Originally “turbos” were devices that car manufacturers and hotrodders added to their cars solely to boost performance. Today turbos are installed on many cars right from the factory for another reason; turbochargers allow car manufacturers to put smaller engines in their cars and trucks and this means they can make cars that deliver higher gas mileage.
How turbos work:
For those who don’t know what a turbocharger is, here’s a quick explanation. Let’s start with the engine. All internal combustion engines generate exhaust gases. What turbochargers do is harvest the energy of these gases as they exit the engine and use it to spin a small turbine. This turbine, in turn, is used to drive pressurized outside air into an engine so the engine can develop more power. Essentially, what you have is a device that uses the un-tapped energy of exhaust gases to make engine combustion more efficient and powerful.
Turbochargers have been made for decades and work exceptionally well but they still operate under harsh conditions. Here’s why: Turbochargers spin very, very fast; the turbine in a turbocharger can rotate at some 80,000 to 100,000 RPM! Keeping an impeller spinning this fast requires some very good bearings and really good lubrication. Plus, turbos get very hot. They have 1600 degree exhaust gas driving one side of the impeller so the whole device gets hot pretty quick. Needless to say, automotive engineers pay very close attention to how hot their turbochargers get during operation and design them appropriately with lots of cooling mechanisms built in.
Making them last:
Turbochargers are not one of those devices that are forgiving of poor maintenance. We asked the service manager at Reedman-Toll Nissan of Bethesda, a local Nissan dealer in Bethesda, MD, for some tips on how to keep a turbo running for the life of the car and here is what he suggested:
Change your oil on schedule – Regular oil changes are the key to both an engine and it’s turbochargers life. The first turbos were oil-cooled by the engine’s oil and dirty oil could seriously shorten their lives. Today’s turbos are still lubricated by engine oil but are additionally cooled by a separate coolant loop. Despite that, you still want to change your engine oil on schedule and use a fully-synthetic oil.
Warm It Up – Get both your coolant and oil up to operating temperature before any “power driving.” Oil operates best when around 190 to 220 degrees F. Prior to that, when your engine is cold, its thicker oil isn’t as good a lubricant, so allow your engine to warm up.
Cool It Down – After working your turbo out a bit, give it some time to cool down before shutting off the engine. A minute or two of idling helps your oil cool the turbo (and the oil itself). If it’s not given proper time to circulate and cool, the oil can “cook” into abrasive sludge.
Note: Programmable “turbo-timers” are either on your car or are available for purchase. These devices allow your engine to run and cool down before shutting off.
Although turbochargers still operate in somewhat harsh conditions, they can last the life of your car if you maintain them well. Consider the methods we discuss in this article and your turbocharger should last the life of your car.