Lowering the compression ratio

"Feeling under pressure?"

The compression ratio in short is the amount of air that an engine can squish ready for the bang phase of combustion. A 9:1 compression ratio simply means that 9 units of air will be compressed into the space of just 1 unit. 

The compression ratio has a dramatic effect on an engines performance and the problem of knock, (where the air fuel mix prematurely ignites) is controlled to a large degree by the compression ratio. Using higher octane fuel will also minimise the issues here as will adding water injection, but the real solution is simply to reduce the compression ratio.

To calculate your compression ratio you simply divide the swept volume (which will not change unless the engine is bored out and/or the crankshaft is replaced with one of longer throw) into the combustion chamber volume. Compression ratio is worked out by dividing the volume above the piston when it is at TDC into the volume above the piston when it is at BDC.

If you are looking to supercharge (adding a turbo, supercharger or air compressor) an engine then you will find you are limited in the amount of boost you can add by the compression ratio. (* see note below)

The lower your compression ratio the bigger margin of error you have to play with which makes tuning much easier. If you have a high compression ratio there is not much margin for error and detonation and knock are real problems.

We look at the best ways of lowering an engines compression ratio.

While you are reducing the compression ratio it would make sense to strengthen the internal engine parts.

This makes even more sense if you using forced induction to increase the power of your engine.

A handy formula to keep in mind is:-
CR=(swept volume+combustion chamber volume at TDC)/combustion chamber volume at TDC

*Don't make the mistake of thinking that compression ratios determine the maximum boost you can safely run. This is only a small part of the equation. The critical thing is your fuelling, the fuel air mixture, and ignition timing are the key ingredients here. A lower compression ratio will give you more of a margin for error and in the main allows you to run higher boost than you could otherwise. We have heard of some engines running 15psi or more boost on a 10:1 compression ratio, and these usually have a fairly sophisticated engine management and fuel delivery system.

A few notes when working out your final compression ratio. When you replace the head on your engine it will typically have needed to be skimmed and this increases the compression ratio, so will need to be taken into account with your calculations. The thickness of a new gasket will also be slightly more than it will be when the head is torqued down onto it, so take a gasket thickness measurement from the old gasket.

Methods of reducing the compression ratio

Low compression pistons. This seems to be the way to go. The pistons are much shorter than conventional ones. A small plus is that they are also often lighter so the engine will rev a little more freely. We would recommend combining low compression pistons with a shorter stroke to get the most benefit. The shape of the piston crown will also have a bearing on the amount of compression that takes place in the engine. This will require a strip down of the engine and whilst the engine is apart you may just as well perform some of the other mods listed below.

Shorter rods & reducing the stroke. A shorter stroke will have a dramatic effect on the compression ratio. By combining this method with low compression pistons one can start to think about running very high boost pressures when adding a turbo. The crank will also have some impact on the throw of the engine and the crank, piston crowns and rods should ideally all be matched up.

Head work, again increases the volume of the cylinder but the effectiveness depends a lot on how the intake and exhaust valves are sited, and how much space there is for you to work with. Removing the head is relatively simple and does not require as much effort as other compression lowering mods, but it requires great skill to do a proper job on the head and achieve the lower compression ratio you are seeking.

Thicker head gaskets. This option is a bit of a bodge, but we should mention it as a lot of people do run thicker gaskets to achieve a lower compression ratio. We have also seen people using 2 gaskets (or more) to achieve a lower compression ratio! Using multiple gaskets is certainly not recommended and introduces a major weak spot in an engine. A thicker gasket will reduce the compression ratio by a small fraction, probably only by .1 or .2. This is by far the easiest method of reducing compression but the risk is gasket failure and the gains in lower compression are minimal.

Decompression plates are essentially an extension to the head and can be very effective at reducing the compression ratio. The block side needs a conventional gasket seal but the head side generally only requires a non setting high temperature sealant (in the case of aluminium decompression plates). Plates can be made of a variety of metals and we suggest you talk to a specialist about your options here. The decompression plates may fail prematurely in high boost applications where high temperatures are involved. Many view this as a good thing as replacing a decompression plate is a lot easier to do than replacing pistons and heads should they go, and in these extreme conditions this can be quite likely and the plate failure will have flagged up the potential problem for you.

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