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What Most Affects an Engine Control Unit?

Estimated reading time 4:30

Two primary performance drivers of the ECU in cars (Engine Control Unit) are fuel quality and heat. Both affect whether the vehicle ECU advances or reduces timing and possibly enters limp mode to protect the engine. Let’s take a closer look.


One of the most significant variables facing owners of performance street cars is the quality of the pump gas available from their local brands. Manufacturers of high-performance vehicles typically instruct car owners to purchase premium fuel, such as 93 octane. Most vehicle owners believe that high-octane premium fuel will produce more horsepower.

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Vehicle ECU and Timing

Some argue that higher octane doesn’t necessarily result in increased horsepower. The thought is modern computer-controlled fuel-injected cars self-monitor fuel and air mixture to compensate for engine knock and have one or more knock sensors in the intake manifold, cylinder head, or block.


However, this simplified explanation can be misleading because timing advance plays a part in extracting power. As detonation occurs and RPMs increase, the ECU in cars will remove timing to control the problem, which works against pulling maximum power.


So, what kind of engines need more timing? Answer: large combustion engines, classic car engines, forced induction engines, and engines running rich fuel mixtures. We should also mention forced induction because the most significant trend in modern cars has been to reduce engine displacement and add turbocharging. Now, let’s discuss knock sensors and the vehicle ECU.

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ECU in Cars and Knock Sensors

Because automobile manufacturers want to avoid engine warranty claims, the vehicle ECU and knock sensor work to limit early engine detonation. However, race engine builders know that the most power is found by “tuning to the knock.” So, what if you could extend the window of when the knock sensor kicked in, allowing you to advance timing to an acceptable detonation limit to make more power?


Fortunately, that’s what the fuel formulation experts at VP Racing Fuels wondered when they developed Octanium™ Unleaded.


Octanium UnleadedTM fuel additive provides an octane boost of up to 7 numbers to increase horsepower for classic cars, big block street hot rods, and modern sports cars. Check out the dyno test videos to see what Octanium can do for a GMC Sierra pickup truck and Ford Fiesta ST .


Octanium Unleaded is safe for limited use in cars and trucks with catalytic converters and 02 sensors. It also eliminates knocking and pinging, cleans fuel injectors, gum and varnish build-ups, and improves throttle response and acceleration.

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Vehicle Engines and Heat

Heat is the enemy of any mechanical system, and an engine and transmission are no exception. The engine coolant temperature (ECT) sensor monitors engine temperatures given off by the thermostat and/or the coolant. It let’s the engine know if it’s running too hot. Among it’s many functions, the engine control unit monitors the coolant temperature sensor.


Data from the ECT is sent to the onboard control system, which then decides whether to continue operating normally or adjust certain engine functions.


VP Racing Fuels has developed inexpensive solutions to help manage heat and improve power.


Cool Down: VP’s Cool Down is a coolant additive that improves the coolant’s performance and is safe for all radiator systems — ideal for racing, passenger, powersports, RV, and tow vehicle applications.


It reduces engine operating temperatures up to 25°F, increases coolant flow for better heat transfer, and lubricates all vital components. High-performance powersports engines operate at higher compression ratios and develop more heat.


Cooler cylinder heads allow the ECU to safely advance ignition timing with the threat of detonation, which increases horsepower. The corrosion protection aspect of Cool Down is essential because scales/deposits only 1/16” thick reduce heat transfer by up to 40%!


The increased use of aluminum in cooling and engine components presents another challenge for automotive and powersports owners. While aluminum dissipates heat better than most ferrous metal counterparts, it is the most sensitive to corrosion and electrolysis.


Cool Down contains highly effective organic ingredients that provide protection specifically to aluminum. Through a process known as “electro-crystallization,” Cool Down forms a thin, protective surface film on aluminum surfaces.

two bottles of VP Stay Frosty Race-Ready racing engine coolant and one bottle of stay frosty hi-performance engine coolant pictured in front of a sports car. Stay Frosty controls engine heat, which is factor that can have an effect on your vehicle engine control unit. It's 3 wetting agents and 100% reverse osmosis water formulation make it the best engine coolant for race cars and high-performance vehicles

Stay Frosty® Hi-Performance is a proprietary VP Racing Fuels coolant formulated for high-performance engines that require additional protection from overheating and limited freeze protection (0°F).


It contains a specialized blend of heat transfer agents and propylene glycol that improve the coolant’s ability to transfer heat away from high-temperature cylinder heads. Stay Frosty reduces engine operating temperatures by up to 14°F compared to conventional glycol-based coolants. As a result, it can optimize the air/fuel mix to achieve maximum power.


Cooler temperatures also increase the density of the air/ fuel mix and allow ignition timing to be safely advanced without the threat of detonation — resulting in more power and torque.


Robby Gordon Motorsports ran Stay Frosty Hi-Performance (street formulation) in their racing UTVs during the 2019 Baja 1000. They achieved a consistent 20°F (or greater) reduction in engine operating temperatures.


Stay Frosty is great for 3-season powersports use or year-round use in warmer climates where sub-zero freeze protection is not required.


VP also makes glycol-free Stay Frosty Race Ready coolant. It’s dyno tested and proven to lower engine temps by as much as 30°F. It’s great for virtually any race application and is a favorite of 2-wheel and 4-wheel racers to reduce temperatures and improve reliability.

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