The catalytic converter is an important part of your car's exhaust system. Most cars starting in the mid-1970s were designed with these converters and having one installed in your vehicle is legally required to drive it if it's been made since that time. Unfortunately, when your catalytic converter goes bad the cost of getting it fixed can be quite steep. On average, the cost of repairing a catalytic converter can range between $900 and about $2,500.
You can save yourself some money on a catalytic converter if you buy an aftermarket converter rather than an OEM part. Oh yeah means original equipment manufacturer and that's usually how you refer to parts that were made either by the manufacturer of your vehicle or for the manufacture of your vehicle. These are almost always more expensive than the aftermarket parts that you can pick up on Amazon, or Autozone.com. A cheap catalytic converter that is an aftermarket brand might cost you $100 Or even less depending on where you buy it and the kind of car you drive. An OEM catalytic converter could cost you as much as $1,000 and in some cases much more. A quick search of AutoZone will show you that they sell catalytic converters for the Audi A4 that are almost $1,900. When you factor in labour cost you can see how the price can get to $2,500 or more.
How Does a Catalytic Converter Work?
The catalytic converter in your vehicle is there to prevent the release of pollutants that would otherwise be expelled in your exhaust. Obviously, car exhaust of any kind is going to have harmful gases in it, but they are greatly reduced thanks to use of catalytic converters which is why they were introduced to vehicles back in the 1970s.
The catalytic converter isn't just some kind of a filter that catches gases, it uses a scientific process to help reduce these toxic elements. The method by which a catalytic converter works is that it uses a catalyst, hence the name, to convert the harmful elements in your emissions into less harmful by-products. So, inside your catalytic converter there'll be a honeycomb pattern typically made of a ceramic material. This is then coated with the actual catalyst that is necessary for the conversion reaction to take place. Typically, this is a kind of precious and rare metals such as platinum, rhodium, or palladium. As the fumes from your exhaust pass through the catalytic converter the most dangerous chemicals, in this case carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides are exposed to high heat that causes them to react with the catalyst and then break down into less harmful components.
The hydrocarbons in your exhaust are the result of unburned gasoline. Through the process in the catalytic converter they will be converted into water and carbon dioxide. The nitrogen oxides, which are one of the most dangerous things your engine can make and are produced when the combustion reaction in your engine gets to too high a temperature of around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, are converted into nitrogen and oxygen gases, which are found in our atmosphere normally all the time anyway. And the carbon monoxide, a natural by-product of burning gasoline, becomes carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is still a potentially dangerous gas, but it is far less a problem then carbon monoxide.
Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Catalytic Converter
It can be hard to tell when your catalytic converter is not working properly because your car will still function if your catalytic converter fails. That said, you definitely don't want to go for too long without this working because of the dangerous emissions that your vehicle produces. It's not just bad for the environment that can be bad for you because you legally have to have a functional catalytic converter on your vehicle. If you don't you could end up facing some steep fines as a result. If you live in a place that requires you to do emissions testing oh, you're going to feel your emissions test right away with a non-functional catalytic converter.
When the catalytic converter starts to go bad there are a few signs that can let you know what's going on, but you should be on the lookout for.
What are the best diagnostic tools you have when it comes to things going wrong with your vehicle are the sounds that your car makes. You should be pretty familiar with the normal operating noises of your vehicle so that when something does sound different it's a good indication that you'll need to get something checked out.
When your catalytic converter begins to fail you might notice a rattling sound. As we mentioned, the inside of a catalytic converter has this ceramic honeycomb powder that's coated with the Catalyst metal. Those little honeycomb pieces can actually break free from the hole and fall into the converter. At that point it sounds a bit like a pebble in a tin can. The more of them that break free, the more rattling noises that you will notice.
Poor Engine Performance
If the catalytic converter in your engine is clogged with residue and build up, then the exhaust will not be able to leave your vehicle normally. This can have an effect on your engine's performance especially when you're trying to accelerate or travel up an incline. The vehicle will struggle and perform at less effective levels than what you're used to.
Bad Gas Mileage
Much like your engine performing poorly if the catalytic converter is too clogged with residue, it won't be able to allow emissions to pass through at the volume that your vehicle is used to. This will create kind of a clogged effect in terms of exhaust which pushes back into your engine. That in turn will affect the fuel-air ratio in your engine that is necessary for proper combustion. With too many exhaust fumes in your engine you'll end up burning gasoline and effectively. That means you're going to end up filling up at the pumps more often and also getting poor mileage at the same time.
A Burning Smell
There are a number of ways that smells can alert you to something unusual in your vehicle and a failed catalytic converter is no different. When the converter starts to fail it's not properly converting the pollutants in your exhaust into those less harmful materials. That means you're going to be burning different chemicals than you're used to in your exhaust and that will produce a distinct and unusual odour to alert you to this fact. The smell it produces will be something closer to sulphur than what you're used to, almost like a rotten egg odour.
The reason for this is because as part of burning gasoline your vehicle creates hydrogen sulfide as one of the by-products. This is produced in less quantities than some of the other gases that the catalytic converter deals with, but it is still present. The catalytic converter changes the hydrogen sulfide into sulphur dioxide. However, when it's not working it's not able to do that. Along with the smell you may also notice a darker smoke coming from the exhaust of your engine as well.
Check Engine Light
A check engine light could come on for one of any number of problems that are occurring in your vehicle. There are literally hundreds of things that can go wrong to cause this light to go off on your dashboard. However, a problem with your catalytic converter is definitely one of them. Typically, you need to experience one of the other symptoms we mentioned along with this one to confirm that the catalytic converters it's not the source of your problem then certainly a likely suspect.
Because there are so many reasons for a check engine light to go off and you can often continue using your vehicle for quite a while without any noticeable issues a lot of drivers attempted to ignore this warning. In terms of the catalytic converter since, as we mentioned, you don't need the converter to operate the vehicle this warning light can definitely be one that you're tempted to ignore. When you factor in the cost of catalytic converter repairs the Temptation would be very strong. Still, you shouldn't let it go for too long because of the potential harm it can cause to the performance of your engine and also the environmental impact it's going to have.
In order to help narrow down the issue with the check engine light going on, you can save yourself a trip to the mechanic for a diagnostic by getting your own OBD2 scanner. An on-board diagnostic scanner is what any mechanic will use to get to the source of the check engine light problem.
Failed Emissions Test
This particular symptom will not be faced by every driver since emissions tests are not required in every single state. You can look up whether or not your state requires emissions tests and how often or what the requirements are however. That said, if you do live in a state that does require emissions tests then you are guaranteed to fail if your catalytic converter is not working. If you don't get the converter repaired, not only are you going to have to pay to get it fixed eventually, you'll also have a fine on top of the repair bill to deal with. For that reason, especially you want to make sure your catalytic converter is in good working order.
Can You Drive with a Bad Catalytic Converter?
As we said, a catalytic converter is not integral to the actual functioning of a vehicle. Yes, you can drive with a bad catalytic converter but no you shouldn't drive with a bad catalytic converter.
The environmental impact is one of the biggest reasons you need to make sure you have a catalytic converter working in your vehicle. You can reduce up to 90% of the dangerous emissions from your exhaust with a properly functioning catalytic converter in place. That's a very big difference in the grand scheme of things, especially when you take into account that there are over 1.4 billion cars on the road around the world today. If none of those vehicles out there had functioning catalytic converters on them, we would be experiencing extreme amounts of air pollution compared to what we're already dealing with. The smog problem in major cities would be staggering.
In addition, and as it relates in a more immediate way to how your vehicle operates, as we've seen a catalytic converter that has failed can also lead to Performance issues. You'll be experiencing things like worst gas mileage and trouble accelerating as a result. So, there's definitely no upside to driving with a bad catalytic converter other than the few dollars you're going to save in the short-term but not getting it repaired right away. Just remember, you'll have to get it repaired eventually so you're spending that money on repairs regardless.
Should I Repair my Own Catalytic Converter?
Repairing your own catalytic converter is definitely something you can do if you are comfortable doing auto repairs. It's an intermediate repair job, so maybe not ideal for someone who is a beginner in terms of vehicle repair. That said, if you're not 100% sure what you're doing there are videos that you can look up on YouTube made by skilled mechanics that will show you what you need to do in a step-by-step process.
Given the price difference between a catalytic converter when you buy the part yourself and the potential cost related to it when you take it to a mechanic or a dealership, you could end up saving yourself quite a bit of money by getting this job done on your own.
One thing to keep in mind is that there may be a root cause for your catalytic converter failing that you need to address, for not something in your engine, that won't be fixed by just replacing the catalytic converter. So, keep that in mind after you do the repair.
The Bottom Line
Even though your car will function without a catalytic converter, it's definitely not a good idea to ignore the repairs if they need to be done. According to the EPA, 75% of carbon dioxide pollution comes from cars on the road. Keeping your catalytic converter working helps to keep these emissions down as low as possible and clean up the air for you, your family, and everyone else in the world. Just doing our part to be responsible citizens to make sure this part is kept in good working order. And, as we mentioned, your car is just going to perform better when the catalytic converter works. For those reasons, if you noticed that yours is failing, get it fixed as soon as you can.