The catalytic converter is a device installed into the exhaust system of your vehicle that reduces the emissions created by your engine. It contains a catalyst, which causes a chemical reaction with the components of the engine exhaust and either changes or reduces the product which exits through your exhaust pipe. The catalyst is generally a precious metal like platinum, palladium, or rhodium.
The catalytic converter works well at reducing harmful emission, however it only works at very high temperatures. When you first start your car, the catalytic converter does virtually nothing to reduce the pollution from the exhaust. The high temperatures required for it to work result from the chemical reactions taking place and not the heat from the engine exhaust. Driving your vehicle instead of idling will increase the rate of reactions and in turn help the catalytic converter reach it’s full operating temperature sooner, thus reducing your emissions.
A catalytic converter will generally last the life of your car, however under some conditions it can become clogged or plugged, reducing both its efficiency and the efficiency or your vehicle. Any time your engine is not operating properly, it can cause unnecessary wear and damage to the catalytic converter. Most often this is an issue of incorrect air/fuel mixture, and more often misfiring spark plugs. Under these conditions the catalytic converter’s efficiency is significantly reduced and can eventually cause it to fail. Under the worst scenario, the unburned fuel that it sent through the catalytic converter can result in a dangerous meltdown of the ceramic catalyst. For these reasons it is very important to ensure that spark plugs and spark plug wires are checked regularly and replaced if damaged or worn.
Generally the emissions control systems of your vehicle will alert you to a clogged converter by way of a trouble light on your dash indicating “check engine soon.” You can also tell if your converter is clogged by the performance of your vehicle. If your converter is plugged, it will create a restriction in your exhaust system, creating backpressure that can drastically affect engine performance and fuel economy, and in more severe cases, cause the engine to stall.