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  • Writer's pictureRussell Westbrook

What Are the Functions and Importance of Catalytic Converters in Vehicles

Updated: Feb 26

Catalytic converters have garnered significant attention in recent years, albeit for less favorable reasons. A surge in converter thefts has been widely covered, leaving numerous vehicle owners burdened with exorbitant repair costs and inconvenience. In fact, in 2022 alone, approximately 153,000 catalytic converters were pilfered, and the figures for 2023 might surpass this alarming statistic. But what exactly is a catalytic converter, how does it function, and what can be done to safeguard it from theft?

Do all automobiles come equipped with a catalytic converter

For non-classic vehicles powered by gasoline engines, the answer is most likely affirmative. In 1975, the government mandated the installation of catalytic converters in nearly all passenger vehicles as a measure to mitigate air pollution. Alongside other pollution reduction initiatives, this led to significant improvements in air quality. An incidental benefit was the eradication of lead additives from fuel, as they were incompatible with catalytic converters.

A catalytic converter serves as a component within an internal combustion vehicle's exhaust system. In most instances, it resembles a flattened muffler, situated roughly halfway along the exhaust pipes. Contained within are precious metals, including platinum, rhodium, and palladium, which partake in chemical reactions to transmute emissions into less harmful compounds. In its earlier iterations, catalytic converters combined oxygen, carbon monoxide, and unburned hydrocarbons to produce less detrimental CO2 and water vapor. Subsequent advancements also addressed the reduction of nitrogen oxides.

What motivates the theft of catalytic converters

The focus on catalytic converters stems from the presence of these valuable metals. Typically, converters house three to seven grams of platinum, along with up to seven grams of palladium and two grams of rhodium. In the summer of 2023, the market prices for these metals reached staggering levels, with platinum commanding as much as $33 per gram, palladium at $42, and an astonishing $146 for rhodium. To provide context, gold was valued at $68 per gram.

Armed with this knowledge, thieves have honed their skills in targeting catalytic converters, adept at swiftly removing them. In less than a minute, they can detach the converter from the exhaust system using a cordless reciprocating saw and vanish into the night. For their efforts, these thieves can pocket anywhere from $50 to $300 from recyclers. In the case of hybrid vehicles, which require larger quantities of these precious metals, the returns can soar to as much as $1,500.

What is the cost of replacing a new catalytic converter

Repairing the loss can cost vehicle owners around $2,000, but that's not the only issue at hand. Replacement inventories are severely depleted, forcing some victims to endure months of waiting. While insurance coverage should theoretically compensate for the loss, many owners may opt to bear the cost out-of-pocket, considering their deductible or to evade potential future rate hikes. Third-party manufacturers have emerged to supply replacements, but consumers must exercise caution to ensure these units do not void their vehicle warranties. Some insurance providers have also stipulated that only factory replacements will be covered.

Related Reading: Why Do Most Engines Fail?

How can one shield their catalytic converter from theft

Although law enforcement has intensified efforts against theft rings, history suggests that criminals tend to find a way. It appears unlikely that converter thefts will witness a significant decline in the foreseeable future. So, what measures can vehicle owners take to protect their assets?

In some instances, standard vehicle security measures are applicable. Parking in well-lit and secure areas can act as a deterrent. Installing a motion-activated alarm system if the vehicle lacks one is another preventive step. For more specialized countermeasures, some owners have opted to weld their converters to the vehicle frame or have a custom metal enclosure installed. Engraving the vehicle identification number (VIN) onto the converter is also gaining popularity, although it may not completely deter attempts. While none of these measures are foolproof, they can, at the very least, discourage amateur thieves.

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How can I protect my catalytic converter from theft?

Vehicle owners can take several measures to protect their catalytic converters, including parking in well-lit areas, installing motion-activated alarms, welding the converter to the frame, installing a metal enclosure, or engraving the vehicle identification number (VIN) onto the converter.

Do all automobiles come equipped with a catalytic converter?

Nearly all gasoline-powered passenger vehicles manufactured since 1975 are equipped with a catalytic converter to reduce air pollution, following government mandates.

What is the cost of replacing a stolen catalytic converter?

Replacing a catalytic converter can cost around $2,000, with additional delays due to depleted replacement inventories. Insurance may cover the cost, but some owners may choose to pay out-of-pocket to avoid potential rate hikes or deductibles.

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