What is a Catalytic Converter, and Why Do We Need It?
The average car has a lot of parts—around 30,000—and each has a specific function. From the simple nuts and bolts holding everything together to the engine itself, every car is a complex combination of these parts. So, when it comes to the catalytic converter, you probably know that it’s a part on a car, but that’s likely it. It may surprise you to learn that a catalytic converter’s job is to convert harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they even leave a car’s exhaust system.1
Do you know what to do when your check engine light comes on? Learn more here.
Does My Car Have a Catalytic Converter?
If your car was manufactured after 1975, then the answer is most likely yes. Each car on the road is a source of harmful carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides.1 With millions of cars being driven each day, this pollution can create big problems. Exhaust emissions contribute to breathing illnesses, poor air quality, and environmental pollution.2 To combat these harmful effects, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strengthened emissions regulations in the mid-1970s, and the catalytic converter has been a required component on all cars since 1975 (the year it was created).3
How Do Catalytic Converters Reduce Harmful Pollutants?
Your catalytic converter is located on the underside of your car, in the exhaust system between the exhaust manifold and muffler.2 The part itself is either beaded or honeycomb shaped and coated in a metal catalyst, usually a combination of platinum, rhodium, and palladium.1 When exhaust passes through a heated catalytic converter, two catalytic events take place:
- The reduction catalyst is the first of the two catalytic events to occur. It uses the metal catalysts to reduce harmful nitrogen oxides by separating the molecules into nitrogen and oxygen. The nitrogen is trapped within the converter, while the oxygen passes through.1
- The oxidation catalyst is the second catalytic event. It reduces unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide by burning (oxidizing) them over the metal catalyst.1
Essentially, your catalytic converter filters out harmful byproducts in the exhaust and burns them up.2 And while the main function of a catalytic converter is to reduce harmful emissions, it also improves your car’s efficiency, and a well-maintained car will extend the life of your catalytic converter, minimizing the possibility of a costly catalytic converter repair or replacement.
What are the Signs of a Failing Catalytic Converter? Does Catalytic Converter Cleaner Work?
There are many possible indications that your catalytic converter is failing. A sluggish engine or reduced acceleration are subtle symptoms you shouldn’t ignore—get a mechanic to diagnose the problem as soon as you can. Dark exhaust smoke and the smell of sulfur or rotten eggs from your exhaust are more noticeable signs of a failing catalytic converter.4
Other car problems can lead to a damaged catalytic converter. Misfiring spark plugs or a failed oxygen sensor can cause a catalytic converter to overheat. It can also be damaged by contaminants in the fuel; leaded fuel will destroy the catalyst metals, though it is rarely found in the United States. Engine coolant can leak into the combustion system due to a faulty cylinder head gasket, eventually clogging the catalytic converter.4 Fluid leaks of any kind should be fixed quickly; this will help prevent potential damage to the catalytic converter or other parts of your car. While catalytic converter cleaner is an option for clearing minor clogs, chances are it won’t have an effect on larger issues.2
The best way to avoid having to repair or replace your catalytic converter is to follow your car’s recommended maintenance schedule and keep your exhaust, emissions, and combustions systems in good shape. A well-maintained car will help extend the life of your catalytic converter by ten years or more.4 But in rare cases, catalytic converter repair or replacement is necessary.
Learn about other basic car maintenance tips here.
What Does Repair or Replacement of a Catalytic Converter Cost?
Catalytic converter repair is sometimes an option, though it can be nearly as expensive as replacement. The average cost of repairing a catalytic converter can range from $1,000 to $2,500. This is due to the catalytic converter requiring precious metals like platinum, rhodium, and palladium. These materials are expensive for mechanics to purchase, resulting in a higher repair cost.3 Beyond replacing these metals, a deep cleaning is one of the only other repair options.6 If a catalytic converter has excessive wear, replacement may be the only option.
Similarly, catalytic converter replacement is quite expensive. A catalytic converter replacement starts around $2,000—and that’s just for the part itself.7 On top of that, installation and labor cost will further increase the price.
However expensive, when a catalytic converter replacement or repair is required, it’s a necessity for your car. Removing your catalytic converter is not a safe or legal option, as the EPA designated it a required component in 1975.3 A car will not function well without a catalytic converter, and small problems could eventually lead to engine failure.4 Not to mention the harmful emissions being released into the atmosphere.
Keep your aging car feeling young with our car care checklist here.
Of all the parts that make up a car, the catalytic converter is undoubtably one of the most important—and for a few reasons. The catalytic converter helps to reduce airborne pollutants that could harm people as well as the environment, turning 90% of harmful emissions into less harmful gasses.5 A well-maintained catalytic converter improves the efficiency of your car, directly affecting its overall health and performance.
Your mechanic can help you decide if and when you might need to consider replacing your catalytic converter. Repairs to your vehicle can be pricey but don’t have to slow you down. The Synchrony Car Care™ credit card is there to help you finance all the big automotive expenses - planned and unplanned – for your car, truck or RV. Find out more here.*
*Subject to credit approval. Valid everywhere Synchrony Car Care™ is accepted in the U.S., including Puerto Rico.
1. How Catalytic Converters Work How Stuff Works
2. Catalytic Converter Replacement & Repair Cost Car Brain
3. How Much Does It Cost to Repair a Catalytic Converter? Angie’s List
4. What Are Common Catalytic Converter Problems? Cars.com
5.What Do Catalytic Converters Do? Auto Anything
6. How to Fix a Catalytic Converter (Without Replacing It) LiveAbout.com
7. Catalytic Converter Replacement Cost Repair Pal
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