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Perfect Engine Sealing Starts With Proper Head Bolt Use
Head bolts may have to handle loads of more than five tons per bolt at wide-open throttle
By Larry Carley
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How important are the various fasteners in an engine? Consider this: the head bolts have to withstand tremendous loads to keep the cylinder head sealed tightly against the head gasket and block. In an engine with four inch cylinder bores and peak combustion pressures of around 1,100 pounds per square inch, each cylinder exerts about 13,827 lbs. of pressure against the cylinder head at full throttle. In fact, head bolts may have to handle loads of more than five tons per bolt at wide-open throttle!
The clamp load that is typically required to keep the head gasket sealed under these operating conditions is about three times the peak pressure exerted against the head (this is called the "lift-off" force). As a result, the bolts around the combustion chamber have to exert a combined force of about 41,500 lbs. to hold the head in place. If each cylinder has four head bolts around it, each bolt has to exert a clamping load of 10,375 lbs. If there are five head bolts per cylinder, the load needs to be 8,300 lbs. per bolt. If there are six bolts per hole, then the load required drops to 6,916 lbs. per bolt.
In a performance engine or diesel, the loads are even higher. With peak combustion pressures of up to 1,400 psi or higher in a performance engine, or 2,400 psi in a diesel, the load on the head bolts is far greater. Consequently, the clamping force on the head bolts is even more critical than those in a stock engine.
Head bolts are truly one of the most critical fasteners in any engine. Consequently, it's extremely important that all the head bolts be in perfect condition and are installed and lubricated properly so they are not overloaded.
Bolt Stretch and Loading
Though head bolts seem to be pretty rigid fasteners, they are actually designed to stretch. Stretching a bolt is like stretching a rubber band. It allows the fastener to exert force against a surface to hold the parts together. This is especially important with gasketed surfaces because the gaskets have a certain amount of give that must be overcome by the fasteners to maintain a tight seal.
When you tighten a head bolt, the force exerted by the wrench is accomplishing two things. First, it is overcoming the friction between the threads on the fastener and the hole threads in the block and the friction of the underside of the bolt head as it turns against the cylinder head. This accounts for about 90 percent of the force exerted on the wrench! Second, tightening the fastener stretches it to create clamping force. This accounts for the remaining 10 percent of the force exerted on the wrench.
One of the most common misconceptions about using a torque wrench to tighten head bolts is that the torque reading on the wrench indicates how much load is on each bolt. The reading on the wrench only tells you how much twisting force is being applied on each bolt. The actual clamping load will be much, much higher, and will depend on the friction in the threads, the size, pitch and diameter of the treads, and the length of the bolt.
Remember, we said each head bolt has to exert a force of four to five tons (8,000 to 10,000 lbs.) to keep the head gasket sealed. A torque wrench reading of 80 ft.lbs., therefore, doesn't mean the bolt has 80 lbs. of load on it. The thread pitch acts like a screw jack to multiply the load factor. As a result, each bolt may exert a clamping load of up to 100 times or more the reading on your torque wrench! That also explains how torquing a head bolt can exert enough pressure to actually stretch it as much as .006? to .010? or more depending on the length of the fastener.
As the head gets hot, thermal expansion is going to stretch the head bolts even more - especially in engines with aluminum heads. Aluminum expands at more than twice the rate of cast iron, which puts even more strain on the head bolts. In a typical engine, just warming the engine up to normal operating temperature may stretch the head bolts as much as .005? or more.
A head bolt exerts its maximum clamping force when it is stretched to its "yield point." This is the point where the bolt can stretch no further without being permanently deformed.
Like a rubber band, a head bolt under load will stretch and spring back to its original length when the load is released. But if stretched too far, the bolt will either become permanently elongated or break. Head bolts that have become permanently elongated may deform along the length of the shank or in the threaded area. Inspecting head bolts, therefore, for obvious "necking down" in the shank or at the top of the threaded area can reveal bolts that have been stretched too far and should be replaced. Reusing a deformed bolt is risky because the bolt may not hold proper torque, and it may fail when you attempt to retighten it. Or worse yet, it may fail at some point later down the road causing the head gasket to leak and/or the engine to overheat.
When engineers design a new engine, one of the many tasks they have to do is figure out what size head bolts to use and how much torque the bolts will require to achieve the proper clamping force. Some of this comes from previous experience, and some comes by trial and error testing. The compressibility and spring-back of the head gasket, the configuration of the cylinder head, the number of head bolts around each cylinder, the comparative lengths of the head bolts (all the same length or different lengths), etc. are all taken into account when figuring how much torque is required to achieve a certain clamping load.
Torque-To-Yield (TTY) is a term that you should be familiar with because it describes a type of head bolt that is used on many late model engines. Unlike ordinary head bolts, TTY head bolts are designed to deform - but do it in a controlled way. Like a standard head bolt, a TTY bolt will stretch and spring back up to its yield point. But once the yield point is passed, the bolt becomes permanently stretched and does not return to its original length. Because of this, TTY bolts should not be reused.
Why intentionally stretch the head bolts? Engineers discovered they can get much more even clamping on the head gasket if all the bolts are evenly loaded. Since variations in friction between bolts always causes some uneven loading, stretching the bolts guarantees all the bolts will exert the same clamping force regardless of the torque reading on the wrench. The result is improved cylinder sealing, longer head gasket durability and less cylinder bore distortion (for reduced blowby and more power).
TTY head bolts are typically used on engines with aluminum cylinder heads (where there is a lot of thermal expansion) and with multi-layer steel (MLS) head gaskets. MLS head gaskets are very stiff gaskets with much less compressibility than standard soft-faced composition head gaskets. On the other hand, MLS head gaskets are almost bullet-proof and produce much less bore distortion than other types of head gaskets because they require less clamping force. But to seal properly, MLS head gaskets require very smooth (almost polished), flat surfaces on the head and block. This, in turn, requires very precise and even clamping loads by the head bolts. That's why TTY head bolts are used in these engines.
How can you tell TTY head bolts from ordinary head bolts? TTY head bolts are typically longer and narrower than standard head bolts. Factory service manuals will tell you which applications use TTY bolts, and you can often tell from the head bolt tightening procedure if the bolts are TTY or standard. TTY bolts typically have an angle tightening specification rather than a specific torque value (which requires using an angle gauge when tightening the bolts).
The torque procedure for tightening a TTY head bolt involves tightening it until a certain torque reading is reached. Then the bolt is given an additional turn to a specified angle (say an additional 45 to 90 degrees) to load the bolt beyond its yield point for maximum clamping pressure.
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