EFI University – Learning the Science Behind Tuning

Too many tuners out there that think they know what they are doing and have no clue. There are people that become tuning gods to a specific application, but when their skills are tested outside what they know, they generally end in certain disaster. I have been around dynos and tuning for about ten years. I have seen my fair share of “tuners” come and go. There is a fair amount of people in the world that make a good living tuning a specific type of engine. But what happens when that specific engine “fad” dies? That tuner could possibly be left jobless. Though there were tuners long before computers. Listening to how an engine is running, exhaust gas temperatures, and how plugs look between runs have come and gone. Enter standalone engine management.

One company that is putting an end to the myth behind tuning is EFI University. They take the science behind tuning and teaches it through their various classes. We go sit in for a week during a session to see what it is all about.

Engines are Engines

What it all boils down to is that engines are air pumps, nothing more. If you know a few basic things about an engine, it doesn’t matter if it’s a carbed turbo small block Chevy or a naturally aspirated 1.6 liter, it can be tuned. There are a slew of standalone computers out on the market. There are various types of correction factors in which different tuners use to adjust fuel and ignition mapping. What it boils down to, they all do the same thing, just in their own language.

Yes, it’s a Yaris with a standalone

Tuning as a Whole

The majority of standalones use MAP (Manifold Absolute Pressure) sensor rather that MAF (Mass Air Flow) sensors. MAFs have to be calibrated per for the vehicle and pose limitations due to the large sensor that needed before the throttle body. A MAP sensor can work for almost any engine. All that is needed is a vacuum port for a MAP sensor to read. Once the ECU receives the electrical signal from the MAP sensor, it uses that value along with values from several other sensors like engine speed, water temperature, and air temperature to calculate the density of the air. The adjustment of the volumetric efficiency of an engine is the most common way to calibrate a standalone.

Back to School

Tuning in the past came with a lot of trial and error. When working with high performance engines that cost truckloads, no one wants their engine destroyed by a inexperienced tuner. Tuning schools were harder to find then good tuners. Over the last 15 years, tuning schools have made a lot of headway on turning unsure enthusiasts into local tuning icons. There is a science to learning to tuning and EFI University in Temecula, California has brought that to the public.

The History of EFI University and Founder Ben Strader

EFI University founder Ben Strader started out in circle tracks. He then got a job designing turbo systems for late model Porsches. This is how Ben learned how to use dynos and ECU reprogramming. This combined with the studies in engineering was the motivation he needed to start his own engine build shop in Lake Elsinore, California. Ben has logged over 6000 hours on a dyno and has worked on motors ranging from off road vehicles to airplanes. This led Ben into building EFI University.

EFI University started out as a weekend seminar called EFI-101 in Dallas, Texas. This event held in 2003 was suppose to be a weekend seminar to help a few people learn about tuning, little did Ben know what this was about to become. The response was overwhelming. Ben started developing a structured class to train the students evenly. The 101 classes simply covered the text fundamentals of tuning. The class evolved into a second class called Accelerated Certification Program (ACP). This is a five-day program that goes through the text side, but also into lives tuning. Everything from learning how to operate a dyno to developing a base map in a running car is taught in the ACP class.

Visiting EFI University – Day One and Two

Since EFI University’s main campus is about ten minutes away, I decided to stop by for a few days during their ACP class, though like a bad student I skipped out on the first day of class. Their first day starts with how an internal combustion engine works, volumetric efficiency (which is the key to understanding how to tune), CFM and altitude conditions. A lot of day one deals specifically with air. By the end of the day fuel is added into the equation. There is a grouping of air fuel ratios depending on high boost to naturally aspirated, broken over various fuel types and how different gas effects air/fuel ratio.

Finally for day one the class evolves into understanding basic electronics and waveforms. The general idea behind the electronics section is to familiarize you with how the systems work and concentrating heavily on understanding amperage and voltage. Sensors in the engine use two different waveforms, sine and square wave. The idea is to understand which sensors in a motor use the different type and why.

Day two is when I came to sit in the class to see how it all works. Instructor Chris Macellaro was already into instructing on injector duty cycle. On his desk sat an energy drink of choice for true motor heads, NOS. In front of Chris sat six students with an average age of about 22. Fresh coffee and donuts sat on the counter.

The students paid a lot more attention to Chris then what I remember in college. But when your paying to learn something your interested in, it comes with the territory. The text is simple enough to understand and most students follow along without question. But as your history teacher did in high school, Chris would make statements with incomplete answers, hoping the students were paying enough attention so there was a minimal amount the silence before an answer was made.

The second day concluded the rest of the textbook teaching. Remaining items included a chapter on tuning the engine. This section included everything from understanding ignition timing to cold start.

Day Three through Five

Day three starts the fun stuff. Chris introduces the class to their dynos. There are 2 Dyno Dynamics two wheel drive dyno and one Dynapack. The Dyno Dynamics fit the wheel in between two smaller rollers while the Dynapack bolt to the car’s hub. The class started out with how to setup the Dyno Dynamics dyno. The BMW was already on the dyno, but Chris went through the various steps needed to secure the car on the dyno. From there, Chris moved inside the car. He gave a demonstration on how to calibrate the dyno to the car and started to tune live.

Next stop was to get the class involved with getting the next dyno loaded with the Yaris. “Who wants to drive the car up on the dyno?” Chris asks and was quickly answered by an unsuspecting volunteer. “The idea is to get the wheels in between two rollers. You need to give it enough gas to get it over the first, after that it should settle in the middle. It is hard to get it past the front roller”, Chris remarked. The Yaris had a rough tune in it and had issues running; that’s all the fun of working with a car in need of a tune!

This is what happens when you overshoot the roller!

After a few failed attempts the student (guided by his peers) got it in the middle, but the car kept going and jumped over the front roller! Embarrassed, the student backed the Yaris into the middle and the rest of the class went on to strapping down the car. The last Dynapack was a little easier to setup since all that was needed was to remove the wheels and bolt on the hubs. The remaining part of the day was getting use to running on a dyno.

Day four and five was the students worked in two person teams on tuning. They were given blank ECUs and had to get the car to start. After the respective cars were started they worked on fine-tuning partial and open throttle mapping. The teams rotated between the Yaris, BMW 3 series and Civic. By the end of day five the class passed their final exams and were given their EFI University Cerification.

A Few Q&As with Ben Strader

There are many tuners out there that have their own way or correcting be it VE based or percent correction. Which is your favorite?

When you get into the different types of tuners, be it FAST, Megasquirt, Motech, etc what you see is different is a different graphic user interface. When you start to pick them apart, you will see they do the same thing. So an air temperature compensation for taking or adding fuel depending on temperature, it is based on the laws of physics. The various manufactures all abide by these laws it is just they display in different ways to end up at the same result.

What is the hardest vehicle you have ever tuned?

That would probably have to be the Legacy Airplane. It was a 1600 pound all carbon fiber airplane with 1100 horsepower, twin turbo 550 cubic inch engine. I had to tune it by not being in the airplane. It was very difficult not being able to hear what the plane was doing and simply relying off data that was being transferred from the plane to the ground. It was also extremely stressful that if I blew up the engine, it wasn’t like he could pull off to the side of the road, he comes out of the sky.

How do people tell the difference between a person that is a good tuner for a specific car and a good overall tuner?

Ask very specific questions about engines and tuning in general. If you asked “If I had an engine that was high compression, large bore, and short stroke, how would that be different from a low compression small bore, short stroke engine?” If the answer is like “Well I don’t know because the LS1s I deal with is this, or the Honda motor etc.” A real tuner treats an engine as it is an air pump and is not concerned so much with the amount of cylinders it has and if you understand how an air pump works then tuning it doesn’t matter on the exact configuration.

If someone comes to you with a car with a blank ECU, no basemap, how do you get the car to run?

This is exactly what we teach our students on the final day of the ACP class. The students are given a blank ecu and are expected to build a base map for the car. If you know the math involved and know how big the engine is, what RPM it is going to run at and the size of the injectors, you can get a vehicle running within 10 to 15 minutes. I don’t mean just run, I mean enough to be able to start it up and drive it to Texas and back with no problems. That’s is not saying everything will be perfect but what it comes down to it is the math and science.

So some people say you need to tune on the road for proper tuning, some prefer a dyno. If you had a wideband and laptop, where should you tune?

I always try to discourage people from tuning on the streets. The first is safety. Second is that it is a difficult environment to tune in. To make sure we are doing the right thing, we isolate the variables. A lot of people tune ignition timing on the street depending on how fast it can accelerate. The question I ask is, how do you know there was the same wind resistance as the last run? The same amount of traction? My point is, if you start introducing is uncontrolled elements and the reason why we have a dyno is to isolate those variables. So you know when you change fuel or ignition timing, it isn’t going to be affected by outside variables. I don’t care who’s dyno is more accurate, all gains or losses are going to be relative to the dyno you are on.

Last question, any good horror stories?

Haha, where do I start. I have had a number of things go wrong. If your in the industry long enough you will end up with a shelf full of trophies rather you like it or not. There was one that happened about a year ago. It was a all billet 3 liter 4 cylinder Volkswagen engine that is flat four on an engine dyno. I remember as soon as the connecting rod kicked out the side of the block it all turned into slow motion as this 8 foot diameter ball of fire surrounded the motor. Boxter style motors always make the best explosions. There was nothing we could do about the engine assembly problem as it spun a bearing.


Each student that came in at the beginning of the ACP class had a general idea of what tuning is about, though experience levels varied. The fundamentals are broken down in such as simple way that anyone can understand the principals of tuning. By the end of the week the street myths everyone learned through the years were replaced by the factual science behind tuning. The class departed EFI University with a solid understanding of how tuning works and how to apply it to any internal combustion engine.

EFI University’s Tuning Courses

EFI 101

EFI 101 consists of a total of 1½ days and focuses mainly on classroom discussions followed by an actual live tuning demonstration on a dynomometer. This class begins with a general overview of the basic functions and theory involved in controlling an engine using electronic fuel injection. In depth discussions about each sensor and actuator used, and their functions are held throughout the session with emphasis on interaction between students and instructors to ensure that everyone understands each concept before progressing to the next. Once the entire EFI system and its components have been discussed, the class moves into discussions on the basic concepts of how the engine operates and the methods used to actually tune the calibration. Specific attention is paid to understanding how the process of computing the correct engine control is accomplished and the common methods of progression through the tuning process from beginning to end.

Advanced EFI Tuning Workshop

The Advanced EFI Tuning Workshop is designed to help novice and moderately experienced tuners gain the essential knowledge and hands-on experience to move to the next level of tuning. tudents who have completed the EFI-101 seminar and wish to progress further and build upon their newly acquired skills are eligible to enroll in the Advanced Workshop to experience one-on-one coaching while tuning an engine in real time. This 8-10 hour class is taught in small groups of 4-6 people at a dynomometer facility, using an actual performance vehicle and allows students the chance to gain practical experience in Dyno operation, vehicle care on the dyno, building a base map from scratch and fine-tuning an engine using electronic fuel injection.

ACP Program

This Program is an intensive 5-Day course that includes all the existing material from EFI-101 and EFI Advanced Courses PLUS significant direct tuning experience using industry leading chassis dynos and participate in discussions of advanced topics such as Coil Dwell Time Mapping and Specialized Engine Tuning Equipment. Upon completion of the course, each student will have enough hands-on dyno time instruction to qualify them for taking their “High Performance Engine Tuner’s Certification” written exam.

About the author

Mark Gearhart

In 1995 Mark started photographing drag races at his once local track, Bradenton Motorsports Park. He became hooked and shot virtually every series at the track until 2007 until he moved to California and began working as a writer for Power Automedia. He was the founding editor for its first online magazines, and transitioned into the role of editorial director role in 2014. Retiring from the company in 2016, Mark continues to expand his career as a car builder, automotive enthusiast, and freelance journalist to provide featured content and technical expertise.
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