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Performing Oxygen Sensor, Catalytic Converter Repairs

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It is a moral dilemma that many shops encounter on a regular basis. It starts when a good customer comes in with the check engine light ablaze. Running your usual diagnostics, you encounter a catalytic converter efficiency code, slow to respond oxygen sensor or some proprietary fuel trim code. Other than the light, the customer has not noticed any other running problems.

The customer has been loyal to your shop for several years and does not hesitate to perform any recommended services. Your dilemma is to either clear the codes and hope the light does not come back on, or to go deeper and resolve the problem.

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Even if the converter is operating below 95% efficiency or the oxygen sensor is bad, the chances of the light coming right back on are slim. If you clear the code, the light might stay off for a while until the system goes through two readiness cycles. This might take a couple of days or a couple of weeks. But, no good deed goes unpunished. The customer will be back and your quick fix will be forgotten.

Understanding Codes
OBD II systems with faulty catalytic converters will normally store a diagnostic trouble code (DTC) when the converter begins to fail. The OBD II converters use an upstream and downstream oxygen sensor to measure the differences in oxygen content between the inlet and outlet gases. In virtually every case, the OBD II system will detect a converter failure long before it can be detected using shop equipment.

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Consequently, before replacing an OBD II converter, always check the diagnostic memory for converter-related DTCs, such as a P0420. Also, make sure that the vehicle has exceeded its emissions warranty. If not, the vehicle must be referred to the closest dealership for warranty services.

OBD II monitors include the catalyst heater, catalytic converter efficiency, secondary AIR, O2 sensor heaters, EGR system, PCV system, thermostat and A/C system (where used). These are all “non-continuous” monitors and are not set until certain driving conditions have been met. The converter efficiency monitor, in particular, is a hard one to set and may require driving the vehicle at various speeds and loads so the OBD II system can get a good look at what’s going on.

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The converter monitor compares the reading of the upstream and downstream O2 sensors to see if the converter is working efficiently. If you hook up a scope to both O2 sensors and compare the waveforms, the upstream O2 sensor should be fluctuating up and down from rich to lean with voltage readings going from 0.6 volts or more down to 0.3 volts or less. The downstream O2 sensor, on the other hand, should remain relatively flat. If the downstream O2 sensor is fluctuating in sync with the upstream O2 sensor, it means the converter isn’t doing much.

Most converters start out at about 99% efficiency when new and quickly taper off to about 95% efficiency after 4,000 miles or so of driving. As long as efficiency doesn’t drop off more than a few percentage points, the converter will do a good job of cleaning up the exhaust. But if efficiency drops much below 92%, it will usually turn on the malfunction indicator lamp.

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With vehicles that meet the tougher LEV (low emission vehicle) requirements, there’s even less room for leeway. A drop in converter efficiency of only 3% can cause emissions to exceed federal limits by 150%. The LEV standard allows only 0.225 grams per mile of hydrocarbons, which is almost nothing.

If you have a vehicle with a converter efficiency code, don’t assume the converter is bad and replace it until you’ve checked for air leaks at the exhaust manifold, head pipe and converter. If possible, you also should hook up a scope and compare the upstream and downstream O2 sensor readings to verify both are working properly.

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One thing to keep in mind about non-continuous OBD II monitors is that they may not catch a problem until the vehicle has been driven several times and conditions are right to detect the fault.

Consequently, any time you’re troubleshooting an OBD II problem, it’s very important to use a scan tool that can tell you if all the monitor readiness flags have been set. If one or more monitors are not ready, the vehicle will have to be driven under varying speeds and loads until all the monitors are set. Then, and only then, will you get an accurate diagnosis from OBD II.

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Some vehicles have readiness issues when it comes to setting all the OBD II monitors. Turn the key off on a 1996 Subaru and it will clear all the readiness flags. The same thing happens on 1996 Volvo 850 Turbos. This means the vehicle has to be driven to reset all the readiness flags. On 1997 Toyota Tercels and Paseos, the readiness flag for the EVAP monitor never will set, and no dealer fix is yet available. Other vehicles that may show a “not ready” condition for the EVAP and catalytic converter monitors include 1996-98 Volvo, 1996-98 Saab and 1996-97 Nissan 2.0L 200SX models.

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Once all the monitors have been set, OBD II does an excellent job of detecting faults that affect emissions.

Mechanical Analysis
A single misfiring spark plug or a leaky exhaust valve can dump enough unburned fuel into the exhaust to overheat and damage the converter. This is why most converters fail.

When the converter gets too hot, it literally can melt the ceramic honeycomb or pellets that hold the catalyst. This, in turn, can cause a partial or complete blockage in the exhaust system that chokes engine performance and may even cause the engine to stall.

Replacing the converter will eliminate the blockage, but unless the underlying cause of the failure is diagnosed and repaired, the replacement converter will likely suffer the same fate.

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There are three basic types of converters: two-way converters that only handle HC and CO, three-way converters that handle HC, CO and NOX, and three-way plus oxygen converters that have an extra pipe connection for injecting air directly into the converter.

Replacement converters also must be EPA-certified, meet minimum performance requirements and carry a two-year, 24,000-mile emissions warranty.

New converters are covered under the vehicle manufacturer’s emissions warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles.

Oil And Exhaust
API SN – ILSAC GF-5 licensed oil hit the shelves in October 2010. This new oil specification places greater emphasis on protecting catalytic converters than previous oil standards. While this is good news for emissions, improved catalytic converter life has proven to be detrimental to some older engine bearings.

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Both the new API SN and GM Dexos oil standards require the use of a new type of “Phosphorus Retention” ZDP. ZDP or Zinc, as it is known, provides protection for engine components by creating a phosphate film. The creation of this phosphate film also results in a reduction of performance in three-way catalytic converters. The new “phosphorus retention” ZDP is less reactive, so it is less detrimental to catalytic converter performance. It is unknown how this new phospho-rus retention ZDP will perform in flat-tappet and high performance engines.

Another change associated with API SN – ILSAC GF-5 oils will be greater fuel economy performance. This improvement in fuel economy will be achieved by increased use of polymers called viscosity modifiers. These polymers help a “thin” oil act “thicker” under low stress conditions. While the liberal use of polymers helps improve fuel economy in modern passenger car engines, older-style push-rod and race engines produce greater shear stresses that can “tear” these polymers. When these polymers are sheared, oil loses viscosity, and that can lead to increased wear.

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More than ever before, hot rodders, engine builders and racers need to be aware that API-rated products are “compromised” due to passenger car OEM requirements for improved catalytic converter life, fuel economy and engine cleanliness.

To achieve these goals, oil marketers must reduce the phosphorus, sulfur and zinc levels in their oils, and they must use more polymers and aggressive detergents. While these changes are good for modern, low rpm, overhead cam engines, older push rod engines and high-rpm race engines need lubricants with higher levels of phosphorus, sulfur and zinc, as well as lower levels of polymers and detergents.

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These oils cost a little more per quart than premium passenger car and diesel oils, but they provide greater value and protection. The small investment in the right oil for your flat-tappet cam will save you big money in the long run.

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