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Catalytic Converters are a Necessary Evil

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Catalytic converters are expensive, their benefit to the environment and our general health is controversial, and many are disappearing from automobiles around the country. An expensive trip to a state vehicle inspection station taught me more than I ever dreamed possible about these prodigious little devices.

In my recent article Do You Really Need a Newer Vehicle, I argued that it was almost always cheaper to repair an older car than to buy a newer one:

“If you don’t believe me, just look at all of the vehicles on the road older than yours, then ask yourself this question: If it is cheaper to drive a new car, then why aren’t all of those owners trading in their older cars too?”

This position was recently challenged when we brought our car to a Volvo mechanic for its annual state inspection. My wife and I were stunned when we learned that the car needed a new catalytic converter, and rear shocks to the tune of $1400, the vast majority of which was the catalytic converter.

Since the car is barely worth what it would cost to repair it, my first thought was to just sell the car and get another one! After settling myself down, I realized that this was not be the best course of action.

I am ashamed to admit it, but the second thought that crossed my mind was to seek out a more favorable mechanic in the area that may not “notice” that my car’s catalytic converter was rusted through. After all what do catalytic converters really do anyway?

After doing a little research and speaking to a couple of engineering friends, I learned about the importance of these expensive emissions control devices and how they truly have become a necessary evil to the modern day automobile owner.

What is a Catalytic Converter:
Unburned engine waste from your car is a principle source of air pollution which results in respiratory disease, smog, and acid rain. To remedy this situation the auto industry invented catalytic converters as a primary source of emissions control for their vehicles. Since the late 1970’s catalytic converters have become standard equipment on almost every car, truck, and piece of heavy equipment in use today.

The unit itself is located in the exhaust piping of your automobile somewhere between the engine and the muffler. Looking under your vehicle, follow along the exhaust line until you see a football sized bump(that’s it!).

Inside this expanded “football” is a massive “honeycomb” of ceramic material. This honeycomb has been coated with expensive metals (usually palladium or platinum) and other material that react with the exhaust from your engine to eliminate certain harmful emissions like nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and unburned carbon particles.

Catalytic Converters and Global Warming:
Catalytic converters do an excellent job of reducing the quantity of toxic pollutants emitted from your vehicle’s engine, but the process of incinerating unburned engine waste using such devices, creates another equally serious problem… Global Warming!

The byproducts of a catalytic converter’s “cleaning” of your engines exhaust are carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O), which are the two principal elements of global warming.

Are Catalytic Converters the Answer:
So which is better, less smog, acid rain, and respiratory disease, or less global warming? Unfortunately, all states require that your car meets certain emissions standards through the use of catalytic converters which gives many of us no choice. They are the law!

On the other hand some states do not require state inspections which open the door for some individuals to put a straight pipe in their exhausts or remove the catalytic converter and exhaust pipes completely.

Because of the expensive metals used in the manufacture of most catalytic converters, and the unit’s accessibility on the outside of the vehicle, many thieves have begun stealing the units and selling them on the scrap metal market for up to $100 each.

The good news is that as a result of record setting oil prices, people finally started to care again about smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles which invariably will result in less pollution in the atmosphere.

I can only hope that the recent slide in the price of oil does not lessen our determination for more environmentally responsible vehicles.


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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Philip November 24, 2008, 9:17 pm

    I just dropped ~$1600 on repairs on my vehicle, mostly due to the fact that I have not previously maintained the vehicle as I should have. It really makes you think when you are doing that if it is really worth it. I figure with that expenditure I need to drive it for at least another year before I could stomach the cost of this repair!

    Plust I just put on 4 new tires to the tune of about $700!

  • Ben June 25, 2009, 10:29 am

    Ouch! I feel your pain! In the long run it is usually cheaper if you pony up the money to keep your car maintained rather than waiting for something to “break”.

    It will also ensure your car will last longer delaying the time in which you may need to replace it!

  • john maj October 23, 2010, 11:35 pm

    I too debate whether or not to repair or buy new. I have a 2002 Volvo s80 t6 with 137k. I have repaired rebuilt trans, time belt, front suspension, and so on. I have put 5000-6000 dollars within the last 15 months. Granted I drove about 45 thousand miles, but the time and stress it has put on me is seeming not worth it. Car runs great, but I drive in constant fear of mechanical failure.

  • Ben October 26, 2010, 2:01 pm

    That’s one thing about these darn Volvo’s! Their repair bills ad up quickly! I’m thinking it may be time to cut my losses as well!

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