Automotive Parts 101: What Every Student in Auto Mechanic School Should Know About Pistons

3d illustration of engine. Motor parts as crankshaft, pistons with motor oil splash
Cars are complicated. From a driver’s standpoint, they may seem like magic: the key is turned in the ignition, the pedal is pushed, and the vehicle starts roaring down the street. But within the engine, many tiny parts are coming together to transform fuel into motion. Central to this equation is the piston, a small metal tube-like object that’s built to withstand immense amounts of heat and pressure. 
In automotive school, students gain the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the industry. An important part of this is learning about the individual parts that make up these large, complex machines, like the engine’s piston. Read on to learn about how exactly a piston works and what issues it commonly runs into. 

The Anatomy of a Piston 

The piston is like the heart muscle of a vehicle’s engine, using its rapid cycle to pump fuel and air and power the vehicle. It’s so important that the internal combustion engine that seen in every modern gasoline-powered vehicle is sometimes referred to as a piston engine. A piston engine can operate on any number of pistons up to twelve – from the one-piston engines found in lawnmowers to the commonly encountered four, six, or eight-piston car engines. 
Pistons are solid cylinders of metal housed in the hollow cylinder of the engine block. They are slightly smaller than the cylinder outside them, and are lined with rings to help achieve a tight seal. Those considering auto mechanic school might be interested to learn that pistons were previously made using cast iron because of the material’s durability, but in modern times are typically crafted from an aluminum alloy. This makes them light enough to enable extremely rapid piston cycling. The material used needs to be solid enough to withstand intense heat and force, but light enough to move quickly.  

The Phases of a Piston’s Work 

The piston is subject to huge amounts of force many times a second, and the repeated explosions in its cylinder heat the metal to very high temperatures. Its cycle is carried out so rapidly that it might be difficult to understand what it’s doing inside the engine block, moving up and down at such a rate. Broken down to its fundamentals, it creates power that rotates the crankshaft and powers the vehicle. 

Pistons move very rapidly in their cylinders to power the vehicle
Pistons move very rapidly in their cylinders to power the vehicle

The cycle of the piston has four essential parts to it. First, the piston moves down, drawing air and fuel into the cylinder. Second, it moves upwards, compressing the mixture. Third, the spark plug ignites the compressed mixture, and the power flings the piston back down. Lastly, the piston returns to the top, expelling the exhaust from the cylinder. This cycle is carried out hundreds or even thousands of times every minute.  

Common Piston Issues Students in Automotive College Should Know 

Because the piston is under such high amounts of pressure, heat, and force whenever the engine’s running, it’s possible that it can run into problems. Anyone considering an auto career should remember that the importance of keeping pistons in good working order cannot be overstated. Any issues with a vehicle’s piston need to be resolved immediately before they impact other parts of the engine, possibly ruining the entire mechanism and creating more difficulties. 

Piston issues should be quickly diagnosed and remedied
Piston issues should be quickly diagnosed and remedied

Most problems with the piston present themselves because a vehicle has become old. One of these issues is piston slap, where the piston becomes worn and rocks side to side while it moves. Another is a burnt piston, when the air and fuel mixture isn’t maintained at adequate levels and excessive temperatures cause the piston to melt. Other issues include an improperly sealed cylinder, a broken connecting rod, or a poorly connected crankshaft. 
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