You most likely have a p0420. I will post a very good article explaining this code.
[i:233075bff4] Your Check Engine light is on and you find a P0420 code for a catalytic converter fault. Does that really mean your converter has reached the end of the road and needs to be replaced? A new converter can cost $600 to $1000 or more if a new car dealer or repair shop does the job, or maybe half that amount if you do it yourself. It's an expensive fix that may or may not be necessary. The problem, in most cases, is an emissions issue, not a performance issue that affects the way the engine runs.
A P0420 diagnostic trouble code is a "generic" fault code that is set when the Onboard Diagnostic II (OBD II) system sees a drop in converter efficiency. The OBD II system monitors catalyst efficiency by comparing the switching activity of the upstream and downstream oxygen sensors in the exhaust. The upstream O2 sensor in the exhaust manifold reflects the condition of the exhaust gases as they exit the engine. The downstream O2 sensor in or behind the catalytic converter reflects the condition of the exhaust after it passes through he converter.
The catalytic converter is like an after-burner. It oxidizes (burns) any residual fuel vapors (unburned hydrocarbons or HC) in the exhaust. It also burns any carbon monoxide (CO) in the exhaust. The exhaust must meet federal emission standards, and if a problem exists that causes emissions to exceed the federal limits by 150%, the OBD II system is supposed to catch the fault, set a code and turn on the Check Engine light.
The OBD II system can't actually measure the concentration of HC or CO in the exhaust, so it compares the upstream and downstream O2 sensor readings to estimate how well the catalyst is actually doing its job of removing pollutants from the exhaust.
The upstream O2 sensor will typically show a lot of switching activity because the engine computer is constantly adjusting the fuel mixture between rich (more fuel) and lean (less fuel). When the engine is first started, the catalyst is cold and doesn't do much. During this time, the switching activity of the upstream and downstream O2 sensors are essentially the same because nothing is happening inside the converter.
When the converter reaches about 600 degrees F, it is hot enough to start reacting with the gases in the exhaust. This is called the catalyst's "light off" temperature. The converter now starts to clean the exhaust and remove the pollutants. This causes a sudden drop in the switching activity of the downstream O2 sensor, and the sensor's output voltage levels off to an average reading of around 0.45 volts. This tells the OBD II system that the catalyst is doing its job and that everything is fine.
The OBD II catalyst monitor only runs under certain operating conditions, which typically require a combination of city and highway driving on the same drive cycle. If the catalyst monitor has run and no faults are found, the converter should be functioning properly and the vehicle should be in emissions compliance. But if the catalyst monitor runs and finds too much switching activity in the downstream O2 sensor after the converter is hot and the vehicle is being driven, it may set a P0420 code and turn on the Check Engine light.
Does this mean the converter has failed and that the vehicle is polluting? Not necessarily, but technically speaking the vehicle is NOT in emissions compliance if it has a code and the Check Engine light is on.
Most states now use a quick OBD II plug-in test to check emissions compliance on 1996 and newer vehicles. The plug-in test is faster, easier and cheaper to do than a loaded mode tailpipe emissions test on a road simulator or dynamometer. The rules in most states say to pass the OBD II plug-in test, the vehicle (1) must have a fully-functional OBD II system (Check Engine lamp works and the diagnostic connector communicated with the engine computer), that the Check Engine light must be off (not commanded on), and that there are no current codes in the computer's memory.
Consequently, if the Check Engine light is on and you have a P0420 code or any other code, you will FAIL the test -- unless the state allows you to take an alternate tailpipe emissions test to see if your vehicle is actually polluting. Some states allow this but others do not.
If your state allows an alternate tailpipe test -- and your car passes -- don't worry about the converter code. Your OBD II system may be over-reacting to a perceived emissions problem that does not yet exist.
Every vehicle manufacturer determines the cutpoints at which various codes are set as part of their emissions compliance testing that is required to achieve emissions compliance for a new vehicle. Some set their cutpoints a little conservatively to minimize the risk of an emissions recall. In other words, they would rather pull the emissions trigger sooner rather than later if a potential emissions problem is developing in a vehicle. Consequently, the converter may not be operating at peak efficiency but is still functioning well enough to pass an actual tailpipe emissions test. The exact point at which the light comes on may be when catalyst efficiency drops to 96%, 95%, 92% or what ever number the vehicle manufacturer's tests have shown it adversely affects emissions. The law requires the light to come on if emissions exceed the limit by 150%.
Why did the converter go bad? Under normal use, converters are engineered to last upwards of 150,000 miles. But any number of things can make it fail prematurely. The most common cause is contamination of the catalyst because the engine is burning oil or leaking coolant internally (leaky head gasket or a crack in a combustion chamber or cylinder). Converters can also be damaged if they overheat due to ignition misfiring that allows unburned fuel to pass through into the exhaust (check for a fouled spark plug or bad plug wire). The same thing can happen if the engine has a bad exhaust valve that leaks compression into the exhaust (check compression).[/I:233075bff4]
Monday, February 16th, 2009 AT 6:07 PM