How exhaust systems work

Internal combustion, by which fuel-burning engines derive power, can be a messy process. Fuel from the vehicle’s gas tank is drawn into the combustion chamber or cylinder within the cylinder head, where it is mixed with air drawn in from outside the vehicle through the air filter. From there a spark plug produces a spark from the vehicle’s electrical system, namely the distributor cap and wires, which ignites the fuel-air mixture, producing a small explosion.

This explosion drives the piston – which is seated flush in the cylinder – up, which translates the force of the explosion into the crankshaft. The crankshaft translates this power into a circular motion, eventually reaching the transmission, which transfers this power to the wheels. Finally, the remaining fuel-air mixture, both burned and unburned, exits through the exhaust port, and the cycle begins anew. This happens thousands of times a minute when a vehicle’s engine is running.

But what happens once the exhaust gases exit the engine’s combustion chambers? First, it travels out of the engine via the exhaust manifolds, also known as exhaust headers or simply headers. Since most vehicles have multiple cylinders, each combusting their own fuel-air mixture and thereby producing their own exhaust, the exhaust manifold collects the spent fuel from each cylinder. The exhaust is then sent further down the exhaust system via a single tube known as the tailpipe.

Noises your car's exhaust shouldn't make

Reducing polluting emissions

Exhaust gases undergo an important change before they exit the vehicle’s exhaust system. One of the most important in the process is the catalytic converter, which reduces the amount of toxic pollutants emitted into the air. In the U.S., automobiles are the primary source of air pollution. That’s one reason the EPA began regulating vehicle emissions and fuel standards under the Clean Air Act starting in 1970. Following the act’s passage, vehicle manufacturers began adding catalytic converters to the exhaust systems of their vehicles.

The catalytic converter doesn't use moving parts to scrub exhaust gases. Instead, it utilizes chemical reactions to almost totally eliminate toxic pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon in a vehicle’s exhaust. Within the catalytic converter a series of planes covered in catalytic metals such as platinum, rhodium or palladium chemically converts the pollutants into less harmful nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water, thereby reducing the amount of polluting emissions.

Because mufflers and tailpipes are constantly exposed to the elements, they may wear more quickly than other parts. (Photo by Fred Patton)

Because mufflers and tailpipes are constantly exposed to the elements, they may wear more quickly than other parts. (Photo by Fred Patton)

Finding a reputable shop

If your car is experiencing an exhaust system problem, it's a good idea to take it to a reputable mechanic or a muffler repair shop with experience with exhaust systems.

The cost to replace a new muffler is about $100, but serious exhaust system repairs can cost up to $1,500. Before having a repair done, ask what kind of warranty they offer and if there is a lifetime guarantee on parts and work.

You can talk with a mechanic whether it's better to use manufacturer or aftermarket parts for your exhaust repair.

Signs your exhaust needs repair

The cost to repair the exhaust systems or its components can vary widely by vehicle type, make and model, as well as which component needs repair and the extent of the damage. Replacing a catalytic converter, for example, can be significantly expensive, while re-hanging a loose exhaust pipe can be relatively inexpensive.

Whatever the repair, continuing to drive a car with a damaged exhaust will almost always cost more in the end than repairing the problem at the first sign of trouble. And it's important to remember that the muffler and exhaust system do more than just quiet the car, they also prevent carbon monoxide fumes from building up in the cabin, reduce polluting emissions and ensure the vehicle runs at peak efficiency.

Here are some indicators that your car may need muffler repairs or exhaust system maintenance:

1. Increased volume when the engine is running
When your car's exhaust note suddenly sounds more like a lawn mower or motorcycle, it's a good sign that your car needs muffler repairs. For other drivers, the sound of needed exhaust system repairs may sound like buzzing, a low rumbling or a slightly louder exhaust note.

Don't just turn up the radio to drown out the noise - get the car to a muffler repair shop. Delaying needed repairs can eventually cost more in the form of more extensive damage, such as having to replace an otherwise usable component such as exhaust pipe, catalytic converter or muffler because it fell from your car.

2. Rattling at stop lights or stop signs
You might notice you get drowsy when driving, you might see a dashboard warning light, or you might notice your car occasionally hesitates or chugs when you try to start it. If you notice any of these issues, or if your car rattles when not moving, schedule an appointment for the muffler shop right away.

The catalytic converter is one of the highest priced exhaust system parts. As far as safety goes, it's one of the most important parts to keep up. If a catalytic converter has a tiny hole, you might not notice it right away. The signs start out small.

Because catalytic converters contain precious metals, they have become a popular target of scrap metal thieves.

3. Engine vibrations
If you notice a new vibration or loss of power when operating your car, have the exhaust system checked at a muffler repair shop. You might notice the new vibration when you touch the steering wheel, foot pedals or car seat.

You might or might not hear a rumbling sound, depending on the size of the damaged area. An exhaust leak makes your car's engine work harder, and that extra effort sometimes causes vibrations so intense that the driver feels them before hearing the leak.

4. Decreased fuel efficiency
If you notice you have to fill up your gas tank more often than normal, have your exhaust system checked out by a muffler repair shop. Similar to the vibrations, increased fuel use is a sign something is wrong with your car. When the exhaust leaks, your engine works harder. When your engine works harder, it requires more fuel.

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