On a diesel engine, how can I know which glow plugs are defective, and can I change these only?
A glow plug is essentially a resister and is tested the same way:
- Disconnect wire to the plug.
- Remove the plug.
- Clean the thread of the plug to make for a good test connection.
- Use an ohm meter to check the resistance between the thread and the connector.
- Resistance should be below 6 ohms or so. It may be very small (under 1 ohm).
- High resistance or infinite resistance indicates a bad plug.
Yes, it is okay to only replace the bad ones. However, if it's a high mileage engine, you may be back under the hood in a week replacing another bad plug. It's up to you to decide on cost vs labor in this situation. A lot of that depends on how hard it is to gain access to the plugs.
Be sure to test the new plugs before installing them.
Everything S_Niles says is correct, but you can save yourself some hassle by checking the resistance before you remove the glowplug(s) from the engine, by touching one end of your ohm meter to the end of the glowplug (after removing the wire/harness from the glowplug), and the other to your engine block. Do this to all of your glowplugs. The glowplug(s) that show greater resistance are suspect. Typically, 3 will read (nearly) identical resistance, and the 4th will show much greater resistance (on a 4-cyl engine, of course), assuming one of the plugs is bad.
Of course this method is far less precise than that described by S_Niles--you could well get higher resistance readings this way. But they key is to look for one plug that has higher resistance than the others.
This is the method I have used on my 4-cyl TDI engine.
I have always replaced all 4 plugs at once, as (at least for my engine), the parts are inexpensive.
Glow plugs need to get hot. So the wattage needs to be quite high. From a 12 battery we need a pretty high current then, If the resistance of a glow plug is say 0.6 ohms then fed at 12 volts the current flowing is I=V/r I =12/0.6 which is 20 amps. The gives a power in watts of 12v x 20 amps= 240 watts. That is for one glow plug.
However the resistance read when cold and then when hot is very different. As elements ( inside the glow plug ) heat up the resistance goes up a lot. So it takes less current then it appears it will by the resistance reading we got. A healthy battery is therefore a good thing. Lets say the power is about 120 Watts per glow plug that is still 3 x 120 Watts or 360 watts. That will draw 360/12 volts from the battery - 30 amps. And the starter will won't a big big share of what the battery can supply!
You can test these in place. Remove the connecting supply lead then connect one terminal (any) to the metal nearby and the other to the top of each glow plug in turn. Short the test leads together first as this amount in ohms needs be taken away from the test results. Use the lowest range of resistance the meter reads
The other way to confirm the glow plugs are working is to take them out and connect the 12 battery to each in turn, Connect one lead (either) to the body metalwork of the glow plug. Then the other battery terminal to the cap of the glow plug. It will do what glow plugs do if OK- glow! Watch your leads don't touch or there will be a big spark and keep the leads away from the car body if the battery is still in place and connected in the car.