A Spark Of Light – A Quick Q&A With Performance Distributors

With the constant improvement of technology in new cars, one of the areas the OEMs have been making leaps and bounds in, is the ignition system. The OEMs aren’t just creating systems which output a stronger spark these days but an overall smarter spark as well. Performance Distributors has faced the challenge of keeping up with the advancements and building a better ignition system than the OEMs.

While it may seem like with the manufacturers stepping up their collective ignition game, it might make the jobs of the aftermarket ignition companies that much harder to improve upon stock. To get the straight scoop, we went to our friend Steve Davis at Performance Distributors.

Unique in that they manufacture a wide range of ignition upgrades, from vintage engines like the Nailhead and Flathead, to the most modern powerplants, like the Coyote, LS, and Gen III Hemi, Perfomance Distributors has a unique perspective from which to compare and contrast.

EngineLabs: How different are the individual coils of a modern coil-on-plug system versus a traditional distributor and single coil setup?

Steve Davis: You can really pack a lot of voltage into a smaller package with today’s coil-on-plug systems. Improved windings and improved thermal epoxy has improved the performance and reliability of the coils. With individual coils, you can beef up your spark on each cylinder, while with the single-coil engines, your spark was “spread out” over eight cylinders.

Then, when you add in that [today’s] computer and the coil-on-plugs “communicate” and the computer tells each coil exactly when to fire, [the new OEM ignitions] really start to be more than just a stronger spark.

EL: Has the improved technology in the construction of individual coils “trickled down” into improved older-style coils?

SD: A little reverse engineering has indeed improved the older style coils. For example, we now use better windings and thermal epoxy in our Racing D.U.I.(HEI-style) coils. Now they have no problem firing all the way to well-over 10.000 rpm.

EL: What areas do OEM ignitions tend to leave the most room on the table for aftermarket improvement?

SD: OEMs are notorious for designing ignition systems that fall flat in the mid-range. We at Performance Distributors are able to take advantage of this weakness by improving the voltage under high load (hard acceleration), and at the same time, we can run wider spark plug gaps because of the additional voltage from the improved coils. Wider [spark plug] gaps lead to a more complete combustion of the fuel mixture which, in turn, equals more horsepower and torque.

A true coil-on-plug design – like the EcoBoost SOS coils seen here – offer a hotter spark than a traditional coil, both by not having to divide a coil’s output by the number of cylinders, as well as not having the resistance of a plug wire. The downside is that the coils are subjected to increased heat.

EL: How does that compare to the older style ignitions? Do they have the same OEM weaknesses, or has the new technology shifted where the aftermarket needs to focus?

SD: The same areas of weakness are true of both the new and old technology. The OEMs do this because a high percentage of their market are not gearheads and aren’t ever going to change cams and heads, run tuners, etc.

EL: What are the differences (benefits and/or drawbacks) to a true coil-on-plug setup, versus a coil-per-plug setup, where there is still a plug wire used, like an LS setup?

SD: A true coil-on-plug system’s main benefit is being right on the spark plug, which translates to virtually no resistance against the spark’s travel. But, by being so close to combustion, they are subjected to a little more heat. The LS setup experiences more resistance thru the ignition system because the spark has to travel through plug wires. However, being a little further from the plugs, they are not exposed to quite as much heat and perform slightly better.

EL: Is the increased heat something you have to account for in the coil’s performance or just making sure that the materials will withstand the additional heat?

SD: Both. We have to account for the additional heat in the design of the coil – especially the windings, as well as the thermal epoxies used in the coil’s construction.

EL: Some of your coils tout their high-RPM performance and some highlight their improvement in the mid-range (specifically the Coyote versus EcoBoost SOS coils); why’s that?

SD: Well, because the EcoBoost is a motor built for torque, we took a different approach to our SOS Coil’s design. Considering the millions of F-150s out there with this engine, we decided to build our coil with windings that improve the spark in the main powerband of these trucks– which is the low-to-mid range. That makes a lot of sense for work trucks, improving towing and passing performance instead of high-RPM performance.

While the LS-style coil-per-plug ignition has to deal with resistance incurred by the admittedly short plug wire, its remote location helps isolate it from the heat the coil-on-plug setup has to cope with. Both designs offer significant advantages over traditional single-coil ignition systems.

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About the author

Greg Acosta

Greg has spent over a decade in automotive publishing as Senior Editor of Race Pages magazine. In his free time, he is a firearms instructor and volunteer in the police armory.
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