One of the most common causes of that annoying check engine light is a failing catalytic convertor. In California, any vehicle with its check engine light illuminated will automatically fail a smog test, which means that you cannot register your vehicle or renew its registration. So what is a catalytic converter and what should you do when it starts failing?
The catalytic converter is an emissions related component that is mounted in your exhaust system. Its function is to superheat unburned exhaust particles which are expelled from the engine. It heats to an operating temperature of 500 - 1200°F, which allows it to burn off toxic particulates in your vehicle’s exhaust gases, converting them into water vapor and carbon dioxide. The catalyst within your catalytic convertor is almost always made of precious metals such as platinum or palladium. Most gas-powered vehicles after model year 1975 are required by law to be equipped with catalytic converters and pass a periodic emissions test to be considered roadworthy. Early “two-way” catalytic converters combined oxygen with carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons to produce carbon dioxide and water, while most catalytic converters after 1991 are “three-way” and also reduce nitrogen oxides.
A catalytic converter that is just beginning to lose performance isn’t a huge problem, but neglected for long enough it can end up causing your engine serious damage. If it becomes too blocked, your check engine light will begin to flash - indicating a very serious problem - and your engine may stall or no longer start. Extreme cases will cause excess back pressure in your exhaust, which can lead to internal engine damage and very expensive repairs or even engine replacement. Because of this, it is recommended that you get your catalytic converter checked as soon as you notice any symptoms or issues, before it gets too serious.
Besides a check engine light, some of the other ways to tell if your catalytic converter is losing its capability are loss of power, loss of fuel economy, backfiring, rough idle or running, and a rotten egg smell inside of your car or coming from your exhaust.
Keep in mind that if you consistently take short trips in your vehicle, its catalytic converter may not be getting hot enough to completely burn away your exhaust’s hydrocarbons. To prevent it from getting clogged, it is recommended that you take your vehicle for a drive on the highway for at least 15 minutes occasionally, which will allow the exhaust to heat up sufficiently and burn off any deposits beginning to form in the catalytic converter before they get too serious.
Because of the precious metal components that most catalytic converters use, they can be quite expensive to replace, with parts alone costing several hundred to even upwards of $1,000, plus labor. Thieves even target catalytic converters, jacking cars up and cutting them out to sell for a quick few hundred dollars. In addition, the process of replacing a catalytic converter is somewhat intensive, and not something that most people would be able to do at home. In most cars, it requires cutting and welding your exhaust pipes, and sometimes the oxygen sensors will need to be replaced as well. For older cars with two-way catalytic converters, you may only have to pay a few hundred dollars for parts and another few hundred for labor, but newer cars equipped with three-way catalytic converters can cost more than $1,000 just for parts, and possibly another $1,000 plus for labor. Expect to pay between $800 to $1,500 for most cars, but keep in mind that a catalytic converter replacement on some vehicles which require more expensive parts and intensive labor can cost over $2,000. The good news is that catalytic converters usually last for a pretty long time - it’s uncommon for them to fail until your vehicle is several years old or you have high mileage. To get an accurate estimate for your specific model or set up an appointment, feel free to call ExperTec Automotive Costa Mesa today to make an appointment.