22 May 2024
Discover the function of valve lifters or tappets in opening and closing your engine's valves, enabling smooth operation and optimal performance.

So, you’ve always wondered about those little valve lifters or tappets in your car’s engine, right? Well, wonder no more! The function of these small but mighty components is pivotal in the smooth operation of your engine’s valves. In a nutshell, valve lifters are responsible for precisely timing the opening and closing of the engine’s valves, allowing for the proper intake of air and fuel and the efficient expulsion of exhaust gases. Think of them as the gatekeepers of your engine’s performance, ensuring everything runs like a well-oiled machine. Now let’s dive deeper into the fascinating world of valve lifters and uncover their essential role in your car’s engine.

Valve Lifters or Tappets

Valve lifters, also known as tappets, play a crucial role in the proper functioning of an engine’s valves. These small components serve as a connection between the camshaft and the valves, translating the rotational motion of the camshaft into linear motion to open and close the valves. By controlling the movement of the valves, valve lifters help regulate the intake and exhaust of air and fuel, ensuring smooth combustion and optimal engine performance.

Definition and Purpose

Valve lifters are mechanical devices that are positioned between the camshaft lobes and the valves. They are designed to lift the valves off their seats and keep them open for a specific duration, allowing air and fuel to enter the combustion chamber or exhaust gases to exit. The lifters provide precise and synchronized movements to the valves, enabling the engine to operate efficiently and effectively.

Types of Valve Lifters

There are two main types of valve lifters commonly used in engines: hydraulic lifters and solid lifters. Each type has its own design and characteristics, which provide distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Valve Operation

To understand the role of valve lifters, it is important to first grasp the process of valve opening and closing. In an internal combustion engine, the valves control the flow of air and fuel into the combustion chamber and the expulsion of exhaust gases. The camshaft, which is directly connected to the engine crankshaft, contains lobes that push against the valve lifters. When the lobes make contact with the lifters, they push the lifters upward, and this motion is transferred to the valves, causing them to open. As the camshaft rotates, the lifters return to their original position, allowing the valves to close under the force of valve springs.

Role of the Valve Lifters

The valve lifters serve a vital role in this process by providing a mechanical link between the rotating camshaft and the reciprocating valves. They transmit the camshaft’s rotational motion into vertical motion, ensuring that the valves open and close at the precise timing dictated by the engine’s design. Without valve lifters, the camshaft lobes would have no direct means of actuating the valves, leading to a loss of control over the engine’s intake and exhaust processes.

Hydraulic Lifters

Hydraulic lifters are the most common type of valve lifters found in modern engines. These lifters use hydraulic pressure to automatically adjust for valve clearance, resulting in quieter operation and reduced maintenance requirements. They consist of a hollow metal cylinder filled with hydraulic fluid, with a plunger and pushrod assembly housed inside.

Working Principle

When the camshaft lobe pushes against a hydraulic lifter, it compresses the hydraulic fluid inside the lifter, causing the plunger to move upward. As the plunger rises, it pushes the pushrod, which in turn opens the valve. The hydraulic fluid serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it allows for automatic valve clearance adjustment by compensating for any wear in the valvetrain. Secondly, it acts as a shock absorber, dampening the impact between the camshaft and the lifters, leading to quieter and smoother valve operation.

Advantages and Disadvantages

One of the main advantages of hydraulic lifters is their self-adjusting nature. They eliminate the need for regular manual valve clearance adjustments, resulting in reduced maintenance costs and improved engine longevity. The hydraulic fluid also helps minimize the impact and noise generated during valve operation, contributing to a quieter engine. However, hydraulic lifters are not suitable for high-performance applications due to their limited ability to respond to rapid changes in engine speeds. Additionally, they can suffer from problems such as oil contamination or leakage, which may lead to issues with valve clearance.

Solid Lifters

Solid lifters, also known as mechanical lifters, are a more traditional type of valve lifter. Unlike hydraulic lifters, these lifters do not contain any hydraulic fluid and rely on manual adjustment for valve clearance. They consist of a solid metal cylinder with a pushrod sitting on top.

Working Principle

When the camshaft lobe pushes against a solid lifter, it transmits its motion directly to the pushrod. The pushrod then exerts force on the valve, causing it to open. Solid lifters require regular manual adjustment to maintain the proper valve clearance. This adjustment is typically performed by tightening or loosening the lifter’s locknut to achieve the desired clearance.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Solid lifters offer several advantages in certain applications. They are more durable and reliable than hydraulic lifters, making them an ideal choice for high-performance engines that operate at high RPMs and experience greater stress. Solid lifters also provide more precise control over valve timing and lift, allowing for greater tuning potential. However, their manual adjustment requirement can be cumbersome and time-consuming. They can also generate more noise and vibrations compared to hydraulic lifters, especially at idle or low engine speeds.

Overhead Camshaft (OHC) Engines

In modern engines, the valve actuation mechanism can vary depending on the design. One common arrangement is the overhead camshaft (OHC) engine, where the camshaft is positioned above the cylinder head and directly actuates the valves.

Valve Actuation Mechanism

In an OHC engine, the camshaft is located in the cylinder head and is driven by the crankshaft via a timing belt or chain. The camshaft directly actuates the valves through the use of lifters, which can be either hydraulic or solid. The lifters transmit the motion from the rotating camshaft to the valves, providing precise control over valve timing and lift.

Camshaft and Tappet Arrangement

The camshaft in an OHC engine is usually located above the valves and is generally driven by the crankshaft via a timing belt or chain. The camshaft contains cam lobes that make direct contact with the lifters, whether they are hydraulic or solid. As the camshaft rotates, the lobes push against the lifters, causing the valves to open and allowing for the intake and exhaust processes. The arrangement of the camshaft and lifters in OHC engines allows for more efficient and compact design, resulting in improved performance and reduced emissions.

Overhead Valve (OHV) Engines

Another commonly used valve actuation mechanism is found in overhead valve (OHV) engines. In these engines, the camshaft is located in the engine block, below the cylinder head, and actuates the valves through a pushrod and tappet arrangement.

Valve Actuation Mechanism

In an OHV engine, the camshaft is positioned within the block and is typically driven by the crankshaft via a timing chain or gears. Instead of directly actuating the valves, the camshaft pushes against pushrods that are connected to the lifters or tappets. The lifters transmit the motion from the pushrods to the valves, opening and closing them as required for the intake and exhaust cycles.

Pushrod and Tappet Arrangement

The pushrod and tappet arrangement in an OHV engine allows for the transfer of motion from the rotating camshaft to the valves. The pushrods are responsible for transmitting the force from the camshaft to the lifters or tappets, which in turn actuate the valves. This design allows for a more compact cylinder head design, as the camshaft can be located within the engine block, resulting in better weight distribution and improved engine accessibility.

Adjusting Valve Lifters

Proper adjustment of valve lifters is crucial to ensure optimal engine performance and longevity. Incorrect adjustment can lead to issues such as loss of power, excessive noise, or even engine damage. Regular valve lifter adjustment should be performed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Importance of Proper Adjustment

Properly adjusted valve lifters ensure that the valves open and close at the correct timing and with the appropriate clearance. Adequate valve clearance prevents issues such as valves not seating properly or excessive wear on valve components. It also helps maintain the engine’s compression ratio, fuel efficiency, and emissions control. Neglecting valve lifter adjustment can lead to a myriad of problems, including engine misfires, reduced power output, and potential damage to valve train components.

Signs of Incorrect Adjustment

There are several signs that indicate incorrect valve lifter adjustment. One common symptom is excessive valve noise or ticking, especially during idle or low RPM operation. This noise is often caused by insufficient valve clearance, causing the valves to stay slightly open. Other signs include poor engine performance, reduced power, and increased fuel consumption. If any of these symptoms are observed, it is recommended to check and adjust the valve lifters as necessary.

Procedure for Adjustment

Valve lifter adjustment procedures can vary depending on the engine design and lifter type. It is essential to consult the engine manufacturer’s service manual for the specific adjustment process. Generally, the procedure involves removing the valve cover, rotating the engine to the appropriate position, gaining access to the lifters, and adjusting the clearance using feeler gauges or other designated tools. Care must be taken to ensure the correct adjustment is made, as improper adjustment can lead to further engine issues.

Valve Lifter Maintenance

Regular maintenance of valve lifters is essential to ensure their proper function and longevity. Neglecting lifter maintenance can lead to problems such as noise, reduced performance, and potential lifter failure.

Signs of Lifter Problems

There are several signs that indicate potential issues with valve lifters. Excessive noise, commonly referred to as lifter tick, is one of the most common symptoms. This noise can be caused by various factors, including insufficient oil supply, dirty or contaminated lifters, or worn lifter components. Reduced engine performance, loss of power, or misfires can also indicate lifter problems. Additionally, if the lifters are not properly maintained, they can develop excessive wear or even fail, leading to significant engine damage.

Cleaning and Lubrication

Proper cleaning and lubrication are critical for maintaining valve lifters. Regular oil changes using high-quality engine oil can help keep the lifters clean and functioning optimally. It is also essential to follow the manufacturer’s recommended oil change intervals. If lifters become dirty or contaminated, they should be carefully cleaned using a designated cleaner or solvent. Lubricating the lifters with clean engine oil is crucial to ensure smooth operation and reduce wear. Lubrication can be achieved by properly following the manufacturer’s lubrication guidelines.

Replacing Faulty Lifters

If valve lifters become excessively worn, damaged, or fail, they should be replaced promptly. Faulty lifters can cause severe engine damage if left unattended. Replacing lifters typically involves removing the intake or exhaust manifold, valve covers, and related components to gain access to the lifters. Once the lifters are accessible, they can be carefully removed and replaced with suitable replacements according to the manufacturer’s specifications.

Performance Modifications

Valve lifters play a significant role in engine performance, and certain modifications can enhance their capabilities for increased power and efficiency.

Upgrading to Roller Lifters

One popular performance modification is upgrading to roller lifters. Roller lifters utilize rolling contact instead of sliding contact, reducing friction and allowing for higher RPM operation. Roller lifters are commonly used in high-performance engines to improve valve control, reduce wear, and enhance overall engine performance. However, it is essential to ensure compatibility between the camshaft, lifters, and other valvetrain components when considering this modification.

Camshaft and Lifter Compatibility

When pursuing performance modifications, it is crucial to ensure compatibility between the camshaft and lifters. Different camshaft profiles and durations require lifters with appropriate operating characteristics to achieve optimal performance. Manufacturers often provide recommendations or offer camshaft and lifter sets tailored for specific performance applications. Proper matching and compatibility are vital to gaining the desired performance benefits while maintaining reliable engine operation.

Benefits of Performance Lifters

Performance lifters offer several benefits over stock lifters. They often provide increased valve lift, allowing for better airflow into and out of the combustion chamber. Improved valve control and higher RPM capabilities contribute to enhanced engine performance and power output. Performance lifters can also help reduce valvetrain wear, increase engine longevity, and improve overall reliability. These benefits make them a popular choice for enthusiasts looking to maximize their engine’s potential.

Considerations for Modifications

When considering performance modifications to valve lifters, it is essential to consider the overall impact on the engine and the intended usage. High-performance modifications may require additional enhancements such as upgraded valve springs, pushrods, or rocker arms to fully optimize the valvetrain. It is also crucial to consult with experienced professionals or engine builders who can provide guidance and recommendations specific to the desired modifications and engine setup.


Valve lifters, or tappets, are an integral component in the opening and closing of an engine’s valves, ensuring the proper flow of air and fuel for combustion. Hydraulic and solid lifters each offer their own advantages and disadvantages, catering to different engine designs and performance requirements. Overhead camshaft (OHC) and overhead valve (OHV) engines employ different mechanisms for valve actuation, relying on lifters and camshafts to control valve movement. Proper valve lifter adjustment and maintenance are essential for optimal engine performance and longevity, with signs of lifter problems warranting attention and necessary replacements. Performance modifications, such as upgrading to roller lifters, provide enthusiasts with opportunities for increased power and efficiency, but require careful consideration and compatibility with other valvetrain components. In conclusion, valve lifters play a crucial role in engine operation, and understanding their functions and maintenance is key to ensuring a smooth and efficient running engine.

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