Heavy sputter after new distributor


alp

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Hello! I've owned a 1988 Ranger XLT RWD 2.9L Automatic for about a year and a half now, it's always had a tiny bit of a shake at idle, but after one incident a couple months ago I've had no luck solving this issue. What happened was, I was driving to a shop that my friend worked at after hours to check out some underbody stuff on the lift, and on the way there the truck died on the highway, lost spark. I didn't have AAA at the time (I sure as hell do now) and my friend's boss would only let him tow me in if I agreed to let their techs work on it (he was an oil/tire/alignment guy, no heavy diag stuff) and their guy diagnosed it as a bad ignition module AND distributor.

They changed that, which didn't work, but told me that the parts they got were bad, and they had to put on another dizzy/TFI module. After that, on initial startup the truck would sputter heavily, rocking the whole truck back and forth for about 15-30 seconds before getting it's shit together. They brushed it off saying 'it just needs a tune up', well it had a brand new dizzy(including cap & rotor) so I did the plugs & wires to no avail. (Incidentally, the truck also stopped shifting into O/D and wasn't locking the torque converter clutch, but turns out they just managed to unplug the transmission somehow :unsure:) First and last time at a shop for me..

The sputter is much worse in cold weather or humid weather, and strangely is also much worse when any other relatively high amp draw accessory is used (head lights, reverse lights, especially blower motor) (Video showcasing issue) Can take up to 10 minutes or more to stop sputtering when cold out or humid. The tach also seems to jump from around 1000 to 800 on the way down, as shown in the video at the end, but I'm unsure if that was happening before, or if it's normal. After warming up the truck seems to run fine, other than a slight shake at idle (even after new plugs & wires)

Things I've checked:
  • Paint mark the shop tech put on pulley for cyl 1 TDC & 10deg BTDC seem to be accurate (base timing is good if so)
  • Computer is able to control timing (and KOER test has the #1 plug firing right around 30deg BTDC as docs say it should)
  • Voltage drops from Battery + to the ignition coil positive check out, as well as the ground of the condenser to the the battery - terminal (Hard to check the VD of the coil's primary ground, as it's pulsed while running, but seems to be down one volt, but for all I know the TFI module could be consuming that 1 volt as normal operation)
  • Charging system voltage seems good, as well as charging system voltage drops & diodes (23mV of AC at battery)
  • Before new dizzy was put on, checked the condenser's operation and seemed to work fine
  • Ignition coil's primary measured around 1Ω, and 8kΩ on secondary, in spec but I've read that doesn't necessarily mean it's A-OK
  • Vacuum seems OK (I show my gauge in the video above, but I'm not an expert tech by any means, especially on passenger vehicles, currently schooling to be a heavy duty diesel tech)
Things I wish to look into more (waiting for a cold night where the engine will sputter for a while to test)
  • When the sputtering happens, the plug either isn't firing or is firing WAY too soon (I didn't see a flash from my timing light, but was a little bright out so possibly the white paint of the timing mark was way farther ahead than it should've been)
  • The sputtering SEEMS to stop when the SPOUT jumper is unplugged, but need the engine to keep it's bullshit up for a little bit to really test that for sure
  • Fuel rail pressure (I don't have a gauge to check that, and am a bit strapped for cash. I probably would've been throwing parts at this willy nilly already if I had the money)
  • Voltage drops between main computer & TFI module
Other things to note:
  • I noticed that the tech put a butt connector on the coil negative wire (pin #2) right at the TFI module connector
  • TFI pin #4 (Start signal) should recieve 12v while cranking correct? Doesn't seem to.
  • The truck has had code 18 but no other codes stored in memory twice now, but I believe that could be set from having the SPOUT jumper unplugged while running to check base timing. Currently no other codes in the KOEO, CM, or KOER test.
Possibilities:
  • Electrical issues seem most likely judging by the symptoms. Possible suspects:
    • Battery
    • Wiring (Grounds or otherwise)
    • Ignition timing
    • Ignition coil
    • EEC Computer
    • The new TFI Module or Distributor
      • I have a BOB, but no sadly no scope so can't do too much advanced diag/logging
      • I feel like the most important thing to note about this direction, is how the issue becomes worse as accessories such as the blower motor are turned on.
  • Air intake
    • A new air filter wouldn't hurt, but doubt it would solve my issue
    • The fancy air box that huffs hot air from around the exhaust manifold while the engine is cold, could that be clogged choking the engine out while cold? Doesn't seem likely.
  • Fuel
    • Injectors, wiring, filter, pump or otherwise.
    • Is evap a possibility?
I'm sorry to have such a long winded post as my first post, but I heavily appreciate anyone who's even read the majority of this. With winter coming up and needing to make it to school, I'm worried about this issue and I'm a bit stumped at this point, don't have the cash to just be throwing parts at it. Anyone who has any suggestions or ideas would mean the world to me.

Thanks in advance to the good people of this forum :)
-Alex
 


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Paulos

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Wow, where to start? How somebody can say you need a tune up after the work they just did made things worse o_O.?.?
I hate to sound like Captain Obvious, but it sounds like you have wiring issues, and one or two other things compounding the problem.

I would clear the codes on the ECM and take it for a drive without pulling the SPOUT jumper. I've had problems with the TFI connector causing code 18, and if yours hasn't ever been changed, it may need to be. Not long ago I got a new ignition module that had slightly thinner pins/blades and it didn't get a good connection with the old worn out TFI connector. You can temporarily remove the red plastic retainer in the TFI connector and tweak the contacts with a very small screwdriver so they are tighter, then put the retainer back in. I did this on the side of the road one morning (the morning after replacing the ignition module) and it worked until I replaced the connector. Is the new TFI/ignition module black? If it is, it will cause you problems. The butt splice that the "mechanic" put in doesn't sound good either. Maybe he figured out that there was a connection issue at the TFI connector, but misdiagnosed it as one of the wires instead of the connector?

The battery/alternator is suspect regarding the engine slowing down when power usage goes up. Try testing with a known good battery out of another vehicle if you can. When the battery/charging system has problems, it can/will affect everything electrical.

Grounds. Check to see if the ground at the back of the passenger side head is there. I understand that it tends to get disconnected when people do automatic trans work, as the trans dipstick is bolted to the same place. There should be another on the drivers side of the upper intake, and also at the radiator support near the battery.

I'd say check the IAC valve for the idle issue; but again, the battery/charging system may have something to do with it.

ECM?

Check all engine compartment wiring for obvious issues. You know, like butt splices :) and other alterations, sensor connectors, etc.

These compounded problems can be a real pain to diagnose. Use the process of elimination, and start with repairing the damage the "mechanic" did, if you haven't already. I hope this helps in some way, but I'm sure others will chime in with suggestions (like some members of the 2.9 mafia?).
 
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alp

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Thanks for your time & reply Paulos, I checked some of this stuff out the best I could. Of course as I'm starting to dig into this more we get an end of summer hot spell, and the truck doesnt keep up the sputter for any longer than 3 seconds or less after starting (but you can shut it down, and start it back up and it will bog a few times). Important to note: I've confirmed that as the engine is sputtering, the coil is in fact not firing(or at least the spark isnt making it to the #1 wire). My timing light stops flashing as the engine dies down, and goes back to flashing normally as it starts working. Sometime soon I will also check to make sure the TFI RUN POWER in (pin #3) isn't sporadically losing power during the sputter. These kinds things would be a lot easier to see if I had an oscilloscope on hand -_-

Is the new TFI/ignition module black?
It's gray, but a light gray. It's certainly not OEM, and I believe it to be this module. I think the module is still a very worthy culprit, as I've heard some moans and groans about aftermarket modules(although my old TFI doesn't seem to be motorcraft either). Could also be why the techs at that shop had to do the dizzy twice, got a bad TFI module the first time? (and a barely adequate one the second?) :dntknw: And while I doubt the distributor (which I also believe isn't OEM, I think it's a spectre) itself would be an issue mechanically, the PIP sensor inside could be an issue as well. I hope not as that'd be more of a pain to replace, and a motorcraft PIP ($75) is more expensive than a motorcraft TFI module ($60). The dizzy cap itself is motorcraft, no clue on the rotor. (back to wishing I had a scope)
I would clear the codes on the ECM and take it for a drive without pulling the SPOUT jumper.
I did so, but code 18 hasn't popped back up yet. I want to drive it around for a few more days to make sure I don't get a code 18 during normal operation before I try unplugging the SPOUT jumper to see if that really stops the sputter as well.
The butt splice that the "mechanic" put in doesn't sound good either.
Yeah I have no clue what exactly was up with that, I did a voltage drop check across the wire (including the butt connector) from the coil to a pin thru the back of the TFI connector on that wire, and the butt connector has a good connection. Only about 20mV lost between the whole wire & connector, so it doesn't concern me too much. That 1v lost between the coil and the battery I mentioned before must get used by one of the computers, but again because the coil's ground is switched so fast, I'd need a scope to confirm that drop for sure.
The battery/alternator is suspect regarding the engine slowing down when power usage goes up. Try testing with a known good battery out of another vehicle if you can.
I don't have an extra battery around that would work. On a day it will keep sputtering for a while, I'll try using jumper cables from my mom's car to see if it makes it go away. I could remove the battery from that car, but that'd empty the KAM and its a 2012 Impala so the strut brace needs to be removed to get the battery out. (a real Ford move from Chevy :p) All the constant cranking they probably did while trying to diag the issue probably did a number on the battery, so I'll see about stopping by an auto parts store to use the battery tester, or bringing my truck to school to use the microVAT (have been riding my motorcycle to school recently)
I checked out those grounds you mentioned, I wasn't even aware of that one on the back of the head. It was there though, and while I wasn't going to have much luck getting my meter onto it to check a drop, I chose to try doing it from the valve cover to the battery - instead, and there was no significant voltage drop between there. The other grounds seem to check out using a V drop test as well.
I'd say check the IAC valve for the idle issue
I'm not exactly sure how to test the IAC, but judging by the fact my timing light stops flashing while it bogs, tells me the IAC probably isn't the culprit. During the KOER test, the computer seems to be able to control the idle speed just fine, so I don't think the IAC is an issue.
Check all engine compartment wiring for obvious issues.
I don't see any other butt connectors, but I noticed while looking at parts that the ignition coil is supposed to have it's own connector, even before ending up at the shop it has just had regular old female spade connectors on wires. But it seems to work fine, worked fine before. I don't see anything else out of place, no broken insulation or anything like that.

Thanks a lot again for the ideas, I'll need to break out my BOB sometime this week to confirm all the wiring going between the TFI and the EEC computer are all good. The fact the transmission came unplugged leads me to believe they may have attempted doing some rigorous wire jiggle tests, which may have caused some other issues in the process.
 

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Well as a fellow 88 ranger xlt/ with 5 speed manual and 2.9l that I purchased new in 1988 I'll offer you my 2 cents. It sounds like you have a much broader understanding of automotive tech then I have but recently I changed my O2 sensor and it seemed to give me some improvements in idle and power on acceleration. I don't believe you'll get any kind of check engine light if your O2 sensor goes out on these trucks. Also I discovered on the main ground wire off the battery that drops down by the frame and connects to the passenger side of the block that the insulation had cracked and almost all the copper wire had corroded thru. It was located where the wire is attached to the frame below the battery and is hidden partially by the plastic wheel well. I also recently solved a mysterious starting issue that was caused by a moody original fuel pump relay.
 
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alp

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Does anybody know if there's any resistance specs for the PIP? It's a hall effect sensor so it should have a coil in it right? On my old dizzy I got back from the shop, none of the terminals for the PIP showed any resistance between the others. So if that's bad there could be a chance my old TFI module is still good, and I could give it a shot to see if it solves my issue.
 

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Well as a fellow 88 ranger xlt/ with 5 speed manual and 2.9l that I purchased new in 1988 I'll offer you my 2 cents. It sounds like you have a much broader understanding of automotive tech then I have but recently I changed my O2 sensor and it seemed to give me some improvements in idle and power on acceleration. I don't believe you'll get any kind of check engine light if your O2 sensor goes out on these trucks. Also I discovered on the main ground wire off the battery that drops down by the frame and connects to the passenger side of the block that the insulation had cracked and almost all the copper wire had corroded thru. It was located where the wire is attached to the frame below the battery and is hidden partially by the plastic wheel well. I also recently solved a mysterious starting issue that was caused by a moody original fuel pump relay.
Thanks for the reply Mr Knuckles, I've been thinking for a while I should throw some O2 sensors at the truck for good measure, but considering it stops sparking during the bog I'm not sure the oxy sensors would be the issue. I could be wrong though.
 

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This is the best method I've found to determine if the PIP is faulty.

 
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rusty ol ranger

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Have you checked the ECM ground?

The third wire on your negative cable with that comes out of the terminal and down into an inline fuse case?

Also, have you looked at the 22k ohm resistor for the coil?
 
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I'm quite interested in the association between devices that cause RF noise and the truck sputtering/acting up.

Most of your wiring for the ignition system is RF shielded. Is the shielding intact?

Also. There should be a capacitor on your ignition coil. It's critical in a TFI ignition system that it is there and in good shape.
 
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I don't think there are specs for resistance testing the pickup coil. The Ford diagnostics flow charts describe testing with the distributor in the vehicle and checking voltage at certain steps.

I happen to have a couple spare distributors, one with a new pickup coil, and one with a used one. Using a cheap greenlee meter I got inconsistent resistance between two terminals on the new one, but nothing on the old one. Using a decent Fluke meter the readings were more consistent, and the old pickup coil then showed something. If you're going to test it, I would use Ford's technique. I think I got the important pages. They're from the 1987 Ford Engine/Emissions Diagnosis Shop Manual.

If you have the socket to remove/install the ignition module, I'd just put the old one back in to see if there's any difference in the way it runs. It only takes a couple minutes to swap them out.

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alp

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Thank you everyone for your replies :)
Have you checked the ECM ground?

The third wire on your negative cable with that comes out of the terminal and down into an inline fuse case?

Also, have you looked at the 22k ohm resistor for the coil?
I was planning on checking the ECM's ground and 22k resistor when I had the BOB installed. Would the computer throw a code 18 constantly if the resistor or the pathway from the coil negative thru it to the ECM was open?
I'm quite interested in the association between devices that cause RF noise and the truck sputtering/acting up.

Most of your wiring for the ignition system is RF shielded. Is the shielding intact?

Also. There should be a capacitor on your ignition coil. It's critical in a TFI ignition system that it is there and in good shape.
I didn't look too hard for the shielding, is it back inside the wire loom? The wires are all factory color, and all tucked into looms so I don't think they were ever all ripped out and replaced. I did mildly test the condenser/capacitor while at that shop, but I didn't have my fluke with me, so I did it the 'set it to ohms, switch to volts and see if you can catch it still having voltage' way and it held some voltage. Do you know how many farads the cap should be? I could check it with my fluke, but I don't know what the spec on it should be. The ground for it was good though.
If you have the socket to remove/install the ignition module, I'd just put the old one back in to see if there's any difference in the way it runs. It only takes a couple minutes to swap them out.
What size/type of socket or bit is used for that? I can't see back there, was hoping it'd be philips since I'll have to do it by feel, but I'm sure I could get it with some trial and error. As far as I know, this old TFI module is dead, would putting on a broken module have a chance of killing the PIP or other component? If the chance is low, I'll throw it on there and see what happens.

Thanks for the pics of the manual, the PIP I was trying to see if it's dead for sure was the one in the old dizzy that got taken off the truck, but those instructions should still help for figuring out what the issue is with this new stuff. If this is going to end up coming down to tossing some parts at it, I may as well invest in a Picoscope to determine what actually is the cause of this.

Thanks again to everyone for pointing me in directions to check out. 😄
 

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The TFI tool I have is a KD 3197 (5.5mm), and it's basically a thin walled deep 5.5mm socket. I have heard of some having philips screws, but I've only seen the 5.5mm.
 
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Thank you everyone for your replies :)

I was planning on checking the ECM's ground and 22k resistor when I had the BOB installed. Would the computer throw a code 18 constantly if the resistor or the pathway from the coil negative thru it to the ECM was open?

I didn't look too hard for the shielding, is it back inside the wire loom? The wires are all factory color, and all tucked into looms so I don't think they were ever all ripped out and replaced. I did mildly test the condenser/capacitor while at that shop, but I didn't have my fluke with me, so I did it the 'set it to ohms, switch to volts and see if you can catch it still having voltage' way and it held some voltage. Do you know how many farads the cap should be? I could check it with my fluke, but I don't know what the spec on it should be. The ground for it was good though.

What size/type of socket or bit is used for that? I can't see back there, was hoping it'd be philips since I'll have to do it by feel, but I'm sure I could get it with some trial and error. As far as I know, this old TFI module is dead, would putting on a broken module have a chance of killing the PIP or other component? If the chance is low, I'll throw it on there and see what happens.

Thanks for the pics of the manual, the PIP I was trying to see if it's dead for sure was the one in the old dizzy that got taken off the truck, but those instructions should still help for figuring out what the issue is with this new stuff. If this is going to end up coming down to tossing some parts at it, I may as well invest in a Picoscope to determine what actually is the cause of this.

Thanks again to everyone for pointing me in directions to check out. 😄
I do believe either of those will trip a code 18.

I had a code 18 that comes and goes in the memory codes on my 87, its to my knowledge never caused any ill effects.

Code 18 defintion....

18 (R) Check base timing & advance function
(M) Ignition TACH signal erratic.
 
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The capacitor at the ignition coil is less than necessary. All of the Ron Francis EFI harnesses for the 5.0 don't even bother running a wire for the capacitor. My RF harness didn't use it and the truck ran flawlessly without it and had no radio noise. I recently relocated my TFI module and when making the new harness, I used the old Thunderbird harness so I was able to use the capacitor. It made ZERO difference though.

All the capacitor is for is to reduce radio noise.

"Capacitors in the ignition system are used for radio noise reduction only and have no other function in that system. So if it's not there or not working you would get ignition noise on primarily AM stations and maybe a few FM stations. Other than that you could leave it off."

With modern plug wires being shielded so much better than the older ones were, the noise capacitor isn't necessary in most cases.
 


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