There are really a lot of different reasons why people want to save money – and face it, in these difficult times, who doesn’t? I certainly count myself in that group! Service time is another of those dreaded annual expenses that make car owners cringe – even if you drive an old banger that’s paid for instead of a brand new car that’s owned by the bank and costs more than a house-payment to service at the agents!

In this article I talk about saving some money in perhaps one of the easiest ways you probably never thought about!

Spark plugs! Every internal (or infernal, depending on your experiences) combustion engined car has them – and every time you service your car, either by yourself (if like me you want to save money) or if you take it to the neighborhood garage-slash-workshop, they swap out these items for nice shiny new ones! Naturally, they don’t do this for free – spark plugs cost money, and their cost forms part of your service bill – and adds up over time.

Why do they do this instead of just cleaning them? Have you ever wondered? Well, because they’re “finished” they’ll say, smiling – when they’re really fine and perhaps just a little sooty, and at worst the electrodes are coated with carbon. Underneath all that, they’re still as good as new – but cleaning them takes time and effort on their part – and as we all know, “time is money”. Truth is, they’re only “finished” if their electrodes are burned away or excessively worn, if the ceramic housing is cracked or broken, or the circuit itself is broken (“dead plug”) or the thread is stripped so it doesn’t seal against the cylinder head port.

Modern engines have electronic ignition and engine management systems which, among other things, protect and lengthen the lifetimes of these normally throwaway items, so there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t be able to just give them a clean and keep using them, is there?

Think about it: Your typical spark plug for a Citigolf, Beetle or Mazda 323 or similar costs around between R65 – R80 each, but let’s work on the lighter side for the purposes of this demonstration and stick to R65 each. Since most cars have 4-cylinder engines, they need 4 of these items – and that alone costs you say, R260.00 of your service bill. That’s not too much, is it? You might wonder what you could do with R260 bucks, especially at the very end of a dry month. The answer is, still quite a bit, isn’t it?

If you insist on it, your workshop will return the old plugs to you when you collect your car… in a plastic shopping bag – and there are various reasons you might do this: from seeing proof that they did change your plugs, to keeping the old ones for spares, or to use in arts and crafts etc. I know some people who did that in the past to see how honest their garages were – in fact, many old-school garages used to insist on doing this anyway as a matter of principle. My elderly aunts and uncles were oftimes the proud recipents of a plastic bag containing dirty spark plugs, old oil/air/fuel filters and even brake shoes when they collected their cars from the local garage!

So… you hold a dirty spark plug and turn it over and over in your hands, wondering what’s wrong with it, and why it had to be replaced? Why can’t it just be cleaned and used some more? Why not indeed?

I’m sure there are many convinving reasons a car manufacturer or service agent could come up with why a seemingly good sparkplug that still works fine needs to be replaced every time you take your car for a service… just as they shamelessly justify service plans for new cars at the agents that often cost more than a running second-hand car just for a service – but I honestly can’t think of any. It’s a car – not a space shuttle!

That aside, yes, they are dirty – and if the dirt builds up enough, it will interfere with the sparking ability of the plugs and impairs their function – which allows them to collect more carbon and build-up, making them dirtier, which means you end up using slightly more fuel, making the engine less efficient. If it gets bad enough, the engine begins to misfire, and speaking as someone who’s had to drive a car home on two cylinders due to fouled up spark plugs caused by worn piston rings, I know what it’s like!

My old beetle for example, is an old car – it will be 58 years old next year. Naturally there is a bit of wear on the engine – and being a 1200cc engine, it’s also extremely picky about which spark plugs it uses. Any plug I put into it beside the original factory-specified make and model spark plug only lasts me about three weeks before the engine begins to splutter, becomes underpowered and eventually, won’t even start! In 2015, when I got the car and before I realized the problem was the incorrect spark plugs, I bought at least four sets of new aftermarket spark plugs (which were listed as useable on that model car, but burned at the wrong temperature) and changed them out every three weeks! Anyway, at the end of 2015, I wound up holding a bagful or soot and oil-covered plugs, counting the cost, and pondering whether I could clean these things to reuse them rather than just buy another set?

It’s worth mentioning that just because a spark plug fits into the holes in your car engine, it doesn’t mean it’s designed to work on your engine! Spark plugs may even look alike, but are rated at different operating temperatures – too hot OR too cold, and they cause problems! Well, I was gob-smacked! No wonder those plugs were so badly fouled! In 2015 I’d changed the plugs so frequently that I began to wonder if the engine was on its way out and would need a rebuild… The correct plugs solved that problem. Anyone who’s had to change plug on a bug engine will know my pain!

Thing is, nobody seems to tell you you can clean your spark plugs – and in most cases, I find, they can be cleaned back to almost new condition. To my mind, this is all part of the consumerist throw-away-society mindset. It’s easier to just buy a new one and throw the old one away – yes, it’s easier – but expensive and wasteful.

When I eventually figured out the problem with the beetle and sourced the extremely elusive Bosch original specified items, I bought two sets – put one in the car, and kept the other in the toolbox in the trunk for emergencies. The correct plugs last a lot longer between cleans than the incorrect ones, lemme tell ya! It might interest you that I haven’t had to buy new plugs since 2016 – for the bug, or for my citi golf. Let’s do a quick sum here to work out what that means.

Two cars in my case adds up to eight plugs – that’s R520 (at R65 each) if I’d serviced both cars in one year – and if I’d repeated that for the last four years, it would’ve cost me around R2080 just for new plugs – which probably didn’t even need to be replaced! What a waste! Instead though, over the last four years, that’s roughly how much I saved! This is working on the conservative side, because I can bet you dollars to donuts the price has gone up a bit every year since 2016, meaning it would be more than that now!

The goal in my view, is to have two sets of good plugs – one installed in the car, and one clean and ready in the garage at home (or in your toolbox in the boot). When the time comes – old cars will let you know when they begin to miss or splutter or become underpowered, or you can just do it once a year come service-time – you swap out the plugs and then clean the dirty ones at your leisure and put them aside for when needed again.

Let me tell you how I reached my conclusions – there are a few ways to clean spark plugs. In the course of my research, I tried two methods.

The first method I followed was to burn them clean – that’s right – with a gas torch, and then wire-brushing them until they’re free of any build-up. The conventional wisdom about this method (according to various YouTube video fundis) says you should apply the flame until all the build-up glows red and then turns gray and begins to fall off on its own, and then you can brush off the rest – a sort of fine flaky gray ash, using a hand-held wire brush. The end result – about ten or fifteen minutes, and maybe one or two light burns later – is a shiny, smooth, fairly clean plug. Courage, you still have another three to do. *Sighs*

Yes it does work, but I found this method slow, messy and labor-intensive. Basically, if you’re not doing the actual cleaning all the time you’re cleaning them, they remain dirty. Thus, the task requires your full attention for the duration of the job. There’s also a distinct risk of injury – you’re working with a very hot flame that can cause grievous injury after all – so it takes concentration and focus to avoid accidentally sustaining burns – and face it, it can happen! There had to be an easier, safer way – and there is! Chemistry! And a little common sense!

I advise against the gas torch cleaning method, especially if you’re not confident in using fire tools like gas torches! Besides, I look better with eyebrows, and I’m sure you – like me – have better things to spend that much of your time on!

I had much better results with chemistry – it was less trouble, less time and attention-consuming, and it’s easy-peasy. You need four small shot-glasses for this task – or one per plug – with just enough space inside it to hold the electrode end of the plug and a bit of fluid at the bottom.

Without even touching the plugs with a wire-brush yet, I poured a little brown vinegar into the glasses – just enough to cover the threads. Then I added a small amount of bicarbonate of soda powder – just about a pinch – to the fluid before inserted the plug into the vinegar at the bottom of the shot glass. I left the plugs in a quiet undisturbed spot overnight for the chemical reaction to do its thing. The next day when I got home from work, all it took was a little light wirebrushing to completely remove the grime and a little drying with an old rag! I was surprised at how clean they turned out!

This is simplicity itself – all you need to do is pop them into the glasses with the fluid mix, leave them overnight, and the next day give them a quick brushing and lubrication! Remember, you’ve already fitted the clean plugs to your car as you took out the dirty ones, so you didn’t need to wait for them to dry before using your car!

You’ll see in the pictures below how nice they look! Spray them lightly with Q20 to safeguard against rust while they wait for their next shift, and you’re good to go!

Remember to check your plugs between changes for the correct electrode gap (consult your car-care manual for instructions), and for excessive wear – cleaning them can’t fix physical damage!

If you’re lucky, you might never need to buy spark plugs again – think of all the money you could save! 🙂

That’s all for this time, have a D.I.Y. day!

Pictures included – enjoy!

Cheers!


If you’d like to send Christina Engela a question about anything on this site, or her life as a writer or transactivist, please send an email to christinaengela@gmail.com or use the Contact form on her author website.

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