Electric, Nitro or Petrol - Which one's the best?
The number one question asked by beginners looking for their first hobby grade remote controlled vehicle is, “what’s better, nitro, petrol or electric?”. What power source is best suited for me and my particular application? Here are a few facts about the three options available that will help you make the right decision for your first radio control vehicle.
Radio controlled vehicles are generally available in at least one of these three different power sources, so let’s start with a quick insight of what power sources are available.
- Electric (Battery powered, most commonly a NiMH or LiPo battery is used)
- Nitro (Nitro fuel is a combination of nitromethane, methanol and oil)
- Petrol (2-Stroke fuel is a combination of Unleaded fuel and 2-Stroke oil)
All three have their advantages and disadvantages.
Let’s start with the mechanical differences with the fuel powered motors first as the ignition for nitro and petrol engines are very different.
Nitro engines use a glow plug, which requires an external ~1.5v battery powered glow igniter to heat the glow plug’s coil which is necessary to start any nitro engine. These glow igniters come in many different variations but the most popular ones are rechargeable which is generally included in nitro starter kits. Once the nitro engine is started, the glow igniter may be removed from the glow plug as the engine can re-self-ignite from the high heat generated by combustion.
Petrol (2-Stroke) engines use a spark plug, just as like most whipper snipper and chainsaw. The spark is generated from movement of magnets past a coil normally mounted on the flywheel, this is an automatic process that happens when the engine is turned over (like pulling on the pull start), this means there isn’t a need for a glow igniters or any other starting equipment.
Pre-mixed nitro fuel can be purchased from any good hobby shop. Nitro fuel comes in numerous brands and nitromethane percentages. RC car nitro fuel is typically between 10-30% Nitromethane, 12% oil with the remaining percentage made up with methanol.
2-Stroke fuel is a combination of unleaded fuel (which is available from a reputable petrol station) mixed with 2-stroke oil (normally at a ratio of either 25:1 or 30:1 for large scale RC cars).
Things to think about
I’ve noticed over the years by working in the hobby and helping many new-comers buy their first RC model, that everyone has a general misconception in regards to nitro powered radio controlled cars, buggies and trucks; although they can seem like the perfect choice with lengthy run times, high power outputs and not to mention the fantastic sound and smell of the small Nitromethane based engine, it's important to understand what is truly involved in the ongoing day to day running and maintenance/servicing needs of a nitro powered radio controlled vehicle.
There’s a fair bit of maintenance involved in any internal combustion engine so it’s a good idea to always carry out checks before and after using a nitro or petrol radio controlled vehicle.
Here is a quick list of things you may check/maintain before, during or after a run.
- Applying after-run oil
- Clean and re-oil the air filter
- Adjusting the carburettor needles (Tuning)
- Cleaning off all dirt and grime, attracted by the fuel
- Checking and tightening up screws that may come loose from the engine’s high vibrations.
Every brand new nitro-powered remote control car, buggy and truck will require a 3-5 tank engine break in (depending on manufactures procedure). This step is absolutely vital for all nitro engines to ensure lasting performance and long engine life.
There’s also tweaking and fiddling that goes into resolving any small issues that pop up unexpectedly not to mention the ongoing cost involved with consumable items, such as glow plugs, after run oil, air filter oil and nitro fuel which can all add up and should be considered when pricing up a new RC vehicle.
- Nitro fuel is usually $14-$20 a litre (depending on Nitromethane percentage and brand)
- Glow plugs $6-12 each
- Air filter oils $6-$10 a bottle
- After run oils $7-$11 a bottle
As a quick summary, I’d personally say that nitro based radio controlled vehicles are not well suited for those with little spare time, as they require a certain amount of “patience” to sort through any problems that will arise.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for an ongoing and involved hobby to test and expand your mechanical knowledge and test your mechanical abilities, nitro might be the perfect option. To truly enjoy these fiddly beasts you need both general mechanical knowledge and patience, as at times they can test both equally.
Petrol (2-Stroke) is a fantastic alternative for those looking for a reliable fuel powered remote control vehicle, with great reliability, lengthy run times (Up to 40-50 minutes) and with upgrades like a tuned exhaust pipe can make huge power outputs. Although they still require general maintenance, they are less maintenance demanding compared to their nitro-powered counter partner, as they’re less likely to overheat and don’t need as much attention when it comes to tuning nor do they require expensive nitro fuel.
Mixing up 25:1 2-stroke fuel is a lot cheaper coming in at around $2 per litre (compared to $14-$20 per litre for nitro) depending on the quality of two stroke oil. The main issue is that petrol engines are quite large meaning they generally can’t physically fit in 1/10 scale and most 1/8 scale remote controlled vehicles. Although HPI and Losi have both released 1/8 scale petrol monster trucks, they are more popular in larger 1/5 scale models which can be a bit expensive for those looking for their first hobby grade remote controlled car, buggy or truck.
Electric remote control models work by having a rechargeable battery pack (Normally included with beginner “Ready to Run” vehicles) they’re very reliable and don’t require much mechanical knowledge or maintenance. They’re very clean, easy to use and produce hardly any noise at all.
As battery and electronic technology have advanced over the past years, battery operated radio controlled cars, buggies and trucks have benefited greatly due to the development of lithium batteries and brushless motors. This has lead to some of the fastest radio controlled factory produced cars being electric, for example, the Traxxas XO-1 is capable of speeds up to 100mph (160kmh).
Electric powered vehicles can also achieve lengthy run times due to the development of battery technology allowing much larger energy densities than ever before. Lithium batteries can achieve run times up to 40+ minutes which is a lot longer than previous battery packs could offer.
They also have very little ongoing costs as they don’t require consumable items such as nitro/petrol fuel, glow plug/spark plugs, air filters, oils, etc. Without the use of an oil-based fuel source, they don’t attract as much dirt or grime, making them easy to clean with the use of an air compressor. All in all, electric radio controlled models are a great alternative for beginners with little or no knowledge about the hobby, or even experts wanting something super quick.
Many of the big brands such as HPI, Traxxas, Losi and HSP will offer their remote controlled vehicles in electric, nitro or petrol, or sometimes even all three, so there isn’t really any limitation of the type/style of vehicle/chassis you have to choose from. Whether you are looking for a monster truck, buggy or car, there are plenty of great models available. It’s more about personal preference and taste.
Hopefully you’ve found this information helpful, and we wish you all the best in finding the right remote control model.
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