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The term heat range refers to the speed with which a plug can transfer heat from the combustion chamber to the engine head. Whether the plug is to be installed in a boat, lawnmower or race car, it has been found the optimum combustion chamber temperature for gasoline engines is between 500°C–850°C. Within that range it is cool enough to avoid pre-ignition and plug tip overheating (which can cause engine damage), while still hot enough to burn off combustion deposits that cause fouling.
The spark plug design determines its ability to remove heat from the combustion chamber. The primary method used to do this is by altering the internal length of the core nose. In addition, the alloy compositions in the electrodes can be changed. This means you may not be able to visually tell a difference between heat ranges.
*When a spark plug is referred to as a “cold plug”, it is one that transfers heat rapidly from the firing tip into the engine head, keeping the firing tip cooler.
*A “hot plug” has a much slower rate of heat transfer, which keeps the firing tip hotter.
An unaltered engine will run within the optimum operating range straight from the manufacturer, but if you make modifications such as adding a turbo or supercharger, increasing compression, timing changes, use of alternate fuels, or sustained use of nitrous oxide, these can alter the plug tip temperature, necessitating a colder plug.
A good rule of thumb is, one heat range colder for every 75–100hp added.
In identical spark plug types, the difference from one full heat range to the next is the ability to remove 70°C to 100°C from the combustion chamber.
The heat range numbering system used by spark plug manufacturers is not universal.
For example, a 10 heat range in Champion is not the same as a 10 heat range in NGK nor the same in Autolite.
Some manufacturers numbering systems are opposite the other - for Champion, Autolite and Bosch, the higher the number, the hotter the plug. For NGK, Denso and Pulstar, the higher the number, the colder the plug.
It is not recommended that you make spark plug changes at the same time as another engine modification, such as injection, carburation or timing changes. Performing too many modifications or tune-ups at once will lead to misleading and inaccurate conclusions if any issues occur (an exception would be when the alternate plugs came as part of a single pre-calibrated upgrade kit).
When making spark plug heat range changes, it is better to err on the side of too cold a plug. Running too cold a plug can only cause it to foul out, whereas running too hot a plug can cause severe engine damage.