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What are Catalytic Converters, and Why are People Stealing Them?

Marc Skirvin
Marc Skirvin

What's in this Article

Did you know catalytic converters are a vital part of the exhaust system in your car?

They’re designed to reduce emissions, but they also have other essential functions. This article will tell you everything you need to know about converters and what they do for your car.

We’ll start with a quick overview of how they work, then we’ll dive into how they can improve your car’s performance. We’ll also take a good look at why thieves are so eager to steal the catalytic converter off of your car, and what you can do about it.

Keep reading to learn all about converters!

What Are Catalytic Converters?

Let’s start by getting clear about what a catalytic converter actually is. A catalytic converter is a device installed in the exhaust system of a car. It’s designed to reduce emissions and improve the performance of the car.

There are different types of catalytic converters, but they all work in more or less the same way. The basic principle is that the converter uses a catalyst to convert toxic exhaust gases into harmless ones.

Converting gases is a vital function because, without a catalytic converter, the emissions from your car would be much worse. That would mean more pollution and more damage to the environment.

It’s not just about the environment’s safety though. Did you know carbon monoxide can be deadly? You should check out these tips to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in your car or home.

It’s worth noting that converters are legally necessary for many countries. That’s because they make such a big difference to a car’s emissions. If you don’t have a catalytic converter on your car, you could end up with a big fine.

A 3-Way Catalyst Converter

The most common type of catalytic converter is a 3-way catalyst. It converts hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides into water vapor, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. A 2-way catalyst converter can reduce the levels of only carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

The typical catalytic converter comprises a ceramic honeycomb structure coated with a precious metal catalyst, such as platinum or palladium. The honeycomb is the structure that provides a large surface area for the reactions to take place.

The 3-way catalyst is most effective at higher operating temperatures. But it can still work at lower temperatures. That’s why your car’s engine needs to be up to temperature before the catalytic converter can start doing its job properly.

When the engine is cold, the exhaust gases are relatively cool too. This means that the hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide haven’t been fully combusted.

The nitrogen oxides haven’t begun to form yet, either. So, the 3-way catalyst can’t do its job properly until the exhaust gases are hot enough.

How It Works

Now you know what it does, but how does the 3-way catalyst operate? The 3-way catalyst works by using platinum and palladium to catalyze specific reactions.

Here are the reactions:

  1. Oxidation of carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide
  2. Reduction of nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and oxygen
  3. Reduction of hydrocarbons into water vapor and carbon dioxide

These reactions happen simultaneously, contributing to cleaning up the exhaust gas. Let’s take a closer look at each reaction.

Oxidation of Carbon Monoxide

The first reaction is the oxidation of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide forms when there isn’t enough oxygen present during combustion. It’s poisonous, so it’s important to get rid of it. The platinum and palladium act as a catalyst to help the carbon monoxide react with oxygen from the air to form carbon dioxide.

Reduction of Nitrogen Oxides

The second reaction is the reduction of nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides form at high temperatures, so they’re present in the exhaust gas when the engine is up to temperature.

Nitrogen oxides are really just nitrogen and oxygen, and they’re also poisonous. It’s important to get rid of them.

Reduction of Hydrocarbons

The third reaction is the reduction of hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are fuel molecules, and they’re present in the exhaust gas when the engine is up to temperature. The platinum and palladium help to reduce the hydrocarbons into water vapor and carbon dioxide.

So, that’s how a three-way catalyst works! It uses a precious metal catalyst to help oxidize carbon monoxide, reducing nitrogen oxides, and reduce hydrocarbons. This helps to clean up the exhaust gas and make it safer to breathe.

Revealing the Catalytic Converter Price

The cost of a catalytic converter can vary depending on the type of car you have and the size of the engine. Generally, the larger the engine, the more expensive the catalytic converter will be. That’s because there’s more exhaust gas to clean.

If you’re looking to save money on a catalytic converter, you can save a lot of money by shopping around. The best way to find the cheapest catalytic converter is to compare prices online.

You can also check with your local auto parts store or scrapyard. They may have used converters that you can buy for a fraction of the cost.

Whatever you do, don’t rush into buying a catalytic converter without doing your research. The last thing you want is to overpay for a part that’s essential to the operation of your car. 

Tips for Visiting a Scrap Metal Yard

Bringing cash or a credit/debit card is important when visiting a scrap metal yard. Most scrap yards don’t accept checks. You’ll also want to wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.

It’s a good idea to bring gloves, a hat, and sturdy shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of walking and rummaging through piles of metal.

Another thing to keep in mind is to call ahead to see if the scrapyard has the part you’re looking for. Some scrap yards offer warranties on their parts, too. Finally, make sure to throw away any garbage that you find – don’t leave it behind for someone else to clean up.

What Makes Converters So Valuable?

Now you know what converters are and how they work. Now for the next question, why are people stealing them?
Converters are very valuable because they contain platinum and palladium. These precious metals are in high demand, and they’re worth a lot of money.

Platinum is valuable because it’s rare and has a lot of applications. It can be perfect to use for jewelry, chemical processing, and converters.

You can also use platinum to make coins. Platinum is precious and expensive, but it’s worth the price because of its many uses.

Palladium is also a valuable metal because it’s rare and has a lot of applications. It’s used in jewelry, dental work, and more. Palladium is precious and expensive, but its many uses make it worth the price.

How Do Thieves Steal Converters?

How are thieves taking the converters in the first place? There are a few different methods.

Thieves usually use a saw to cut the catalytic converter off the car. They can do this quickly and easily, and it doesn’t leave any marks on the car.

Once they’ve cut it off, they take it to a recycling plant where they can sell the platinum and palladium. The recycling plant will melt down the metal and sell it on the black market.

Another method that thieves use is to steal the whole car. There are over 700,000 car thefts in the USA every year, and catalytic converters are the cause of quite a few. 

Finally, thieves will use a third method to remove the catalytic converter with a jack. This is a more difficult method, but it’s less likely to damage the car.

How Can You Protect Your Catalytic Converter?

Now that you know how thieves steal catalytic converters, you might be wondering how you can prevent your own converter from theft. First, always park in a well-lit area. You should also consider installing security cameras at your home.

Another good idea is to etch your VIN number into the converter. If it’s stolen, you’ll at least have some means of recovery. You could also look into installing a converter lock or alarm.

How to Handle a Theft

What should you do if someone steals your catalytic converter? There are a few things you can do.

First, you can report the theft to the police. They might be able to track down the thief and recover your converter. It’s not likely, but it’s worth a shot!

Second, you should replace the converter as soon as you can. This might be expensive, but it’s better than not having a converter.

Third, you can install a theft-deterrent system. This will make it more difficult for thieves to steal your converter moving forward.

Finally, you can increase your insurance coverage. This might help pay for replacing your converter if it’s stolen.

Keep Your Car Safe

Now that you know more about catalytic converters, you can take steps to protect yours from being stolen. You can do a few things, such as parking in well-lit areas and installing security cameras. 

We hope you never experience any type of theft, but now you’re prepared for anything. If your converter is stolen, and you want to junk your car instead of replacing it, we can help.

Here at Cash Auto Salvage, we’re all about putting the customer first. Ask us for a quote to junk your car today. We can give you an offer on the spot! 

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About the Author


Marc is the Co-Founder of Cash Auto Salvage and Director of daily operations. He retired from a leading Internet Marketing company in 2013 and has been involved in the automotive industry ever since.

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