1991 Dodge Spirit Engine starts and promptly shuts down, ch

  • 6 CYL
  • FWD
  • 90,000 MILES
Dodge Vacuum Leak Automotive Troubleshooting Question

Have a 1991 Dodge Spirit 3.0 six-banger. Had a head gasket issue which I was able to patch up with a little Bars Leak stuff. Now.A new problem. At some point while trying to plug up the head gasket…something else happened (don't know what). But, now when I start the car. It starts runs for a few seconds then shuts down. Does this each and every time. Always starts right up. Then shuts right down. “Check Engine" light comes on too. Sometimes when I can get it to warm up, it does idle eratically at very low idle, then will eventually shut down. Might be a vacuum leak. This is not an area of expertise for me. I don't know where or how to detect a leak. Or how to stop it. Could it be something else? Any thoughts? Thank you!

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Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009 AT 1:12 PM

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Okay, now that we have covered what a vacuum leaks do, how do you find components that leak vacuum? One way is to visually inspect all the vacuum hoses and connections. Look for disconnected, loose or cracked hoses, broken fittings, etc. Hey, you might get lucky and find the problem in a few minutes, or you might waste half the day trying to find the mysterious leak. Vacuum leaks are often the elusive needle in a haystack. And if it is not a hose leaking vacuum but something else such as a gasket, worn throttle shaft, injector O-rings, etc, you may never find it using this technique.

A faster technique for finding intake manifold vacuum leaks is to get a bottle of propane and attach a length of rubber hose to the gas valve. Open the valve so you have a steady flow of gas. Then hold the hose near suspected leak points while the engine is idling. If there is a leak, propane will be siphoned in through the leak. The resulting "correction" in the engine's air/fuel ratio should cause a noticeable change in idle speed and/or smoothness (Note: on engines with computerized idle speed control, disconnect the idle speed control motor first).

Aerosol carburetor cleaner can also be used the same way. CAUTION: Solvent is extremely flammable, so do not smoke or use it if there are any sparks in the vicinity (arcing plug wires, for example). Spray the solvent on suspected leak points while the engine is idling. If there is a leak, the solvent will be drawn into the engine and have the same effect as the propane. The idle speed will suddenly change and smooth out.

TIP: If you have a scan tool, look at the Short Term Fuel Trim (STFT) value while you are using carb cleaner or propane to check suspected vacuum leak points. If there is a leak and some of the cleaner or propane is sucked in through the leak, you will see a momentary drop in the STFT reading. This confirms you have found a leak (keep checking because there may be multiple leaks!).


A much safer technique is to use a smoke machine. These machines feed artificial smoke into the intake manifold, The smoke may also be mixed with an ultraviolet dye to make leaks easier to see. You then look for smoke seeping out of hoses, gaskets or cracks in the manifold and/or use a UV light to find the leak. This type of equipment is often needed to find small air leaks in the EVAP (evaporative emissions) control system. Smoke machines can cost $600 to $2000 or more depending on the model and features, so they are primarily for use by professional technicians.


Propane can also be used in conjunction with an exhaust analyzer (do NOT use carburetor cleaner or you may damage your analyzer!). Engine vacuum leaks almost always cause fluctuating HC readings, so an infrared exhaust analyzer can (1) tell you if there is indeed a leak, and (2) where the leak is using the propane procedure.

Two types of vacuum leaks can be diagnosed with an analyzer. The first kind is a general vacuum leak (PCV hose, brake booster, etc.) That leans out the mixture and causes a very low CO reading and only a slightly higher fluctuating HC reading. The O2 reading will also be high. The second kind of vacuum leak is a "point" leak that affects only one or two cylinders (a leaky manifold gasket or a crack or porosity leak in one of the manifold runners). This will be indicated by a normal or low CO reading combined with high fluctuating HC readings. O2 will again be high.

To find a leak, feed propane at suspected leak points until you note an improvement in idle quality and/or a change in the HC/CO/O2 readings. When you have found the leak, the idle should smooth out, HC and O2 should drop and CO rise.

It is important to note that an overly lean idle mixture will also cause a fluctuating HC reading the same as a vacuum leak. To tell one from the other, there is a simple "trick" you can use. Momentarily enrich the idle mixture to 1.5 to 2.0% CO by placing a clean shop rag over the top of the carburetor. If the engine smooths out and HC drops and remains stable, the problem is a lean idle mixture adjustment. If HC still fluctuates, however, the engine is still too lean in one or more cylinders indicating a vacuum leak.


If you like gadgets, there are electronic tools designed to detect vacuum leaks. An electronic vacuum leak detector will beep or flash when it detects ultrasonic vibrations that are characteristic of a vacuum leak. These tools use a sensitive microphone to listen for certain noise frequencies. Though extremely sensitive, these tools sometimes react to tiny leaks that are not really causing a problem, or "false" leaks such as the noise created by arcing inside the distributor cap or normal bearing noise in the alternator.


Another way to find an elusive vacuum leak is to pressurize the intake manifold with about three lbs. Of regulated air. This can be done by attaching a regulator to your shop air hose, then attaching the hose to a vacuum fitting or the PCV valve fitting on the intake manifold, carburetor or throttle body. Do not apply too much pressure or you may create new leaks! With the engine off and air flowing into the manifold, spray soapy water on suspected leaks. If you see bubbles, you have found the leak.

You can also use the opposite technique, which is to apply vacuum with a hand-pump to various vacuum hoses and circuits to see if they hold vacuum. But this technique means tracing the entire circuit to see where it ends, and disconnecting and plugging any parts of the circuit that do not "dead end" against a diaphragm or valve.


Okay, now you have found the leak. Here are some suggestions on how to fix it:

Leaky vacuum hoses Replace them. If the end of a hose is loose or cracked, cutting it off and sticking it back on may temporarily eliminate the leak. But if the hose is rotten or age hardened, it needs to be replaced. Shortening hoses may also create additional problems. The hose may chaff or rub against other components, or pull loose as a result of engine motion and vibration. Use the correct type of replacement hose (PVC hose or vacuum hose capable of withstanding fuel vapors and vacuum without collapsing). Also, be sure the replacement hose is the same diameter and length as the original.
Carburetor or throttle body base gasket vacuum leaks Try tightening down the carburetor or throttle body mounting bolts. If that doesn't stop the leak, replace the gasket under the carburetor or throttle body. If there is a heat insulator or adapter plate under the unit, it may also have to be replaced depending on its condition. While the carburetor or throttle body is off, use a straightedge to check the base for flatness (and the manifold, too). Warped surfaces can prevent a tight seal, so if you find any it calls for resurfacing or component replacement.
Carburetor or throttle body throttle shaft vacuum leaks Wear here can only be repaired by resleeving the throttle shaft, which for all practical purposes means replacing the carburetor or throttle body with a new or remanufactured unit.
Intake manifold gasket vacuum leaks Try retorquing the intake manifold bolts, working from the center out in the recommended tightening sequence. If that fails, the intake manifold will have to be removed and the intake gaskets replaced. Sometimes the mating surface of the intake manifold or the heads will not be flat (check both with a straightedge). If warped, the intake manifold and/or heads will have to be resurfaced on a milling machine. Another problem to watch out for here are heads that have been milled or resurfaced to raise compression. To maintain proper alignment between the manifold and heads, metal also needs to be machined off the bottom of the manifold where it mates with the block, otherwise it will sit to high and the ports and bolt holes won't align.
EGR valve leaks If the valve isn't closing all the way due to carbon deposits on the stem or valve seat, cleaning may be all that is needed to cure the problem. Otherwise, the engine will need a new EGR valve.
Leaky power brake booster Replace it. But first make sure it is the booster and not just the hose or check valve that is leaking.
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Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009 AT 1:32 PM

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