Buick Encore Owners & Service Manuals

Buick Encore: Is a lab scope necessary?

Use the Right Noid Light


You probably have several tools at your disposal to diagnose injector circuits. But you might have questioned "Is a lab scope necessary to do a thorough job, or will a set of noid lights and a multifunction DVOM do just as well?" In the following text, we are going to look at what noid lights and DVOMs do best, do not do very well, and when they can mislead you. As you might suspect, the lab scope, with its ability to look inside an active circuit, comes to the rescue by answering for the deficiencies of these other tools.


The noid light is an excellent "quick and dirty" tool. It can usually be hooked to a fuel injector harness fast and the flashing light is easy to understand. It is a dependable way to identify a no-pulse situation.

However, a noid light can be very deceptive in two cases:

  • If the wrong one is used for the circuit being tested. Beware: Just because a connector on a noid light fits the harness does not mean it is the right one.
  • If an injector driver is weak or a minor voltage drop is present.

Use the Right Noid Light

In the following text we will look at what can happen if the wrong noid light is used, why there are different types of noid lights (besides differences with connectors), how to identify the types of noid lights, and how to know the right type to use.

First, let's discuss what can happen if the incorrect type of noid light is used. You might see:

  • A dimly flashing light when it should be normal.
  • A normal flashing light when it should be dim.

A noid light will flash dim if used on a lower voltage circuit than it was designed for. A normally operating circuit would appear underpowered, which could be misinterpreted as the cause of a fuel starvation problem.

Here are the two circuit types that could cause this problem:

  • Circuits with external injector resistors. Used predominately on some Asian & European systems, they are used to reduce the available voltage to an injector in order to limit the current flow. This lower voltage can cause a dim flash on a noid light designed for full voltage.
  • Circuits with current controlled injector drivers (e.g. "Peak and Hold"). Basically, this type of driver allows a quick burst of voltage/current to flow and then throttles it back significantly for the remainder of the pulse width duration. If a noid light was designed for the other type of driver (voltage controlled, e.g. "Saturated"), it will appear dim because it is expecting full voltage/current to flow for the entire duration of the pulse width.

Let's move to the other situation where a noid light flashes normally when it should be dim. This could occur if a more sensitive noid light is used on a higher voltage/amperage circuit that was weakened enough to cause problems (but not outright broken). A circuit with an actual problem would thus appear normal.

Let's look at why. A noid light does not come close to consuming as much amperage as an injector solenoid. If there is a partial driver failure or a minor voltage drop in the injector circuit, there can be adequate amperage to fully operate the noid light BUT NOT ENOUGH TO OPERATE THE INJECTOR.

If this is not clear, picture a battery with a lot of corrosion on the terminals. Say there is enough corrosion that the starter motor will not operate; it only clicks. Now imagine turning on the headlights (with the ignition in the RUN position). You find they light normally and are fully bright. This is the same idea as noid light: There is a problem, but enough amp flow exists to operate the headlights ("noid light"), but not the starter motor ("injector").

How do you identify and avoid all these situations? By using the correct type of noid light. This requires that you understanding the types of injector circuits that your noid lights are designed for. There are three. They are:

  • Systems with a voltage controlled injector driver. Another way to say it: The noid light is designed for a circuit with a "high" resistance injector (generally 12 ohms or above).
  • Systems with a current controlled injector driver. Another way to say it: The noid light is designed for a circuit with a low resistance injector (generally less than 12 ohms) without an external injector resistor.
  • Systems with a voltage controlled injector driver and an external injector resistor. Another way of saying it: The noid light is designed for a circuit with a low resistance injector (generally less than 12 ohms) and an external injector resistor.

NOTE: Some noid lights can meet both the second and third categories simultaneously.

If you are not sure which type of circuit your noid light is designed for, plug it into a known good car and check out the results. If it flashes normally during cranking, determine the circuit type by finding out injector resistance and if an external injector resistor is used. You now know enough to identify the type of injector circuit. Label the noid light appropriately.

Next time you need to use a noid light for diagnosis, determine what type of injector circuit you are dealing with and select the appropriate noid light.

Of course, if you suspect a no-pulse condition you could plug in any one whose connector fit without fear of misdiagnosis. This is because it is unimportant if the flashing light is dim or bright. It is only important that it flashes.

In any cases of doubt regarding the use of a noid light, a lab scope will overcome all inherent weaknesses.


A DVOM is typically used to check injector resistance and available voltage at the injector. Some techs also use it check injector on-time either with a built-in feature or by using the dwell/duty function.

There are situations where the DVOM performs these checks dependably, and other situations where it can deceive you. It is important to be aware of these strengths and weaknesses. We will cover the topics above in the following text.

Checking Injector Resistance

If a short in an injector coil winding is constant, an ohmmeter will accurately identify the lower resistance. The same is true with an open winding. Unfortunately, an intermittent short is an exception. A faulty injector with an intermittent short will show "good" if the ohmmeter cannot force the short to occur during testing.

Alcohol in fuel typically causes an intermittent short, happening only when the injector coil is hot and loaded by a current high enough to jump the air gap between two bare windings or to break down any oxides that may have formed between them.

When you measure resistance with an ohmmeter, you are only applying a small current of a few milliamps. This is nowhere near enough to load the coil sufficiently to detect most problems. As a result, most resistance checks identify intermittently shorted injectors as being normal.

There are two methods to get around this limitation. The first is to purchase an tool that checks injector coil windings under full load. The Kent-Moore J-39021 is such a tool, though there are others. The Kent-Moore costs around $240 at the time of this writing and works on many different manufacturer's systems.

The second method is to use a lab scope. Remember, a lab scope allows you to see the regular operation of a circuit in real time. If an injector is having an short or intermittent short, the lab scope will show it.

Checking Available Voltage At the Injector

Verifying a fuel injector has the proper voltage to operate correctly is good diagnostic technique. Finding an open circuit on the feed circuit like a broken wire or connector is an accurate check with a DVOM.

Unfortunately, finding an intermittent or excessive resistance problem with a DVOM is unreliable.

Let's explore this drawback. Remember that a voltage drop due to excessive resistance will only occur when a circuit is operating? Since the injector circuit is only operating for a few milliseconds at a time, a DVOM will only see a potential fault for a few milliseconds. The remaining 90+% of the time the unloaded injector circuit will show normal battery voltage.

Since DVOMs update their display roughly two to five times a second, all measurements in between are averaged. Because a potential voltage drop is visible for such a small amount of time, it gets "averaged out", causing you to miss it.

Only a DVOM that has a "min-max" function that checks EVERY MILLISECOND will catch this fault consistently (if used in that mode). The Fluke 87 among others has this capability.

A "min-max" DVOM with a lower frequency of checking (100 millisecond) can miss the fault because it will probably check when the injector is not on. This is especially true with current controlled driver circuits. The Fluke 88, among others fall into this category.

Outside of using a Fluke 87 (or equivalent) in the 1 mS "min-max" mode, the only way to catch a voltage drop fault is with a lab scope. You will be able to see a voltage drop as it happens.

One final note. It is important to be aware that an injector circuit with a solenoid resistor will always show a voltage drop when the circuit is energized. This is somewhat obvious and normal; it is a designed-in voltage drop. What can be unexpected is what we already covered--a voltage drop disappears when the circuit is unloaded. The unloaded injector circuit will show normal battery voltage at the injector. Remember this and do not get confused.

Checking Injector On-Time With Built-In Function

Several DVOMs have a feature that allows them to measure injector on-time (mS pulse width). While they are accurate and fast to hookup, they have three limitations you should be aware of:

  • They only work on voltage controlled injector drivers (e.g "Saturated Switch"), NOT on current controlled injector drivers (e.g. "Peak & Hold").
  • A few unusual conditions can cause inaccurate readings.
  • Varying engine speeds can result in inaccurate readings.

Regarding the first limitation, DVOMs need a well-defined injector pulse in order to determine when the injector turns ON and OFF. Voltage controlled drivers provide this because of their simple switch-like operation. They completely close the circuit for the entire duration of the pulse. This is easy for the DVOM to interpret.

The other type of driver, the current controlled type, start off well by completely closing the circuit (until the injector pintle opens), but then they throttle back the voltage/current for the duration of the pulse. The DVOM understands the beginning of the pulse but it cannot figure out the throttling action. In other words, it cannot distinguish the throttling from an open circuit (de-energized) condition.

Yet current controlled injectors will still yield a millisecond on-time reading on these DVOMs. You will find it is also always the same, regardless of the operating conditions. This is because it is only measuring the initial completely-closed circuit on-time, which always takes the same amount of time (to lift the injector pintle off its seat). So even though you get a reading, it is useless.

The second limitation is that a few erratic conditions can cause inaccurate readings. This is because of a DVOM's slow display rate; roughly two to five times a second. As we covered earlier, measurements in between display updates get averaged. So conditions like skipped injector pulses or intermittent long/short injector pulses tend to get "averaged out", which will cause you to miss important details.

The last limitation is that varying engine speeds can result in inaccurate readings. This is caused by the quickly shifting injector on-time as the engine load varies, or the RPM moves from a state of acceleration to stabilization, or similar situations. It too is caused by the averaging of all measurements in between DVOM display periods. You can avoid this by checking on-time when there are no RPM or load changes.

A lab scope allows you to overcome each one of these limitations.

Checking Injector On-Time With Dwell Or Duty

If no tool is available to directly measure injector millisecond on-time measurement, some techs use a simple DVOM dwell or duty cycle functions as a replacement.

While this is an approach of last resort, it does provide benefits. We will discuss the strengths and weaknesses in a moment, but first we will look at how a duty cycle meter and dwell meter work.

How A Duty Cycle Meter and Dwell Meter Work

All readings are obtained by comparing how long something has been OFF to how long it has been ON in a fixed time period. A dwell meter and duty cycle meter actually come up with the same answers using different scales. You can convert freely between them. See RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DWELL & DUTY CYCLE READINGS TABLE.

The DVOM display updates roughly one time a second, although some DVOMs can be a little faster or slower.

All measurements during this update period are tallied inside the DVOM as ON time or OFF time, and then the total ratio is displayed as either a percentage (duty cycle) or degrees (dwell meter).

For example, let's say a DVOM had an update rate of exactly 1 second (1000 milliseconds). Let's also say that it has been measuring/tallying an injector circuit that had been ON a total of 250 mS out of the 1000 mS. That is a ratio of one-quarter, which would be displayed as 25% duty cycle or 15º dwell (six-cylinder scale). Note that most duty cycle meters can reverse the readings by selecting the positive or negative slope to trigger on. If this reading were reversed, a duty cycle meter would display 75%.

Strengths of Dwell/Duty Meter

The obvious strength of a dwell/duty meter is that you can compare injector on-time against a known-good reading. This is the only practical way to use a dwell/duty meter, but requires you to have known-good values to compare against.

Another strength is that you can roughly convert injector mS on-time into dwell reading with some computations.

A final strength is that because the meter averages everything together it does not miss anything (though this is also a severe weakness that we will look at later). If an injector has a fault where it occasionally skips a pulse, the meter registers it and the reading changes accordingly.

Let's go back to figuring out dwell/duty readings by using injector on-time specification. This is not generally practical, but we will cover it for completeness. You NEED to know three things:

  • Injector mS on-time specification.
  • Engine RPM when specification is valid.
  • How many times the injectors fire per crankshaft revolution.

The first two are self-explanatory. The last one may require some research into whether it is a bank-fire type that injects every 360º of crankshaft rotation, a bank-fire that injects every 720º, or an SFI that injects every 720º. Many manufacturers do not release this data so you may have to figure it out yourself with a frequency meter.

Here are the four complete steps to convert millisecond on-time:

  1. Determine the injector pulse width and RPM it was obtained at. Let's say the specification is for one millisecond of on-time at a hot idle of 600 RPM.
  2.  Determine injector firing method for the complete 4 stroke cycle. Let's say this is a 360º bank-fired, meaning an injector fires each and every crankshaft revolution.
  3.  Determine how many times the injector will fire at the specified engine speed (600 RPM) in a fixed time period. We will use 100 milliseconds because it is easy to use. Six hundred crankshaft Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) divided by 60 seconds equals 10 revolutions per second. Multiplying 10 times .100 yields one; the crankshaft turns one time in 100 milliseconds. With exactly one crankshaft rotation in 100 milliseconds, we know that the injector fires exactly one time.
  4. Determine the ratio of injector on-time vs. off-time in the fixed time period, then figure duty cycle and/or dwell. The injector fires one time for a total of one millisecond in any given 100 millisecond period. One hundred minus one equals 99. We have a 99% duty cycle. If we wanted to know the dwell (on 6 cylinder scale), multiple 99% times .6; this equals 59.4º dwell.

Weaknesses of Dwell/Duty Meter

The weaknesses are significant. First, there is no one-to-one correspondence to actual mS on-time. No manufacturer releases dwell/duty data, and it is time-consuming to convert the mS on-time readings. Besides, there can be a large degree of error because the conversion forces you to assume that the injector(s) are always firing at the same rate for the same period of time. This can be a dangerous assumption.

Second, all level of detail is lost in the averaging process. This is the primary weakness. You cannot see the details you need to make a confident diagnosis.

Here is one example. Imagine a vehicle that has a faulty injector driver that occasionally skips an injector pulse.

Every skipped pulse means that that cylinder does not fire, thus unburned O2 gets pushed into the exhaust and passes the O2 sensor. The O2 sensor indicates lean, so the computer fattens up the mixture to compensate for the supposed "lean" condition.

A connected dwell/duty meter would see the fattened pulse width but would also see the skipped pulses. It would tally both and likely come back with a reading that indicated the "pulse width" was within specification because the rich mixture and missing pulses offset each other.

This situation is not a far-fetched scenario. Some early GM 3800 engines were suffering from exactly this. The point is that a lack of detail could cause misdiagnosis.

As you might have guessed, a lab scope would not miss this.




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