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How to Check Engine Compression

by Larry Carley copyright

An engine compression test will tell you if your cylinders have good compression. An engine is essentially a self-powered air pump, so it needs good compression to run efficiently, cleanly and to start easily.

As a rule, most engines should have 140 to 160 lbs. of cranking compression with no more than 10% difference between any of the cylinders.

Low compression in one cylinder usually indicates a bad exhaust valve. Low compression in two adjacent cylinders typically means you have a bad head gasket. Low compression in all cylinders would tell you the rings and cylinders are worn and the engine needs to be overhauled.


Compression can be checked two ways: manually with a compression gauge, or electronically with an engine analyzer the measures cranking compression. With electronic testing, a computer analyzer estimates compression in each of the engine's cylinders by measuring slight variations in engine cranking speed.

The results correlate well with actual gauge readings, and can be completed in a matter of minutes without having to remove any spark plugs. What's more, the analyzer prints out the results of the compression test making it easy to see and compare the actual numbers.

A cylinder with low compression will likely misfire, and will usually set a cylinder misfire code (P030X where X is the number of the cylinder that is misfiring). If your Check Engine light is on and you find a misfire code when you plug a scan tool into the OBD II diagnostic connector, check the compression in that cylinder. If the compression tests good, the misfire is due to an ignition or fuel injector problem.

compression gauge

To check compression manually with a gauge, all the spark plugs must be removed. The ignition coil must then disabled or the high tension lead grounded. If the engine has a distributorless ignition, the ignition coils must be disabled to prevent them from firing. The throttle must also be held open.

The engine is then cranked for a few seconds using a remote starter switch or a helper while a compression gauge is held in a spark plug hole.

The maximum compression reading is noted, then the process is repeated for each of the remaining cylinders.

The individual cylinder readings are then compared to see if the results are within specifications (always refer to a manual for the exact compression figures for your engine because they do vary from the ballpark figures quoted earlier).


If compression is low in one or more cylinders, you can isolate the problem to the valves or rings by squirting a little 30 weight motor oil into the cylinder through the spark plug hole and repeating the compression test. The oil temporarily seals the rings.

If the compression readings are higher the second time around, it means the rings and/or cylinder is worn. No change in the compression readings would tell you the cylinder has a bad valve.

For information about engine Leakdown Testing, Click Here.

More Engine Diagnosis Articles:

Engine Leakdown Testing

Measuring Blowby

Compression Ratio

Exhaust Smoke (various causes of)

Causes of High Oil Consumption

Why Head Gaskets Fail

Head Gasket Failure: Common Causes

Preventing Repeat Head Gasket Failures

Diagnosing An Engine that Won't Crank or Start

Diagnose Weak Valve Springs

Troubleshooting Engine Problems with Temperature

Diagnosing Engine Noise

Engine Displacement (measuring Bore and Stroke)

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