Is your check engine light illuminating? Does your car feel sluggish and your fuel economy is worse? It appears you may have a blocked catalytic converter and it’s quite a serious issue that you will need to take care of. But fear not, we’ll be discussing how to unblock a catalytic converter. We’ll also discuss the symptoms you should look out for, as well as how to diagnose, and some possible repair bills you could be facing.
- What’s a catalytic converter?
- How to unblock catalytic converter
- Maintenance tips
Before we learn how to unblock a catalytic converter, it’s good to know more about it first and why it’s important. The catalytic converter is an emissions control device in your car’s exhaust system. It helps to reduce your car’s emissions by converting toxic gases your engine produces into other gases that are less harmful to the environment.
It does this by catalyzing a redox (oxidation-reduction) reaction, but we won’t get too much into detail on that (but we did in our guide on what’s a catalytic converter made of and what is in a catalytic converter).
Because this conversion is a high heat process, it will cause buildup and clogging in your catalytic converter. This will then lead to several problems since your converter is converting less gas. It can also create backpressure and cause your engine to misfire, among other problems. You can learn more about catalytic converters in the video below:
In a nutshell, the catalytic converter is a crucial part of your car’s exhaust system that controls emissions. If they become clogged, your car can’t work properly. In most cases, a catalytic converter can last for up to 10 years. However, they can become dirty or clogged, in which case you will need to learn how to unblock a catalytic converter.
Bad Catalytic Converter Symptoms
Since they are a crucial part of your car, there are several noticeable symptoms. Here are the signs you might have a blocked catalytic converter:
1. Driving With A Bad Catalytic Converter
A blocked converter will convert less gas into your exhaust system. This means less gas can flow through your exhaust system, and this can disrupt performance as well as fuel economy. You will most likely notice the drop in performance as you try to accelerate, where the car feels heavier than usual. Also, this can create backpressure and cause your engine to misfire. In certain scenarios, it can cause your engine to stall as you try to accelerate.
As for the fuel economy, this is because your car gets less oxygen when the converter is blocked. When your car gets less air into the engine, it compensates by injecting more fuel to keep the engine running. As a result, you use more fuel and your fuel economy is worse.
Reduced performance and fuel economy can be caused by other things as well, such as a blown head gasket or bad spark plugs. However, this is a good first indication that you have a blocked catalytic converter.
2. Your Car Fails An Emissions Test
In some states like Ohio, you will need to do an annual emission test for your car. If your car fails this test, then it’s likely you have a blocked catalytic converter. In any case, cars are designed to meet emission regulations otherwise they won’t be allowed to be on sale in the first place. If your car fails an emission test, then you have something wrong with your exhaust system and you will need to get that checked.
3. Check Engine Light
The check engine light is a straightforward way your car tells you that there’s something wrong. It usually indicates something wrong with the engine, the transmission, or the exhaust system. And yes, including the catalytic converter. You can identify if there’s a problem with the catalytic converter by scanning the check engine light.
When your check engine light is on, this means the car’s On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) system registers an error code from one of the sensors. When this happens, you can scan the OBD to see the error codes. From that error code, you can identify what exactly is wrong with your car. If you see the code P0420, then there’s a problem with the exhaust system.
We’ll teach you how to diagnose a check engine light so you can find out if it’s the catalytic converter or if something else is causing it. But before we do, we’d like to mention the check engine light means that there’s something wrong with the car and it needs your attention. We recommend immediately checking your car if you have a check engine light. Even the smallest problems can lead to more serious damage if ignored.
And if the check engine light is flashing rather than continuously lit, then there’s a major problem that you will need to attend to immediately. We recommend that you stop driving immediately if you see a rapidly flashing check engine light (such as the flashing check engine light in a Ford).
How To Test Catalytic Converter
Before you learn how to unblock a catalytic converter, let’s first make sure there’s actually an issue. As mentioned, if your car fails an emission test then that means there’s something wrong with the exhaust system. Likely with your catalytic converter. Another way to find out what’s wrong is by scanning for error codes. If you experience symptoms and your check engine light is on, we recommend trying this method.
1. What You Will Need To Scan A Check Engine Light
First and foremost, you will need an OBD scanner or reader. If your car was made after 1996, then your car is likely to have an OBD-2 system. And any car made before 1996 has an OBD-1 system instead. Make sure you buy the correct scanner otherwise you won’t be able to read your car’s OBD system.
An OBD scanner should cost no more than $50 to purchase, or you can buy more complicated ones for hundreds of dollars if you feel like splurging. But you really don’t need anything more than a basic one.
If you don’t feel like spending any money, you can borrow them from someone you know who owns one. Some mechanics or auto shops might be willing to lend it to you for free.
2. How To Use An OBD Scanner
Now you’ve got your OBD scanner, it’s time to scan your car. Here’s how to do it:
- Plug the reader into the car’s OBD port. This port is often located underneath the dashboard area, either above your pedals or knee. Keep in mind that some cars might have their port hidden out of sight. Check your owner’s manual or online to see where it’s located in your car.
- Once plugged in, turn on the OBD scanner. It should immediately scan the car. However, some scanners might require you to input additional information such as make, model year, VIN, etc.
- It will then display the error codes it has found. A more complicated scanner might also display a description of what’s wrong with the car, but if you have a simpler scanner then it’s recommended to take note of the codes displayed. This way, you can cross-check them with the owner’s manual later on.
- If you see the P0420 error code, this means you have a problem with the catalytic converter. We’ll discuss this in more detail soon.
If you see other error codes, then check them with your manual or online to understand what it means. If you need help on how to do this, watch this guide from Car and Driver:
3. What Does The P0420 Code Mean?
The P0420 code comes on when the sensor recognizes a problem with the catalytic converter’s efficiency. If you have a scanner that displays what the codes mean, it will usually say “Catalyst System Efficiency Below Threshold”. However, this is a generic code and several things might have caused this error code.
Including faulty O2 sensors, exhaust leaks, misfires that can damage the converter, and an intake leak. That being said, this problem often indicates a problem with the catalytic converter. Either the converter is damaged and needs to be replaced, or it’s clogged.
4. How Do I Make Sure It’s The Catalytic Converter?
The P0420 code is commonly caused by an issue with the converter. But since other faults can trigger it, another way to make sure is by testing the backpressure. To do this, you will need a backpressure test kit or a manometer. They should be no more than $50 to purchase. Or again, you can borrow them from someone you know who owns one. Once you have the test kit, here’s how to do a backpressure test:
- If your engine has a secondary air injection system, disconnect the check valve and install the test gauge.
- Turn on the car and let it idle. Backpressure can vary between cars depending on their make and model, but most cars should have 1.5PSI at most.
- Try revving the car to 2,000 RPM, the gauge should remain at or below 3 PSI. If it fluctuates or is above 3 PSI, then that’s back pressure building up and you may have a catalytic converter issue.
Here’s a video that might help you to do a backpressure test:
How To Unclog A Catalytic Converter
So, now that we’ve determined that there’s a problem with your catalytic converter, let’s discuss how to unblock a catalytic converter. If your catalytic converter is blocked, that means it’s very dirty and you will need to clean it. There are two ways of doing this:
Option 1: Cleaning Without Removing The Catalytic Converter
The first method on how to unblock a catalytic converter is by using a cleaner such as Cataclean or Liqui Moly. They should cost no more than $15 a can, and you will need around 300ml – 450ml. Also, make sure they are compatible with both gas and diesel engines, as some cleaners may be specific to one type of engine.
Afterward, make sure you only have 1/4 of a full tank, then simply pour in a can of cleaner into the gas tank. Once done, turn on your car and drive for around 10 – 15 minutes. If the clog in your catalytic converter isn’t too bad, then this method should work.
However, if your check engine light was on, then you will need to reset the OBD to clear the error codes. To do this, simply follow steps one through three on our guide to using an OBD scanner, then clear the error codes. This will then reset the check engine light and it will disappear.
As mentioned, if the clog isn’t too bad, this method should work. And once the check engine light has been reset and disappeared, it shouldn’t return. If the check engine light returns, then you will need to remove the catalytic converter and manually wash it.
Option 2: Removing And Washing The Catalytic Converter
The second method on how to unblock a catalytic converter is by cleaning it manually. Before you remove the catalytic converter, make sure the engine is cool. If you’ve just driven it, wait for about 1 – 2 hours for the exhaust system to cool down. Next, make sure you’re working on a level surface and the parking brake is on before you proceed. Afterward, if you feel like you need to then jack the car and put it on jack stands if you need more room to work.
Next, get under your car and remove the bolts that are holding your catalytic converter. Once removed, check for signs of physical damage and check the passageways of the converter to see the blockage. If it’s fully blocked, then ideally you should replace it altogether. Also, try shaking the converter and see if it makes a loud rattling noise. If it does, again, you should replace it with a new one.
If it’s only partially blocked, then soak the converter in a mixture of degreaser and hot water. Leave the catalytic converter in a container for 45 minutes, and check from time to time if the blockage has been cleared. Once done, make sure it’s completely dry before you put it back in your car.
Once you have reinstalled the converter, take your car for a drive and see if there are still any symptoms. And again, if you have a check engine light, reset the light and see if it returns (as one does when learning how to reset the maintenance light on a Toyota Camry).
If it doesn’t, then the method has worked. If you don’t feel like doing this yourself, some auto shops may provide a catalytic converter cleaning service, but it can cost you anywhere between $200 – $300.
Catalytic Converter Replacement Cost
Okay, so let’s say you’ve done both methods on how to unblock a catalytic converter we mentioned above, but you’re still noticing symptoms. And maybe the check engine light returns, what should you do? Well, first, we recommend checking again and making sure the problem is with the catalytic converter. If you’re convinced that the catalytic converter is the issue, and the cleaning methods haven’t worked, then you may need to replace the catalytic converter.
A catalytic converter costs around $600 – $800 for the part itself. As for the labor, the repair shop will usually charge anywhere between $70 – $130 per hour. The time it takes to replace a catalytic converter will depend on the complexity of your car’s exhaust system. On average, the total cost to replace a catalytic converter is around $950.
Needless to say, luxury and exotic cars will cost more and you might pay upwards of $2,500 for a replacement job. A catalytic converter for a 2010 Mercedes S-Class for example is around $1,200 for the part itself. So yes, if you need a replacement, be prepared for a hefty bill.
Cheapest Way To Fix Catalytic Converter
Well, you can always do it yourself and it can save you anywhere between $200 – $300 in labor costs. While it’s not the easiest replacement job, you won’t need specialized tools to do this. A car jack, the correct sockets & wrenches, and you can do it yourself. We recommend checking your owner’s manual first to make sure you have the correct tools.
Also, some cars may have a welded catalytic converter, in which case you will need to see it off. We don’t recommend you do this as it can be quite dangerous without proper tools and training. If this is the case, you will need to bite the bullet and pay a professional to do it. If not, then follow these step
- Jack up your car and put it on a jack stand to give your more room to work. Make sure you’re working on a level surface and your parking brake is on.
- Undo the bolts of the oxygen sensor (O2 sensor) and remove them before removing the catalytic converter.
- Loosen and remove the bolts of the catalytic converter. This might be a bit difficult as the bolts may have corroded, in which case you will need a penetrating liquid, like the WD-40.
- Once you remove the bolt, you can then remove the old catalytic converter.
- Install the new catalytic converter for your car (for more insight, check out our write-up on replacing catalytic converter with flex pipe, as well as the Ford V10 motorhome catalytic converter and the Dodge RAM catalytic converter). Make sure it’s the correct converter for your car, as an incorrect one can cause damage.
- Afterward, make sure to tighten up all the bolts and reinstall the oxygen sensor. You can then start the car and see if there are any issues.
We found a guide from Scotty Kilmer on Youtube that might help you with this replacement process (with some pointers on the price of a new cat converter):
Selling Or Scrapping Your Car
If you still feel that the replacement cost is still too high even if you do it yourself, then the next option is to sell your car as-is or scrap it (with some pointers on the Chrysler catalytic converter scrap price and Chrysler 300 catalytic converter scrap price, as well as Chrysler Town and Country catalytic converter scrap price and the 2005 Ford F150 catalytic converter scrap price). A car with a bad catalytic converter isn’t necessarily dangerous and you can still drive them.
But it can cause more damage to your engine over time, and it isn’t very nice to drive either since the engine can misfire if it uses more fuel. You can remove the converters and drive without them, but that will result in a loud rumbling sound as you drive along that neither you nor your neighbors will appreciate. Not to mention it’s illegal to remove your catalytic converter.
So, if you don’t want to replace the converter, then it may be time to get rid of your old car and get a new one (and learn how to track the catalytic converter by VIN number). If you feel that the cost is too high or it’s too close to your car’s resale value, then you might just want to get rid of it altogether. Keep in mind selling your car as-is means you will have to sell it under market value (and if you know how to sell a car privately).
Good Vs Bad Catalytic Converter
So, now let’s say you’ve replaced your car’s catalytic converters or you’ve got a new car. How to maintain the converters so that you won’t have to deal with another expensive catalytic converter replacement (after you’ve found a good catalytic converter replacement shop near me)? Well, there are some tips to maintain your catalytic converter:
- Make sure you’re burning the correct fuel-to-air mixture. If the mixture is too rich (too much fuel), it may burn the catalytic converter and cause damage. A lean mixture (less fuel) can also make the catalytic converter burn too hot. Most cars are programmed to run the correct mixture from the factory. If there’s an issue, there should be a check engine light. All the more reason not to ignore that amber light.
- Drive carefully. The catalytic converter is often not protected by the car’s underfloor, so you might want to watch out (to learn more, check out our guide on the Ram 1500 catalytic converter location and how many catalytic converters are in a Dodge Avenger). Road debris and bumps may damage your catalytic converter, especially if your car has a low-hanging exhaust. A bad enough physical damage can break your catalytic converter.
- Use a catalytic converter cleaner. There are debates on how often you should use a cleaner for your car. But we recommend about four times a year should be enough to keep your catalytic converter in good shape.
- Pay attention to smoke coming out of your car’s exhaust. If you have a gas car, it should produce clear and odorless smoke. If produces white, blue, or black smoke, then you have a major problem with your engine that you will need to attend to. Leaving this unfixed will cause damage to your catalytic converters.
Great! Now you know how to unblock a catalytic converter. Most catalytic converters can last for up to 10 years, and they can easily last longer than that if you take proper care of your car. If they do become clogged, check just how badly clogged it is. If it’s only partially clogged, then you can either use a cleaner or wash it yourself. However, if it’s fully blocked or you see any signs of damage, then it’s highly advisable to replace the entire unit.
FAQs On How To Unblock A Catalytic Converter
If you still have some lingering questions on how to unblock a catalytic converter, our FAQs here might help…
How To Unclog A Catalytic Converter
As it continues to catalyze your dirty exhaust fumes, the catalytic converters will naturally get clogged up with soot and pollutants. Without unclogging it, you would notice some driveability and performance issues down the line. Thus, it’s a good idea to have it unclogged and service every once in a while. The first option to do this is by using catalytic converter cleaners. Pour a bottle into your gas tank, and give your car a short test drive. If the clog isn’t so bad, it’ll gradually clear up the clogging. Alternatively, you can opt to completely remove the catalytic converter and have it washed. You can soak it inside a tub of degreaser and hot water, as it helps to clear out any cloggings.
How To Clean Catalytic Converter
More serious cloggings in your catalytic converter can’t be fixed with a can of cleaner. Instead, you’ll likely have to remove the catalytic converter altogether and get it washed. Once your exhaust system is cooled down following a drive, disassemble the catalytic converter. Inspect the condition of the cats. If it’s showing any signs of damage or is blocked entirely, you might have to replace it. Otherwise, soak the catalytic converter inside a tub of hot water and degreaser. Leave it submerged for at least 45 minutes. Make sure you check it periodically to ensure that the blockage has cleared up. Leave it to dry, and install it back onto your vehicle.
Can A Car Run Without A Catalytic Converter
Technically speaking, a car could run fine without a catalytic converter. It won’t damage the engine, exhaust, or any other components. However, given how modern ECUs have been tweaked, you might notice reduced fuel consumption when driving without any cats. On the flip side, certain performance cars could extract more power out of their engines with the catalytic converters removed. Plus, it sounds much louder without the cats, too. However, cutting out the catalytic converter will result in your car polluting more. Thus, why it’s illegal to run a car without catalytic converters, especially in parts of the world where emissions laws are strict.
Where Is Catalytic Converter Located
If you want to know how to unblock a catalytic converter, you’ll of course have to learn its location. Catalytic converters are found underneath your car, as a core part of the exhaust system. Specifically, between the engine (in particular, the exhaust manifold), and the muffler (near the exhaust tips). Catalytic converters are practically honeycomb-like structures, consisting of metal catalysts. These are usually a mixture of precious metals such as platinum, rhodium, and palladium. When your car’s toxic exhaust fumes pass through these catalysts, they’ll break them and chemically reduces them into less harmful emissions.
Can A Catalytic Converter Unclog Itself
If your catalytic converter is too far clogged, it won’t be able to unclog itself. On some occasions, there are methods that you can try to unclog the catalytic converters, though it’s not always effective. Generally, driving for long enough at a high RPM may prompt the catalytic converter to unclog itself eventually. But again, you’d often have to drive for very long distances at high RPMs, which isn’t practical and puts a lot of stress on your engine. In this instance, it’s best if you manually unclog and clean it.
How To Remove Catalytic Converter
To start with removing the catalytic converter, you’ll first have to jack your car up and secure it on some axle stands. Before you begin, make sure that the exhausts have been left to cool. Now, find the catalytic converter, and start by removing the oxygen (O2) sensors. Since the catalytic converter is likely rusted, try adding some penetrating oil onto the bolts to make the removal process easier. Finally, start by removing the bolts on the rear of the catalytic converter, before making your way toward the front of your car.
How Long Can You Drive Without A Catalytic Converter
Technically speaking, you can keep on driving forever without a catalytic converter, no problem. Your car doesn’t require a catalytic converter to function. And in some cases, the removal of a catalytic converter would free up a lot of exhaust flow, so much so that you’d even see a performance benefit. However, you wouldn’t want to drive for too long without a catalytic converter, as it’s illegal to do so. In every single state, removing a catalytic converter is a serious offence, and you could get fined thousands of dollars for removing a catalytic converter.
Do You Need A Catalytic Converter
By law, every single vehicle sold in the United States since the 1970s has come fitted with a catalytic converter, as it’s become mandatory. Moreover, removing them is a serious office that could see you getting fined thousands of dollars, even in those states that don’t overtly set emissions standards. Catalytic converters are a crucial component in scrubbing your vehicle’s toxic exhaust fumes. Then, catalyzing them and turning these toxic fumes into less harmful pollutants. While still not ideal, catalytic converters have massively contributed to a reduction in smog and air pollution.
What Causes The Catalytic Converter To Go Bad
There are many reasons why your catalytic converters fail. Most of the time, premature failure can be attributed to your car’s engine. An engine running rich (i.e. there’s an excess amount of fuel) will damage the catalytic converters by dumping hot fuel into the exhaust system. Other than that, poor maintenance and bad spark plugs will also impact the combustion process, causing further damage to the catalytic converter. Otherwise, doing too many short trips may intentionally be wearing your catalytic converters out far too soon.