Dealing with Stuck Valves

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If your engine seems rough when first started, it might be giving you an early warning of a stuck valve. Failure to heed this warning and correct the situation promptly could cost you an engine teardown, or even result in a catastrophic engine failure and a forced landing. Here's the lowdown on why valves stick and what to do about it.

Each cylinder of your piston aircraft engine has two valves—intake and exhaust—that open and close by sliding in and out through a close-tolerance valve guide. A stuck valve is one that no longer slides readily in its guide. A stuck valve may refuse to open, or once open it may refuse to close. Either situation is quite serious.

Stuck valves are usually caused by a build-up of deposits and/or corrosion on the valve stem. Because the fit of the stem in the guide is so snug, it doesn't take much build-up on the valve stem to interfere with free movement of the valve within the guide.

"Morning sickness"

The clearance between the valve stem and its valve guide are at a minimum when the engine is cold. Consequently, the first sign of a stuck valve usually occurs when the engine is first started, and is often identified by an intermittent hesitation, or miss, in engine speed. We call this "morning sickness".

Morning sickness is a warning that should be heeded immediately. Sticky valves never get better by themselves...they always get worse, usually fairly quickly. Flying an airplane whose engine exhibits morning sickness increases the risk of serious engine damage and possibly in-flight engine failure. Hence, the aircraft should be downed for maintenance at the first hint of valve sticking.

What makes valves stick?

Valve sticking is influenced both by the design of the engine and the environment in which it is operated. Lycomings have more valve sticking problem than Continentals. Hot-running engines stick valves more often than cool-running ones. Valves are more likely to stick in hot summer weather than in cold winter months. The use of heavily-leaded fuels and inadequate leaning can lead to valve sticking, as can infrequent oil changes.

Heat is the primary cause of valve sticking. High temperatures in the exhaust valve guide oxidizes oil and forms carbon deposits on the valve guide, and these deposits can cause the valve to stick. The most frequent reason for elevated valve temperatures is valve leakage.

All of the combustion gas must pass around the valve face as it goes out the exhaust port. The large heat-absorbing surface of the exhaust valve face must conduct heat away from its surface. A valve that is not contacting its seat properly (i.e., is leaking) cannot conduct as much heat into the cylinder head as a valve with good seating.

Sticky Lycomings

Lycoming valve stems operate at higher temperatures than Continental valves stems. Continental engines use solid exhaust valves whereas Lycoming engines use sodium-cooled exhaust valves, which have hollow stems filled with metallic elemental sodium. The sodium in the Lycoming valve melts at 97.5°C and conducts heat from the valve head into the valve stem, where it is conducted through the valve guide into the cylinder head. The Lycoming valve stem normally operates 100°F hotter than the Continental valve stem. The higher valve stem temperatures in Lycomings make them more susceptible to valve sticking.

Most of the heat conducted from the head of the Lycoming exhaust valve goes out though the valve stem into the cylinder head fins. In addition, the Lycoming guide boss allows 5% of the guide to extend past the end of the boss and protrude into the exhaust port. The protruding guide absorbs heat from the flow of exhaust gas. Because of the high temperatures and combustion deposits on the exhaust valve stem, this area of the guide "bell mouths" or gets bigger. This increases the clearance between the guide and the stem and allows combustion products and heat to travel up the valve stem. These combustion products create lead deposits and acids which increase the corrosive environment.

Lycoming valves also stick because of corrosion buildup on the valve stem. Corrosion increases the diameter of the valve , thereby reducing the valve stem-to-guide clearance. The high stem temperatures, combined with a design which allows more combustion products into the guide bore, create a corrosive environment which is seldom seen on Continental engines.

Lycoming TIO-541 engines installed in the Beechcraft Duke use an oil-cooled exhaust guide. Cooling oil circulates in a groove between the exhaust guide and the guide boss. If this groove cokes up with oxidized oil and becomes blocked, the exhaust guide and valve overheat and stick. If you have a stuck exhaust guide on this engine, be sure to check the oil passage by blowing compressed air through the oil fitting in the cylinder head.

Continental engine design is more resistant to valve sticking. Big-bore Continentals rarely stick valves. We do see a tendency for intake valves to stick on Continental engines in the O-200, O-300 series. A stuck intake valve disrupts the breathing of the entire induction system. The power loss results in a forced landing.

Engine operating environment

Environmental influences that create valve sticking are: high temperatures, dirty oil, high-lead fuels, hot engine shut-downs, and poor engine baffling. Improper leaning can also be a culprit: an engine that is run excessively rich will build up carbon, lead, and other combusion-related deposits on exhaust valve stems more quickly. On the other hand, an engine that is leaned excessively during high-power operation will experience high valve temperatures, and this contributes to valve sticking.

Engine overhaul shops can't do much to prevent valve sticking. They cannot change the engineering of the engine, and have little control over its operating environment. About all they can do is to use the correct parts (valves, guides, seats, rotators, etc.), to dimensionally match the parts carefully, and to control the surface finish of the guide by careful reaming and honing.

Your regular maintenance shop can influence the operating environment by checking the engine's health regularly (via compression checks, oil analysis, filter inspection, etc.), by making sure the cooling baffles are in good shape and the magneto timing is correct, and by changing the oil frequently.

What happens whan a valve sticks?

When an engine has a stuck valve, one of five things can happen, each of which is bad news:

  1. The pushrod bends.

  2. The surface of the camshaft or cam follower fails.

  3. The valve opens but won't close.

  4. The rocker support breaks.

  5. The valve rotator cap falls off the end of the valve stem. (Lycomings only.)

A valve that sticks closed will often result in serious and costly engine damage. Each time the cam-tappet-pushrod-rocker try to open that stuck valve, you risk catastrophic engine damage. With a stuck valve, the valve doesn't want to move. Tremendous valve train forces develop as the camshaft lobe tries to force the valve open. The camshaft follower and lobe are the most highly-stressed components of the engine even under normal conditions...the additional loading caused by a stuck valve may induce catastrophic failure of the rocker support, pushrod, cam follower, or cam lobe.

A damaged camshaft lobe requires complete engine removal and teardown. The same is true of a damaged cam follower if it is the mushroom-head variety used in many Lycoming engines.

Sometimes an exhaust valve that is stuck closed can cause the intake pushrod to bed or the intake rocker support boss to break. How can this happen? If the exhaust valve sticks closed, exhaust gases will not exit from the cylinder. Gas pressure within the cylinder then prevents the intake valve from opening. If this happens, something's gotta give. Either the pushrod bends or the rocker support breaks.

You might think that a valve that sticks open is a much less serious situation, but that's not necessarily so. If the valve is an intake valve, you lose power and will need to make a forced landing. If the valve is an exhaust valve, there will not be any compression on that cylinder.

In either case, if the valve spring can't close the valve, the entire valve train (cam follower, pushrod, and rocker arm) unloads. The end of the pushrod that rests in the socket in the cam follower may come out of the socket and fling around inside the tappet boss. If the pushrod ball does not locate itself back into the socket when the cam lobe comes around, it may jam against the tappet housing, usually causing crankcase damage.

The valve rotator cap on Lycoming engines is kept on the tip of the exhaust valve stem by the rocker arm. If the valve sticks open, the rocker may move far enough away to allow the rotator cap to fall off the valve stem tip. When this happens, not only is valve clearance excessive, but also the rocker face pounds into the spring seat. The rotator cap is too big to fall down the pushrod tubes. It just lays in the rocker box until you take the rocker box off. It then quietly falls unnoticed onto the hangar floor. If you notice a missing rotator cap, it is likely that the exhaust valve was stuck open in the past. Look in the rocker box or around the hangar floor and you might find it.

Engine damage does not always occur when the valve sticks, but the longer the engine operates in this condition, the greater the chances are that some damage will occur.

Remedial action

Repairing a stuck valve can be done without removing the cylinder from the engine. The procedure is described in Lycoming Service Instruction 1425 and consists of dropping the valve into the combustion chamber, reaming the guide, and then reinstalling the valve.

Another method is to tie dental floss to the end of the exhaust valve and lower it down into the cylinder. Ream the guide and then pull the valve back up into the guide.

If it's necessary to remove the cylinder, we recommend you inspect the condition of the camshaft lobes and the cam follower. You may want to review the operating environment of the engine. Pay particular attention to the oil change intervals, baffle condition, and operating techniques.

The procedure outlined in Lycoming Service Instruction 1425 and described here can also be used on Continental engines.

Do not use Marvel Mystery Oil or other solvents to un-stick a valve. Solvents may un-stick the valve in time but not immediately. Eventually the valve may un-stick, but not before your camshaft lobes have been damaged.

Solvent treatments dissolve the outer deposit layers in the guide boss and temporarily un-stick the valve. The remaining deposits push the valve over to the opposite side of the guide and cause rapid, uneven guide wear. The valve stem may stick or it may cause rapid guide wear where the stem is forced against the guide material opposite of the deposit buildup.