EGR Valves have been around for a long time. Way back in 1972 GM used them in an attempt to reduce emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) which were a major cause of air pollution, mainly photochemical smog, that kind of smog which is formed when strong sunlight shines down on the exhaust gasses we puke out of our tailpipes by the billions of cubic feet a day.
A short chemistry lesson is in order here. It was discovered way back when, that high combustion chamber peak temperatures (the really short duration high temperatures near the end of the combustion process) caused oxygen and nitrogen to combine chemically and form these oxides of nitrogen mentioned above. Most of the anti-pollution devices of the day did a pretty good job of reducing the other bad by-products of combustion, namely excessive hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, however they tended to induce the formation of oxides of nitrogen. Something had to be done else we would all die of smog diseases.
The automotive engineers figured that they needed to do something to lower the peak combustion temperatures which only occurred under certain high load driving conditions. They figured they could do so at the expense of power and fuel economy but what the heck, ya can't have everything! If they could only add something to the combustion chamber that would act like sort of a fire extinguisher to cool the combustion temperatures that would do it.
So they invented a way to allow some very inert gas to get back into the combustion chamber only when needed. They needed a source of this gas - it wasn't air, cuz that contains oxygen and nitrogen which caused the problem in the first place. So they chose carbon dioxide. Where to get a supply of carbon dioxide . . . ??? Hmmmm, how about the exhaust system? That is mainly carbon dioxide and water (plus a zillion other noxious chemicals) Suppose we allow some of the exhaust gas to get back into the intake manifold under strict control and only when we need it? That would cool the combustion chamber and prevent the formation of the NoX. Maybe we should call it recirculated exhaust gas (REG??). But a guy named Reginald voted no cuz he didn't want his name associated with a car part, so they called it exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) since there was nobody around with that name.
Now we understand why it is there. And we understand what it does. So what can go wrong with it and what are the symptoms??
It's really pretty simple - it can be open when it isn't supposed to be, or it can be closed when it is supposed to be open. Not rocket science, but it is science. If it is open when it is not supposed to be open, at idle for instance, It will act like one monster vacuum leak and the engine will not idle or will idle really roughly. If it doesn't open when it is supposed to open you will probably experience a symptom of "pinging" or "knocking" since the combustion chamber temperature will be higher than normal (one of the main causes of pinging in an engine).
There are a zillion different types of EGR valves some of which work strictly on vacuum, and some which work on a combination of vacuum and pressure. Some have electronic controls, some have mechanical controls. I won't go into detail here about all the different types but suffice it to say that most can be checked by looking inside to see if the plunger shaft is stuck open or doesn't move when the engine is revved up (after it is warmed up). Replacement is probably the easiest part since most are held in by two small bolts and have a vacuum line connected to it. The hard part is whipping out your Visa card to pay for it since most of them will drain your reserves in a hurry!!
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