What is Nitrous Oxide, and is it Worth it? Here’s What You Need to Know

Bill Wilson

Nitrous is one of the most divisive topics in the world of performance driving. Some think that it’s a sure-fire way to turn any engine into a hyper-powered brute. Others dismiss it or claim that it’s an excellent way to destroy your car. As with most things, however, the truth is in between the extremes. To see why, let’s take a closer look at the subject.

It all Comes down to Oxygen

Try to fire up your barbecue grill in the vacuum of outer space and what will you get? Nothing. That’s because oxygen is necessary for combustion to occur. Without this vital gas conventional engines can’t function. That’s why the Apollo astronaut’s moon buggy and the Mars rovers both ran on batteries.

The more oxygen and the more gas you can cram into a cylinder, the more power you’ll get out of an engine. But it turns out that earth’s atmosphere is only 21% oxygen. This fact is vital to our continued existence, as pure oxygen would make the planet blow up as soon as someone lit a match. In terms of automotive performance, however, it puts a limit on how much power can be created using plain old air.

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“So why not pump pure oxygen into the cylinders?” is the obvious question at this point. Those who ask this usually have in mind those little tanks used by the sick or elderly. It’s a good thought, but it turns out that it won’t work. The main reason is that doing so would overheat the cylinder walls, leading to premature ignition and, very quickly, to a ruined engine. There are ways to get around this, such as cooling oxygen to a liquid state. But, unless you’re Warren Buffett or a Saudi oil prince, it’s unlikely you have the budget to go this route.

Fortunately, there’s a poor man’s alternative: nitrous oxide. When injected into an auto engine it releases extra oxygen and cools the surrounding metal. It also adds an extra squirt of fuel (in the case of “wet” nitrous) or draws more gas out of the existing system (as with “dry” nitrous). This gives the process extra “oomph,” meaning that the car transmits more force to the wheels. Hence, you get to where you’re going faster than you otherwise would – much faster, in most cases.

If this is the case, then why does nitrous have such a bad rep in many circles? Turns out it’s not the gas that’s at fault. Rather, the blame lies with knuckleheads who have no idea what they’re doing. Most NOS kits are rated according to the number of horses they add to an engine’s performance. 75 hp is safe for virtually any car ever made, from the classic VW Beetle to a tricked out ‘68 Camaro. From 75 to 150 hp will work in engines with forged aluminum pistons. Get any higher than that and you’re flirtin’ with disaster unless you add heavy-duty racing components. Doing so doesn’t require the income of an oil tycoon or a stock market genius, but it’s not exactly cheap either. It helps if you’ve got a really good job or at least a well-funded 401 K.

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Nitrous Oxide Can

Going back to the aforementioned knuckleheads, these guys think that God gave them a pass exempting them from the laws of physics. So they can do whatever the hell they want whenever the hell they want to do it. That works for a little while, until the machine for which they have maxed out their credit cards blows up in their face. Then they’re stuck with driving the wife’s pink Hyundai to work for the next five years, while paying off the $30,000 balance that the folks from Visa keep calling about.

Don’t be one of those dudes. If you’re thinking about adding nitrous to your car, then farm the work out to a shop that knows what it’s doing. If you go the do-it-yourself route, then remember that moderation is always best. By doing so, you can enjoy a healthy horsepower boost that will put more fun in your ride, while saving your budget and possibly your life in the process. That’s all for now. Next time we’ll look at the nuts and bolts of installing a nitrous oxide system (NOS) in your ride.

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