke your diesel truck produces. Regular maintenance, such as changing the air filter and checking the injectors, is essential. Using high-quality diesel fuel can also help reduce deposits and improve combustion efficiency. Finally, make sure your diesel engine is tuned correctly and that the air/fuel mixture is balanced.