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Exhaust Backpressure

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Exhaust backpressure can cause a variety of problems. A plugged catalytic converter can
strangle engine breathing and cause a big drop in engine performance and fuel economy.
And if the converter plugs up completely, it can make the engine stall. The same thing can
happen if a muffler, resonator or double walled exhaust pipe collapses internally. Anything
that restricts exhaust flow will create excessive backpressure in the exhaust system.
Symptoms of Excessive Exhaust Backpressure
The classic symptoms of too much backpressure include things like a lack of high speed
power, poor fuel economy and even overheating. Anything that backs up exhaust pressure
into the engine will also back up heat. About a third of the heat produced by combustion goes
out the tailpipe as waste heat, so if the heat can't escape it can overload the cooling system
and make the engine run hotter than normal, especially at highway speeds.
If there is a complete blockage in the exhaust, the engine may start and idle fine for a minute
or two, then die as backpressure builds up and strangles the engine. In some instances,
backpressure may build up to such a degree that it blow out a pipe connector or the converter
shell. That makes diagnosis a lot easier, but in most cases you may not be sure if there is an
exhaust restriction or not. o in these instances, you need to measure backpressure.
How to Measure Exhaust Backpressure
To measure exhaust backpressure, you need a
pressure gauge with a scale that reads !ero to
"# psi, or !ero to "$$ k%a or higher &note' " psi
e(uals ).*+ k%a, and " k%a e(uals $.",# psi-.
If you don't have a low pressure gauge, you
can buy a basic exhaust backpressure test kit
for around .)$. If you want to be really
accurate you can use a digital manometer or
pressure gauge that displays pressure
readings in a variety of different units of
measurement &psi, k%a, inches /g, inches
/01, bar, etc.-. A tool that reads from $ to "#
psi will typically cost around ."2$.
3easuring exhaust backpressure is not as easy as it sounds because there is no (uick and
easy way to tap into the exhaust system. If the engine has an air pump, you can tap into the
exhaust system at the air pump check valve. 4isconnect the check valve and install a
pressure gauge. 5or accurate test results, however, the check valve must connect to the
exhaust system ahead of the converter. 6ote' if the air pump plumbing hooks up at the
converter, this techni(ue won't give you reliable results.
7ou can also check backpressure by removing an oxygen sensor from the exhaust manifold,
and connecting a hose fitting to your pressure gauge. If the 10 sensor is fairly easy to reach
and the vehicle is fairly new, it should come out without too much effort. 8ut on an older
vehicle, 10 sensors can be difficult to remove. And there is always the risk of damaging the
A third option is to drill a small hole into the exhaust pipe 9ust ahead of the converter and
attach a fitting for your pressure gauge or manometer. This may be easier than trying to
remove a "$ year old 10 sensor, but it also means you'll have to plug the hole afterwards with
a self:tapping screw or a small spot weld.
1n some diesel engines &5ord diesel trucks, for example-, there is a backpressure sensor in
the exhaust system that measures exhaust backpressure directly. 7ou can see the actual
value by using a scan tool and looking at the exhaust backpressure sensor %I4.
How Much Exhaust Backpressure is too much
Backpressure readi!gs at idle o! most e!gi!es should ge!erally "e less tha! 1#$ psi
%1& k'a(# )his will vary somewhat from o!e vehicle to a!other depe!di!g o! the desig!
of the exhaust system* the si+e of the pipes* how restrictive the co!verter* muffler
a!d,or reso!ator is* a!d whether it is si!gle or dual exhausts# see! some idle
readi!gs as high as /#0$ psi o! a few vehicles* "ut for most 1#$ psi or less at idle is
A partially restricted co!verter* muffler or pipe may flow e!ough exhaust at idle !ot to
cause a pro"lem* "ut chokes "reathi!g at higher e!gi!e speeds# So to test this
possi"ility* you !eed to rev a!d hold the e!gi!e at /&&& rpm# A 1good1 readi!g o! most
e!gi!es at /&&& rpm should "e 2 psi %/& to /1 k'a( or less# Agai!* there may "e some
vehicles that will read a little higher that do!.t have a pro"lem* "ut the readi!g should
!ot "e sig!ifica!tly higher#
'ay close atte!tio! to what the "ackpressure readi!g does while you are holdi!g it at
/&&& rpm# 3f it remai!s steady* cha!ces are there is !o restrictio!# But if the readi!g
gradually i!creases* it mea!s "ackpressure is "uildi!g up a!d there may "e a
3f you wa!t to rev the e!gi!e higher* say to 4&&& rpm a!d hold it* the "ackpressure
!um"ers will shoot up# Most stock exhaust systems will show "ackpressure readi!gs
from 4 to 5 psi %/0 to $$ k'a(* or eve! higher# As "efore* if the "ackpressure readi!g is
u!usually high or it co!ti!ues to clim" at a steady rpm* it usually mea!s there is a!
a"!ormal restrictio! causi!g a! u!healthy i!crease i! "ackpressure#
Exhaust System 3!spectio!
/igher than normal backpressure readings mean something is restricting the flow of exhaust
out the tailpipe. Though the converter is usually the trouble spot, restrictions can also occur
inside mufflers and resonators if a baffle collapses or the fiberglass sound:absorbing roving
clogs up an internal passageway. 4ouble:wall exhaust pipes can also collapse internally
causing a blockage.
Plugged converters are the most common cause of high backpressure
If the system has a blockage, inspect the exhaust system end to end for any obvious signs of
damage like a crushed pipe, severe corrosion, etc. 7ou can thunk the converter to see if it
rattles inside &indicating the catalyst substrate is broken-.
The next step would be to disconnect the exhaust pipe 9ust behind the converter to see if that
makes a difference in the backpressure readings. The readings will go down a bit when the
exhaust system aft of the converter is disconnected, but if you don't see any drop it means the
converter is probably plugged. The other possibility is that the head pipe between the exhaust
manifold and converter has collapsed internally.
If you see a big drop in the backpressure readings when the exhaust system aft of the
converter is disconnected, it means the converter is flowing okay and the blockage is
somewhere in the rest of the system &bad muffler, resonator or tailpipe-.
6si!g 3!take 7acuum to Check Backpressure
A!other way to check for a "ackpressure pro"lem is to check i!take vacuum at the
e!gi!e# 3t.s much easier to hook up a vacuum gauge to a vacuum hose or port tha! it is
to remove a! 8/ se!sor# 7acuum gauges typically display readi!gs i! i!ches of Hg
%Mercury(# 8!e i!ch Hg e9uals a pressure readi!g of &#4: psi or 2#25 k'a#
;ormal atmospheric pressure is arou!d 14#0 l"s# per s9uare i!ch at seal level# )his will
vary a "it with temperature a!d humidity* a!d it goes dow! at higher elevatio!s#
7acuum is created i!side the e!gi!e.s i!take ma!ifold "y the i!take stoke of the
pisto!s tryi!g to overcome the restrictio! created "y the throttle "utterfly# 8! most
e!gi!es will develop 1< to // i!ches Hg of vacuum at idle %except for most diesels
which have !o i!take vacuum "ecause they have !o throttle plate(# )he vacuum
readi!g at idle will depe!d o! e!gi!e wear* throttle ope!i!g* camshaft overlap* exhaust
"ackpressure* air temperature a!d de!sity#
)o check vacuum at the i!take ma!ifold* start with the e!gi!e off* a!d disa"le the E=>
valve "y removi!g or disco!!ecti!g its hose or o!e of its sole!oids# Co!!ect a vacuum
gauge to a ported vacuum source o! the i!take ma!ifold or throttle "ody# Start the
e!gi!e a!d !ote the vacuum readi!g at idle with the tra!smissio! i! !eutral#
3f the idle vacuum readi!g is lower tha! !ormal* or it co!ti!ues to drop while the
e!gi!e idles* a! exhaust restrictio! is causi!g exhaust pressure to "uild up a!d
"ackup i!to the e!gi!e#
3f you i!crease e!gi!e speed* the vacuum readi!g will drop slightly* the! sta"ili+e a!d
rise "ack up to withi! / to 2 i!ches of the vacuum readi!g you !oted at idle# A!y
sudde! drop of over 1& i!ches Hg of vacuum may i!dicate a "lockage pro"lem# Erratic
swi!gs of the vacuum i!dicator may i!dicate periodic "lockages caused "y loose
compo!e!ts temporarily "locki!g the exhaust system#
7acuum readi!gs ca! also "e affected "y other factors such as weak or "roke! valve
spri!gs* overadva!ced or retarded valve timi!g a!d,or ig!itio! timi!g# So if the !eedle
o! the gauge is "ou!ci!g arou!d* it could i!dicate a mecha!ical pro"lem i! the e!gi!e#