It’s one of the most common reasons for a check engine light: your catalytic converter is failing. In California, a check engine light automatically means you fail your smog test and cannot register your vehicle or renew its registration. So what exactly is a catalytic converter and how can you fix it and get your car on the road?

The catalytic converter is an emissions related component that is mounted in your exhaust system. Its purpose is to superheat unburned particles in the exhaust gases which are expelled from the engine. As the engine runs, the catalytic converter heats to an operating temperature of 500 - 1200 °F. At this temperature, it is able to burn off toxic particles in the vehicle’s exhaust emissions and convert them into water vapor and carbon dioxide. The catalyst inside is almost always comprised of precious metals such as platinum, rhodium, or palladium. To comply with the EPA’s stricter emissions regulations, most gas-powered vehicles since model year 1975 have been legally required to be equipped with catalytic converters. Early “two-way” catalytic converters combined oxygen with carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons to produce carbon dioxide and water. In 1991, two-way catalytic converters were replaced by “three-way” catalytic converters that also reduce nitrogen oxides.

A catalytic converter that is just beginning to lose performance is not a critical issue, but if you neglect it for long enough it can end up causing serious damage. If it becomes too blocked, your check engine light will begin to flash and your engine may engine may stall or no longer start. In extreme cases, the excess back pressure created by a clogged catalytic converter can actually cause internal engine damage. For this reason, it is recommended that you get your catalytic converter checked as soon as you begin to notice any symptoms of failure such as a check engine light.

Besides a check engine light, what are some other ways that you can tell if your catalytic converter needs to be replaced? Some of the symptoms of a malfunctioning catalytic converter can include loss of power, poor fuel economy, backfiring and running rough, and a rotten egg smell inside of the car or coming from your vehicle’s exhaust.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you consistently take short trips with your vehicle, your catalytic converter may not get hot enough to completely burn away the hydrocarbons in your exhaust. To prevent it from getting clogged, it is recommended that you take your vehicle for the occasional drive on the highway for at least 15 minutes. This will allow the exhaust to heat up sufficiently and burn off any deposits beginning to form in the catalytic converter.

Because they almost always contain precious metal components such as platinum, rhodium, or palladium, catalytic converters can be quite expensive to replace. The process of replacing a catalytic converter is also somewhat intensive and not something that most people could do at home. Because it is part of your vehicle’s exhaust system, it is necessary to raise the vehicle to remove the defective catalytic converter, and in most cars this means cutting it out and welding the new one in. It may also be necessary to replace oxygen sensors as well.

Depending on the age of your car, the cost of replacing your catalytic converter may vary greatly. Older cars with two-way catalytic converters may only cost a few hundred dollars for parts and a few hundred more for labor, but newer three-way catalytic converters can cost upwards of $1,000 for parts alone, and another $1,000 plus for labor. Expect to pay between $800 to $1,500 for most cars, although more than $2,000 is possible. However, a small consolation may be that it is uncommon for catalytic converters to fail until your car gets older or higher mileage. To get an accurate estimate for your specific vehicle, feel free to call ExperTec Automotive today or make an on-line appointment for a professional evaluation and estimate.


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