Home & Garden

Vehicle's exhaust system will let you know it has a problem

Angie Hicks
Angie Hicks MCT

It's easy to overlook basic automobile maintenance, but if you pay any attention at all, your car will sometimes tell you what ails it; you just have to speak its language.

Ignoring these signals, which many of us do, will end up costing you more in the long run. Cars are especially expressive when it comes to their exhaust system, which has an important job to do as it works to funnel out harmful gases produced by internal combustion away from your engine. The system helps your car with fuel efficiency, reduces harmful emissions and works to keep your car quiet.

"If the system is not working properly, you may smell exhaust inside the cab of your car or a sulfur smell," said Clay Whitehead, owner of Pronto Lube & Tune in Boise, Idaho. "It can be dangerous to your health."

The exhaust system consists of several components. The exhaust manifolds remove gases from the engine cylinders. Oxygen sensors inside the exhaust manifolds measure the ratio of oxygen to exhaust and can determine how well the engine is burning fuel, Whitehead said.

The gases are then funneled into the catalytic converter, which is in charge of reducing the amount of harmful pollutant gasses by changing the gases to water vapor and carbon dioxide. The vapor then is channeled into the muffler, which reduces noise, into the tail pipe and away from the vehicle. Replacing a faulty catalytic converter can cost more than $1000.

Here are signals that your car's exhaust system needs a checkup:

■ Black smoke coming from the muffler indicates a problem with fuel distribution.

■ Noise like a box of rocks being shaken as you idle indicates problems with your catalytic converter.

■ Vibrations can signal holes, leaks or disconnected components.

■ A sudden increase in your need to fill up at the gas pump can indicate a leak that's causing your engine to work harder.

"A loud noise in the engine could mean there is a hole in the exhaust system," said Joe Picker, owner of Reseda Automotive Centre in Reseda, Calif. "It depends how close the hole is to the engine. If smoke is coming from the muffler, it means there's excessive fuel coming in."

Picker said exhaust systems are not meant to last the life of a car, but proper maintenance will wring the most life out of them.

"They tend to wear out, especially in places where there is snow," Picker said. "In California, they may last 100,000 miles, but much less on the East Coast."

Picker said expensive repairs can cost as much as $1,500, while simple repairs, such rehanging a loose exhaust pipe, can be very inexpensive. Whitehead said a new muffler, for example, can cost $80 to $100.

If you want your exhaust system looked at, first find a reputable automotive service company. Finding a trustworthy auto pro who is honest about your vehicle's repair and maintenance needs can help you avoid being scammed or paying too much for a service you don't need.

"Every company has employees that know how to do it properly," Picker said. "Nobody usually pays attention to the exhaust system. Most likely they don't notice it until the "check engine" light comes on."