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Engine Vacuum Leaks

Have you ever tried to tune an engine only to find it won't idle or run right? Or have you ever been confronted with an engine that just doesn't seem to run right no matter what you've done or replaced? You may be dealing with an engine vacuum leak.

Sometimes a vacuum leak will whistle or hiss and make itself obvious. But oftentimes, a vacuum leak will disguise itself as an ignition or fuel problem that defies diagnosis. Either way, an engine vacuum leak is bad news because allows "unmetered" air to enter the engine and upset the air/fuel ratio.

So how do you know when a vacuum leak is causing a problem? If the engine is experiencing any of the following symptoms, a vacuum leak is probably responsible:

  • Too fast an idle speed. If an engine without computerized idle speed control is idling too fast and refuses to come down to a normal idle speed despite your best efforts to back off the carburetor idle speed screw or air bypass adjustment screw (fuel injection), air is getting past the throttle somewhere. Common leak paths include the carburetor and throttle body gaskets, carburetor insulator spacers, intake manifold gaskets, and of course, any of the engine's vacuum fittings, hoses and accessories. It is even possible that leaky O-rings around the fuel injectors are allowing air to leak past the seals. Another overlooked item can be a worn throttle shaft.
  • A rough idle or stalling. A performance cam with lots of valve overlap can give an engine a lopping idle, but so can a vacuum leak. A really serious leak can lean the air/fuel mixture out to such an extent that an engine won't idle at all. An EGR valve that is stuck open at idle can have the same effect as a vacuum leak. So too can the wrong PCV valve (one that flows too much air for the application), or a loose PCV hose. The rough idle in these cases is caused by "lean misfire." The fuel mixture is too lean to ignite reliably so it often misfires and fails to ignite at all. Lean misfire will show up as elevated hydrocarbon (HC) readings in the exhaust, enough, in fact, to cause a vehicle to fail an emissions test.
  • Hesitation or misfiring when accelerating. This may be due to a vacuum leak, but it can also be caused by a weak or inoperative accelerator pump in a carburetor, dirty injectors, or even ignition problems such as a cracked coil, worn spark plugs or incorrectly gapped plugs.
  • An idle mixture that defies adjustment. When setting the idle mixture adjustment screws on a carburetor, the idle speed should start to falter as the adjustment screws are turned in to lean out the mixture. If the screws seem to have little or no effect on idle, you have either got a carburetor problem or a vacuum leak.

The important thing to keep in mind about vacuum leaks is that they have the most noticeable effect at idle. At part and full throttle, there is so much air entering the engine that a little extra air from a vacuum leak has a negligible effect.

TIP: If you have a scan tool, look at the Short Term Fuel Trim (STFT) and Long Term Fuel Trim (LTFT) values. Normal range is plus or minus 8. If the numbers are +10 or higher for STFT and LTFT, the engine is running LEAN. If you rev the engine to 1500 to 2000 rpm and hold it for a minute or so, and the STFT value drops back down to a more normal reading, it confirms the engine has a vacuum leak at idle. If the STFT value does not change much, the lean fuel condition is more likely a fuel delivery problem (weak fuel pump, restricted fuel filter, dirty fuel injectors or a leaky fuel pressure regulator) than a vacuum leak.

For more information about using fuel trim to diagnose a lean fuel condition, read this article on Fuel Trim by Wells Manufacturing (PDF file, requires Adobe Acrobat to read).

Before we get into the various techniques of finding and fixing vacuum leaks, let's quickly review vacuum's role in fuel delivery.


Intake vacuum exists in the intake manifold as a result of the pumping action of the engine's pistons and the restriction created by the throttle valve. Were it not for the throttle choking off the flow of air into the engine, there would be little if any vacuum in the intake manifold (like a diesel).

On older carbureted engines, vacuum is needed to pull fuel into the engine. Vacuum siphons fuel through the idle, main metering and power circuits. An engine with a vacuum leak, therefore, will likely be an engine that suffers from the symptoms of lean carburetion such as lean misfire, hesitation, stalling and rough idle. But the same symptoms can also be caused by a clogged catalytic converter or other exhaust restriction, a leaky EGR valve or valve timing problems (all of which reduce intake vacuum).

On most engines, intake vacuum should be steady between 16 and 22 inches Hg (Mercury). A lower reading usually indicates a vacuum leak, or one of the other problems just mentioned. A reading that gradually drops while the engine is idling almost always points to an exhaust restriction. An oscillating vacuum reading usually indicates a leaky valve or badly worn valve guides that leak vacuum.

Fuel injected engines do not require intake vacuum to siphon fuel into the engine because fuel is sprayed directly into the engine under pressure through the injectors. Even so, vacuum leaks can upset the carefully balanced air/fuel ratio by allowing "unmetered" air to enter the engine. The result is the same kind of driveability symptoms as a vacuum leak on a carbureted engine (lean misfire, hesitation when accelerating, rough idle and possibly even stalling). Common leak points include injector O-rings, intake manifold gaskets, idle air control circuit and the throttle shaft.

Fuel injected engines also rely on intake vacuum to regulate the fuel pressure behind the injectors. Fuel delivery cannot be accurately metered unless a fairly constant pressure differential is maintained. So the fuel pressure regulator diaphragm is connected to a source of intake vacuum. Vacuum working against a spring-loaded diaphragm inside the regulator opens a bypass that shunts fuel back to the tank through a return line. This causes the fuel pressure in the injector rail to rise when engine load increases (and vacuum drops). Thus, the regulator uses vacuum to maintain fuel pressure and the correct air/fuel ratio. A vacuum leak changes the equation by causing a drop in vacuum and a corresponding increase in line pressure.


Vacuum is measured with a vacuum gauge. Most are calibrated in inches Hg (Mercury), but you may also see some gauges that are also calibrated in inches of H20 (water) or kilopascals (kPa) or even bars. One inch of vacuum measured in inches Hg equals 13.570 inches in H20, 0.4898 psi (pounds per square inch) or 3.377 kPa.

Here's a conversion table you can use to convert units of measurement:


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