Welcome to the 3rd and final installment of “Superchargers A-Z”. If you haven’t already read Part 1 and Part 2, of this series, you may want to start there.
So far in this series we’ve discussed what a supercharger is, where it came from, and what technologies drive the core of any supercharger system – the supercharger itself. Today we’ll take a look at the supercharger system as a whole. Because of the radical performance differences between a supercharged engine and a normally aspirated engine, the supercharger must integrate with other critical engine systems like the ignition system and the fuel delivery system. Don’t worry, though, because almost all of the supercharger systems sold today are complete supercharger systems and do not require the addition of 3rd party fuel and ignition components. With this in mind, let’s break a supercharger system down into its main functional components – a discussion of the supercharger itself is not included in this article because it was the focus of part 2 of this series. Keep in mind that each supercharger system is designed for a specific application, and the specific contents of different supercharger systems vary greatly.
An example of a complete supercharger system.
The Air Intake System
Because a supercharged engine draws substantially more air than a normally aspirated engine, it is important to minimize intake restrictions. To ensure a smooth delivery of air to the supercharger, most supercharger systems include a high-flow air filter as well as low-restriction tubing or ducting to deliver air from the atmosphere to the supercharger. It is important to maintain a clean air filter to minimize the particles that come into contact with the supercharger’s impeller, rotors, or screws. Most supercharger systems will draw air from behind the fender wall, where there is an abundance of cool air that has not been heated by the engine. Because superchargers heat air as it is compressed, a cool air supply helps to keep the charge temperatures at a reasonable level. On a non-intercooled application, the cold air pickup can lower the charge temperature by up to 60 degrees!
On most vehicles the incoming air charge passes through a Mass Air Flow sensor (aka MAF) on its way to the supercharger, although on centrifugal superchargers, the Mass Air Flow sensor can be mounted after the supercharger (“blow-through” setup). The Mass Air Flow sensor measures, you guessed it, the mass of air that the engine is drawing. This reading allows your engine’s ECU (Electronic Control Unit) to calibrate and deliver the appropriate amount of fuel for the incoming air charge.
Once the supercharger has worked its magic, the air must be delivered from the supercharger to the engine intake. Although many roots and twin screw superchargers bolt directly to the manifold, most centrifugal superchargers require an extra tube called a Discharge Tube to carry the air to the intake through the throttle body. This tube will normally be mandrel bent to minimize restrictions.
The Bypass Valve
Compressor surge is a problem that affects most superchargers and develops when the supercharger is creating boost, but the throttle shaft is closed. Although not a problem on some low-boost (5psi or less) applications This condition can occur under deceleration or while shifting between gears, and can cause the car to sputter and chirp. Under surge, the compressor forces air into the closed throttle body until the pressure inside the throttle body is higher than the amount of pressure being created by the supercharger, and the air tries to pop backward through the supercharger. At that point, pressure is released inside the throttle body and the compressor forces air back through the supercharger and into the throttle body, which again has nowhere to go, and the process repeats. While surge normally is not highly damaging to the engine it is certainly annoying and can cause damage with time. To eliminate these problems under surge conditions, a bypass valve (sometimes called an anti-surge valve) is used to release the excess pressure. The bypass valve is actuated using intake manifold vacuum, which opens the vent valve and releases pressure in the air-intake. Air is either released into the atmosphere (blowoff valve) or recirculated back through the supercharger compressor (bypass valve).
The Intercooler / Aftercooler
Some supercharger systems include an aftercooler (more commonly called an “intercooler”). The purpose of the intercooler is to remove heat from the air to create a cooler, more densely packed air charge – more on this in Let’s Talk Intercoolers, and Aftercooling – Vortech Style. Although the intercooler is not necessary on most street applications, its performance becomes increasingly important on higher-output systems (with correspondingly higher charge temperatures). The intercooler can be compared to a automotive radiator, only instead of cooling water or coolant, the intercooler cools the air. Air-to-air intercoolers force the air through a large air-cooled finned and fluted core, normally mounted in front of the car’s radiator. Air-to-water intercoolers force the incoming air charge through a much smaller finned and fluted heat exchanger that is cooled by water. The water is, in turn, cooled by a compact radiator that mounts next to the stock radiator.
The two main purposes of the intercooler are 1. to allow more boost on a given octane level of fuel without detonation, and 2. to help create more power by condensing the air charge. Thus, intercoolers are very common on high boost applications (10+ psi) and on roots-style superchargers, where discharge temperatures are higher than normal. Most street supercharger systems (5-8psi) do not come standard with intercoolers.
The Fuel System
As increased amounts of air are pumped into the engine with the supercharger, so too must increased amounts of fuel be delivered. This is where the power gains come from. Most stock fuel systems are not up to the task of delivering the increased volumes of fuel demanded by a supercharged engine. Without a proper fuel system, your engine may run lean, detonate, and obviously perform below its potential. Because every engine is different, the fuel system requirements vary greatly with different vehicles and with different supercharger systems. Sometimes larger fuel injectors and a larger fuel pump is required. On some applications, a fuel management unit (FMU) will do the job by restricting the fuel return line to build up fuel pressure. On other applications, additional fuel injectors are mounted to the intake manifold, while on some applications the stock fuel system works like a charm. Fortunately most supercharger systems include all of the fuel system components necessary to tune the engine to perfection. On some race kits, tuner kits, custom installations, and high output systems, it is up to the engine tuner to determine the engine’s fuel requirements and tune the fuel system accordingly.
The Ignition System
The engine’s ignition system serves the important role of telling the spark plugs when to fire so the compressed air and fuel is ignited at the exact right time to produce maximum power. Ignition timing can be advanced, causing the spark to fire earlier, or retarded, causing the spark to fire later. Ignition timing is critical not only for performance reasons, but also for engine longevity as it used to eliminate detonation (aka spark knock). With the added air and fuel that is compressed in a supercharged engine, the engine is closer to its detonation threshold. To avoid detonation, many supercharger systems retard the ignition timing, thus reducing maximum cylinder pressures and temperatures, and moving away from the detonation threshold. Because retarding the ignition timing causes a slight loss in power, a higher octane fuel or an intercooler are recommended for optimal performance, both of which allow for more timing without detonation. To ensure a complete and cool burn, high quality, cool heat range iridium spark plugs are also recommended for use on supercharged engines.
All superchargers are driven by a pulley that sits inline with the accessory belt or crank pulley. The size of the supercharger pulley is what regulates the speed at which the supercharger spins. Obviously, a smaller pulley turns the supercharger faster, and vice versa. The pulley is easy to change on all superchargers and is often used to increase (or decrease) the output of the supercharger. A simple pulley-swap can equate to huge power gains if the rest of the system is up to the task (in particular the fuel and ignition system).
Other components serve self explanatory roles. Mounting brackets obviously are used to attach the supercharger to the engine in a position such that the pulley can be spun from the accessory belt or an additional supercharger belt. The belt tensioner keeps the belt tight around the supercharger pulley, which is important to avoid slippage, especially on centrifugal superchargers which spin at high RPMs. Hardware, hoses, and fittings are of course necessary to attach the supercharger to the engine, connect the oil and fuel lines, and to install the ignition components.
That rounds out the complete supercharger system. Remember that every supercharger system is designed to meet the specific needs of the engine, given the desired level of output from the supercharger. For this reason, some supercharger systems come with only a few of the components mentioned in this article, while others come with it all. Generally speaking, higher output supercharger systems come with more components to meet the increased volume of air, which is why they cost more than entry level systems. Congratulations if you made it through all three parts of this series – you deserve a gold star and are now a supercharger expert!