Leak Down Test Vs. Compression Test

Compression Tester and Leak Down Tester

Which is the best test to use?

To use a leak down test or compression test, which one is going to give you the best indication of what’s going on in the engine? Both a leak down test and compression test are ways to get a picture of the condition of the combustion chamber of your engine. However, one test is far better than the other

A Compression Test

A compression test is exactly as it sounds, it measures the amount of pressure that an engine can generate while cranking. The way that this test works is that all the spark plugs are removed from the engine. Then install a compression gauge in place of one of the spark plugs. Then crank the engine over using the starter. The compression gauge will record the amount of pressure generated by the engine, usually in PSI. Once one cylinder has been measured the gauge is moved to the next cylinder. Repeat the procedure on all cylinders.

Compression Test kit with adatpors
Snap On Compression Test Kit

A Leak down Test

A leak down test works by putting air pressure into the cylinder and the gauge measures the amount of pressure drop or leakage in the cylinder. First, you must remove the spark plug, then set the cylinder that you wish to test to TDC compression, (Top Dead Center of the compression stroke).  Then install the leak down test adaptor and connect to the gauge. The leak down tester is connected to the shop air supply and will put air pressure into the cylinder to test it. Once one cylinder has been tested the gauge is moved to the next cylinder. Repeat the test until all cylinders have been measured.

Snap On Leak Down Tester
Snap on Leak Detector

Pros and cons of Compression Testing

Pros, doing a compression test is a well-known and accepted test method. Most mechanics will have a compression tester in their toolbox and are used to using it. There are several styles of testers. Both the screw in type as well as a hand-held type that makes for a very quick test. As the tester is just held against the spark plug hole while the test is performed. Lastly, the test can be performed anywhere as it does not require a source of compressed air.

Cons, a compression test if done improperly will give you a false result indicating a low compression. If the vehicle battery or starter motor is defective resulting in a low cranking speed then the compression test will be false and most likely show low compression. If the throttle is not held in the wide-open position then the test will show a false low reading.

When a true low compression reading is given the gauge needs to be removed and then oil added to the cylinder and the test redone. This is an attempt to locate the source of the low compression. A high compression reading after adding oil to the cylinder indicates worn piston rings. This is also known as a “Wet Compression Test”.

Best Compression Testers

OTC 5606 Compression Tester Kit for Gasoline Engines
AZUNO Compression Tester Automotive, Digital Compression Gauge 200 PSI for Petrol Engine Cylinder Compression Tester Kit with Adapter & Hose
Mityvac 5530 Professional Compression Tester Kit, Black
OTC 5606 Compression Tester Kit for Gasoline Engines
AZUNO Compression Tester Automotive, Digital Compression Gauge 200 PSI for Petrol Engine Cylinder Compression Tester Kit with Adapter & Hose
Mityvac 5530 Professional Compression Tester Kit, Black
$61.85
$24.99
$60.34
-
-
-
OTC 5606 Compression Tester Kit for Gasoline Engines
OTC 5606 Compression Tester Kit for Gasoline Engines
$61.85
-
AZUNO Compression Tester Automotive, Digital Compression Gauge 200 PSI for Petrol Engine Cylinder Compression Tester Kit with Adapter & Hose
AZUNO Compression Tester Automotive, Digital Compression Gauge 200 PSI for Petrol Engine Cylinder Compression Tester Kit with Adapter & Hose
$24.99
-
Mityvac 5530 Professional Compression Tester Kit, Black
Mityvac 5530 Professional Compression Tester Kit, Black
$60.34
-

Pros and Cons of a Leak Down Test

Pros, when using a leak down test the engine does not need to be cranked over using the starter motor. This means the test can be done without relying on other systems than can produce a false reading. Because it doesn’t require a starter to crank the engine, an engine can also be tested while out of the car.  

This is great when checking a used engine or an unknown replacement engine. The leak down test is always conclusive. The source of the combustion leak is always known by the end of the test. If an intake valve is leaking air pressure can be felt coming through the intake system. If an exhaust valve is leaking then air will be felt or heard coming out the tailpipe. When the rings are leaking then air will come out of the oil filler cap. As a side note, there will always be some air pressure coming out of the crankcase as piston rings will never have a 100% seal.

Leak down test requires an air compressor

Cons, the leak-down tester needs compressed air to work. Depending on the size of the compressor being used it may not be as accurate as when the test is being performed in a shop. The test takes longer to perform. Because the engine needs to be set at TDC compression for each cylinder it just takes more time. Sometimes it can be hard to correctly locate TDC on all cylinders. If the cylinder is not right at TDC it will rotate when air pressure is applied to the cylinder. This means resetting the cylinder back to TDC and starting the test again.

Using a leak down tester on the engine
Using a Leak Down Tester

Best Leak Down Testers

OTC 5609 Cylinder Leakage Tester Kit
FAERSI Cylinder Leak Detector - Engine Compression Diagnosis Tester Kit - Cylinder Leakage Pressure Detector Test Set for Piston Ring, Valve, Head Gasket
Cylinder Leak Down Tester,Compression Test kit - Engine Cylinder Dual Gauge Leakdown Tester kit Diagnostics Tool.
OTC 5609 Cylinder Leakage Tester Kit
FAERSI Cylinder Leak Detector - Engine Compression Diagnosis Tester Kit - Cylinder Leakage Pressure Detector Test Set for Piston Ring, Valve, Head Gasket
Cylinder Leak Down Tester,Compression Test kit - Engine Cylinder Dual Gauge Leakdown Tester kit Diagnostics Tool.
$73.27
$33.98
$33.97
OTC 5609 Cylinder Leakage Tester Kit
OTC 5609 Cylinder Leakage Tester Kit
$73.27
FAERSI Cylinder Leak Detector - Engine Compression Diagnosis Tester Kit - Cylinder Leakage Pressure Detector Test Set for Piston Ring, Valve, Head Gasket
FAERSI Cylinder Leak Detector - Engine Compression Diagnosis Tester Kit - Cylinder Leakage Pressure Detector Test Set for Piston Ring, Valve, Head Gasket
$33.98
Cylinder Leak Down Tester,Compression Test kit - Engine Cylinder Dual Gauge Leakdown Tester kit Diagnostics Tool.
Cylinder Leak Down Tester,Compression Test kit - Engine Cylinder Dual Gauge Leakdown Tester kit Diagnostics Tool.
$33.97

So, which is Best?

For me, the leak down test far outweighs the time savings of performing a compression test. A compression test is subjective to cranking speed and temperature. So its results just don’t give a good enough picture of the combustion chamber condition to make an informed decision. If a true low reading is given, usually anything less than 100 PSI. There is still more work to find the actual source of the leak. For example rings, or valves.

Finding out where the leak is

With a leak down test, I know straight away if there is an issue or not. And if there is an issue I know exactly where to go to fix the problem. Even though the set-up time is a little longer, I know that I will have meaningful results that can be acted upon. So, if you are trying to decide on what test to use, my advice is to go with the leak down test.

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10 thoughts on “Leak Down Test Vs. Compression Test”

  1. Hey Kurt,
    Excellent explanation and comparison.

    As we know, the leak down test and compression test both are ways to get a picture of the engine condition. I would like to have both kits in my garage/workshop. If anyone hasn’t purchased an air compressor yet, the compression test is the ideal one. But the leak down test is the best.

    I would love to share this fantastic guide with my mechanic buddies.

    1. Hi Robert,
      yes not having a compressor really limits the range of testing you can do. And if you dont have that compressor then a compression test is better than no test at all.

  2. Champion Noah

    A leak-down tester may represent a larger initial investment, and a leak-down test takes more time to perform, but it can give you a more accurate and detailed picture of the engine’s overall health.

  3. Tucker Antonia

    If you stopped reading right now, a novice might choose a compression tester. You can’t use a leak-down tester without an air compressor or nitrogen tank. Someone just getting into engine work might not have either of those in the shop, which could mean a considerable extra investment. To use a compression tester, you remove the spark plugs, insert the hose of the tester into one spark plug hole, and crank the engine over. After about 4 to 8 revolutions, you read the pressure on the gauge. Repeat the test for each cylinder of the engine.

    1. Tucker, I understand your point. However, the other side of the coin is spending needless money on a misdiagnosed engine fault. If the battery is low or the person cranking the engine forgets to open the gas pedal and they get a low compression reading. Then they proceed to tear the engine down to fix the supposed low compression, only to find nothing is wrong. Now it would have been cheaper and more effective to spend $100 dollars on a small compressor than spend hours chasing a fault that doesn’t exist.
      Thanks for reading

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  5. Faustino Martyn

    Thank you, I have been looking for details about this subject matter for ages and yours is the best I’ve discovered so far.

  6. I couldnt agree with you more and Im quite happy someone at last came out and said this. Thanks for the wisdom, Paul

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