What Is a Catalytic Converter?

Cars are complex machines, and each part of the car is crucial for its proper functioning. The same is with catalytic converters, which every car must have. But what is a catalytic converter and how does it work? Find out in this article all there is to know about catalytic converters and how to maintain them.

When you are a driver, there are a lot of car parts you need to be familiar with in case these parts malfunction. But there is a huge difference in knowing how to change a flat tire or broken light from replacing a U-joint, for example, which is a much more complex thing to do. But there is no need for you to know how to replace car parts. It would be enough to understand which part has gone bad before you take it to the shop. So, here is how to recognize problems with the catalytic converter in your vehicle.

Let’s Start by Explaining What Is a Catalytic Converter

No matter if you drive cars for women or some of the best off-road vehicles, your car will produce gasses or emissions when running. These emissions are harmful to the environment, which is why, from the early ’60s, a Clean Air Act was introduced to help with the reduction of the harmful impact internal combustion car motors make. Here is where catalytic converters come into the mix. 

Catalytic converters are part of a car’s exhaust system, and their purpose is to convert harmful gasses into less harmful ones before releasing them into the air. The gasses like hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides are converted into less bad carbon dioxide, water vapor, and nitrogen. 

How Does a Catalytic Converter Work?

The catalytic converter is attached to the exhaust pipe that is located underneath the car. It is a metal box with honeycomb-like ceramic blocks inside the box. These ceramic blocks are coated with platinum (Pt,) rhodium (Rh,) and palladium (Pd). These metals, when heated up from the engine heat, create a chemical reaction that breaks down the harmful gasses and converts them into water vapor and carbon dioxide. The honeycomb structure allows these metals to capture as many harmful gasses as possible as they pass through the catalytic converter. 

Types of Catalytic Converters 

Each car model is different in design, and not each car has the same spark plug or even a valve stem, but each vehicle will have catalytic converters that are similar in design and will produce the same chemical reaction I talked about above. In essence, there should be two chemical reactions happening inside the catalytic converter – reduction and oxidation. 

The reduction will reduce nitrogen oxide by breaking it into nitrogen and oxygen, while the oxidation process will transform carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide by adding oxygen into the mix. So, in short, there are two types of catalytic converters: the ones that do reduction and the ones that don’t.    

Type of catalytic converter 
Two-wayThese are early-stage catalytic converters, and they only have oxidation catalysts. This means they can convert carbon monoxide into much greener carbon dioxide. Hydrocarbons are changed into water and carbon dioxide. 
Three-wayThese converters were introduced in 1981 in the USA, and aside from oxidation catalysts, they can also do reduction catalysts. That means they change nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and oxygen gasses.  

How to Know if Your Catalytic Converter Is Bad?

Like there is a way to tell if your car thermostat is bad, there are also indicators that can tell you that your catalytic converter is malfunctioning. And since it has a significant role in the car’s exhaust system, there can be a range of symptoms to indicate the problems with this part. And unlike changing the license plate bulb, some problems with the catalytic converters can only be fixed by professionals. Here are the main symptoms to look out for: 

  • Fuel efficiency going down – If your catalytic converter gets clogged, it can reduce the amount of airflow through the engine. The engine will try to compensate for this by burning more fuel which will lead to you spending more money on gas than usual. 
  • “Check engine” light is on – From a bad relay to a bad clutch master cylinder, there can be numerous reasons for this light to turn on, and one of them is a clogged or malfunctioning catalytic converter. If this light goes on, the best thing to do is to connect your car’s electronics to a universal car code reader and see what’s happening. If you don’t know how to start a car with jumper cables or how to get access to the electrics of your vehicle, the best is to leave this job to professionals. 
  • The smell of rotten eggs – If the catalytic converter has some kind of internal damage, it will fail in its gas reduction process which will release the smell of sulfur or rotten eggs. If you smell this kind of odor, take your car to the mechanic immediately. 
  • Engine starting issues – If the catalytic converter is clogged, the harmful gasses will not have where to escape, which will increase pressure on the exhaust system, and your car may have trouble with ignition. 
  • Problems with acceleration – Same as with the above, the increased pressure on the whole exhaust system due to the trapped gasses may cause problems with acceleration.
  • Emission test – If your catalytic converter is not working properly, you will most likely fail the emission test, which is required by each state. 

What Will Happen if My Catalytic Converter Is Bad?

Unlike winter and summer tires, clogged catalytic converters are indicators that there is something wrong with your engine or exhaust system. Catalytic converters can not that easily get clogged, so if that happens, it means you have some other issues to resolve as well. If you don’t clean or change your catalytic converter, the problem will only cause more issues with the car engine. 

Usually, the clogged catalytic converter means you have a leak in your engine that allows unburned fuel to enter the exhaust system. Aside from leaking in the engine, there can be leaking head gasket and piston rings or bad valve seals that allow oil or other liquids to enter into the fuel mix.  

Can a Bad Catalytic Converter Damage My Engine?

The answer is yes. If you prolong and keep driving with the clogged catalytic converter, your engine will eventually get damaged. It will cause problems with overheating, which cause more serious, often irreversible, damage to the engine. Your car’s head gasket can also get blown if your catalytic converter is clogged. Even though there are few cases of this happening, it still can occur. 

Bad catalytic converter can cause serious issues with the car engine

How to Fix the Catalytic Converter That Is Broken?

In most cases, a broken catalytic converter will demand complete replacement, but in some cases, it can be fixed or cleaned. it all depends on the amount of damage the converter has suffered. Here are the most case scenarios you will have if your catalytic converter goes bad.

Complete Replacement of Catalytic Converter

If you haven’t caught up with the damage on time and your converter is beyond repair, you will probably have to replace it. This is usually the case with used cars or cars that have been through a lot. And this replacement will cost you a great deal of money. It is not like you are replacing windshield wipers – it is an expensive part that keeps your engine running healthy. Also, as I mentioned above, a clogged catalytic converter is usually an indicator that there is some other issue that needs to be fixed as well.

Cleaning or Unblocking It

If your converter is not too damaged or blocked, it can be saved by simple cleaning. You will have to remove it from the car completely and soak it in the specialized cleaning solution. Afterward, it needs to be washed with the power washer. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this alone, take your car to a shop and let them do the cleaning.

Driving without a Catalytic Converter

In theory, you can remove the catalytic converter and only drive with the pipe. However, in most states, this is illegal, so you may end up paying a fee or face some other consequence. Also, driving without a converter can cause issues with the engine as well, so do this only if it is necessary.

Prevent Problems from Happening

Nowadays, there are cleaning solutions you can add to the fuel system to clean your catalytic converter. These solutions have ingredients that work like catalytic converters, breaking harmful gasses into carbon dioxide, water, and nitrogen. Even though this will improve things at the moment, for a long-term solution, the best is to clean your catalytic converter regularly.

Other Preventive Measures to Keep Your Catalytic Converter Clean 

There are some things you can do on a regular basis to prevent your converter from getting clogged. The first thing you can do is to use premium clean fuel. Never use low-grade fuel because it is full of lead which can lead to the cloaking of your convertor and damaging your engine.

Also, make sure no debris enters your gas system, so make sure a gas cap is closed and working properly. Avoid driving in deep puddles and roads that have a lot of dirt. This dirt can enter your exhaust system and cause contamination of the catalytic converter. 

Another thing that can damage your converter is physical damage, so when driving, make sure you drive over surfaces that will not hit your exhaust pipe and converter. 

And last but not least, make sure that you recognize the issues on time and that you take your car to a check-up. The longer you wait the more damage will this malfunction cause to your engine and car in general. 

car pipe
Listen to what your car has to tell you on time

It Is All in Early Intervention

Believe it or not, the biggest problem people have with catalytic converters is theft. Due to their valuable metals, converters are easy targets on your car. And since they are easily removed, most people don’t even notice for some time they are driving without them. 

However, it can happen that your catalytic converter is clogged and malfunctioning, and if this is the case, early intervention will save you a lot of money in the long run. After all, driving with a clogged converter can lead to serious damage to the engine.

The first time you notice the problems I described above, take your car to the mechanic for a checkup. And keep in mind that this is not the only issue you will have to fix. There are always some problems that cause this to happen, so don’t forget to resolve those problems as well.