Find out what causes a catalytic converter to go bad, the symptoms of a bad catalytic converter, and more with these tips from our expert mechanics.
What Does the Catalytic Converter Do?
Exhaust gases from the engine go into the catalytic converter to burn up unburned fuel. Overall, they’re reliable and last long. They can break prematurely, like from excessive fuel, oil, coolant or external damage.
Where Is the Catalytic Converter Located?
You’ll find the catalytic converter after the exhaust manifold and before the exhaust pipes connected to the muffler. It’s normally placed closer to the engine, and on some vehicles it may be part of the exhaust manifold.
What Causes a Catalytic Converter to Go Bad?
There are a few different causes that can make a catalytic converter go bad, such as fuel and coolant leaks.
If the engine is not running efficiently, excessive fuel can dump in the converter and heat and plug it up. With the engine running harder, you’ll be wasting gas, and you’ll notice a lack of acceleration and horsepower.
Spark Plugs and Ignition Coils
The fuel injector can also remain stuck open, dump fuel into the engine cylinder, and cause a misfire. To test this, you can swap the fuel injectors to see which injector is failing if you know it’s not the ignition coil or spark plug.
Oxygen (O2) Sensors
Oxygen (O2) sensors not sending the right signal to the computer can cause the catalytic converter to fail. The computer will take a false reading and dump more fuel.
Air Intake System Parts
If there is an issue with the engine burning oil, there could be a problem with the PCV system. If it’s not working properly, excessive oil can get into the combustion chamber and exhaust. It could be plugged up or not restricting enough and causing oil to leak into the intake.
Failed valve seals could be contributing to the engine burning oil. If they’re not sealing properly, oil will get past the valves and into the combustion chamber. If you have an excessive oil consumption problem, it could be from the valves.
Pistons and Piston Rings
The engine piston and piston rings can have carbon build-up that sticks the rings in the grooves. This can cause improper sealing. Oil can leak past the piston and into the combustion chamber.
Head Gasket or Intake Gasket
A worn head gasket is the most common reason for coolant to leak into the exhaust. You’ll find it between the cylinder head and engine block. Coolant will move through the ports and close to the combustion chamber. If the gasket is cracked, coolant will seep past and into the exhaust.
Along with the head gasket, on some vehicles the coolant passes through the intake gasket. If that’s leaking, coolant can leak into the exhaust system.
Symptoms of a Bad Catalytic Convertor
If the catalytic converter is glowing, that’s a sign there is too much air and fuel dumping into it.
Physical dents in the convertor can damage it. This can happen if driving off road for example and the converter take a hit from a a rock that leaves a big dent. The converter may leak if ripped open, and damage like this can break its internals.
Rattling Catalytic Convertor
The catalytic converter has a honeycomb inside. Unburnt fuel will travel in, disperse, and burn up. Converters that are plugged up will have a lot of spots on the filter or a solid piece. Pieces could also be rattling around, meaning it’s damaged inside and is broken.
Check Engine Light for Code P0420 or P0430
The converter has one O2 sensor in front reading exhaust gases and one at the back. The computer determines the difference and sees if the cat is working efficiently. If it isn’t, a check engine light could appear for codes P0420 or P0430, which are inefficiency codes of the catalytic converter.
How to Diagnose a Catalytic Converter
Test the Converter with a Back Pressure Gauge
You can remove the O2 sensor and put in a back pressure gauge. Then start the engine. If the engine at idle has a reading above 1 pounds per square inch (psi), then the convertor is plugged up. Or, if you rev the engine and it has a reading above 1.5 psi at 2500 RPM, then there’s a problem with the converter. If it’s plugged up, it’s because your vehicle is wasting fuel, causing the engine to overwork.