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Most references you encounter to catalytic converters these days are news reports of theft. While the precious metals they use make them valuable to thieves, their true value lies in their ability to convert harmful pollutants from a vehicle’s exhaust system into something less damaging to the environment. They play a vital role in any combustion engine vehicle, and their maintenance is important. What exactly does a catalytic converter do, and how long does it last?

What does a catalytic converter do?

A Catalytic converter sitting on a table.
Catalytic Converter | Getty Images

First appearing in the mid-’70s, according to J.D. Power, catalytic converters are devices designed to control emissions. They are installed in the exhaust system of most diesel and gas-powered vehicles. Its primary job is to reduce the number of harmful pollutants an engine produces during combustion. It works to minimize carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons.

The converter uses catalysts in the form of precious metals like palladium, platinum, and rhodium to transform pollutants into less harmful elements. The converters run at very high temperatures and require a distinct air-fuel ratio, perpetually monitored and adjusted by the engine’s control system, to do its job. 

Catalytic converters also have a part to play in engine performance and fuel economy. They help the powertrain operate more efficiently by decreasing the back pressure in the exhaust system.

Catalytic converter lifespan and upkeep

As autoevolution points out, catalytic converters have a limited lifespan of about 100,000 miles, but that’s subject to a few different factors. 

The make and model of the vehicle play a part, as do its driving conditions. The quality of the device itself also plays a part, as a higher-quality device is more likely to last longer. But even a high-quality device isn’t going to last as long in dirty urban areas with lots of stop-and-go traffic.

The type of fuel used can also play a part in how long a converter will last. Certain fuels like leaded gasoline can shorten their lifespan quickly. It’s one of the reasons automakers make fuel recommendations for their vehicles—to help prolong the life of the converter.

Regular maintenance is important for any vehicle, including keeping its catalytic converter running optimally. Exhaust system inspection along with oil changes and tune-ups, is a great way to be proactive and get ahead of any problems that may be developing that could damage your converter.

Catalytic converter cleaning and performance

Catalytic converters become clogged over time with carbon deposits and other contaminants, making them less effective and, if not addressed, can cause the device to fail. 

If the clogging is caused by carbon deposits, then cleaning can help you prolong the life of your converter. Explicitly designed to dissolve and remove carbon deposits, these cleaners can help re-establish the converter’s performance. According to AutoZone, there are many good products that can help clean the devices if they are simply clogged.

These cleaning products are formulated for use in the fuel chamber to clear out carbon deposits from the converter and the rest of your fueling system, including the fuel injectors. How will you know that your converter may need to be cleaned or replaced? You’ll notice increased fuel consumption, dark smoke, or a sulfur smell from the exhaust pipe.

If the converter is damaged or broken, you may have no choice but to replace it. The device may have been physically damaged by corrosion or impact. There may be internal damage from a collapsed or melted substrate. Be sure to have an experienced mechanic look at your catalytic converter for your vehicle’s next scheduled service to ensure it’s in good working order.


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