How to Find and Fix an Exhaust Leak

23 Feb.,2023


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A leak in your exhaust system can be noisy and create a drag on fuel efficiency. But an exhaust leak is more serious than those annoyances.

Breathing exhaust fumes from a leak can be dangerous—even deadly. That’s why it’s critical to understand the problem and how to fix it.

An automobile’s combustion cycle produces gasses that exit through the exhaust manifold before winding their way to a catalytic converter and mufflers. Finally, these fumes exit via the tailpipe. All along that path, engine exhaust is a mix of carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, and hydrocarbons. If there is a leak anywhere in the system, these pollutants could adversely affect passengers and anybody exposed to the fumes.

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Exhaust Leak Symptoms

Your engine sound changes. The most obvious sign of an exhaust leak is a change in engine sound. You might hear hissing, popping, or a metallic rattling—especially when accelerating. Take a drive with the windows down and listen.

Your gas mileage drops. Your engine is tuned based on gasses leaving correctly through designated pathways. So you might identify a leak if you notice a drop in gas mileage. If you are making more frequent trips to the gas station, that could be a sign of an exhaust leak.

You smell a leak. If you smell exhaust fumes, check for visible signs of a leaky exhaust. Look under the car and follow the path of the exhaust system. If you notice obvious gaps or holes, engine exhaust might be escaping.

Your Check Engine light comes on. Newer cars with catalytic converters, O2 sensors, and other electronics will often register a code and illuminate the dreaded “Check Engine Light.” A code reader might steer you towards the exhaust system.

Read this: What Does the Check Engine Light Mean?

Causes of Exhaust Leaks

Exhaust leaks can occur for several reasons. For example, a tubing joint may come apart within the system. The exhaust piping relies on hangers to hold it in place. If a hanger fails, the exhaust tubes create more stress on the joints, resulting in a leak.

If you run over an object or hit a pothole, that could damage the system. Salted winter roads corrode metal. As cars age, parts fail due to time and use. All of these factors could lead to an exhaust leak.

Finding An Exhaust Leak

If you suspect an exhaust leak, there are good techniques for finding the offending part. First, start up the car and try to hear and see the leak’s source. Then, use your hands to feel for an exhaust leak—but act quickly before the metal parts get warm.

Next, fill a spray bottle with soapy water—a mixture of one part kitchen soap to 10 parts water. Spray the solution near where you suspect a leak. If bubbles appear, you’ve found the leak. Perform this soapy-water test when the engine and exhaust parts are cold to avoid creating steam.

If you can’t pinpoint the leak, use a shop rag to temporarily block the exhaust. This will create more pressure in the exhaust system, making it easier to detect the leak. If you can safely reach under the car, gently wiggle the exhaust tubing to see if any components are loose.

DIY Exhaust Leak Repair

Gaskets are used to seal metal pieces that are bolted together. However, if the gasket in your exhaust system has rotted, it could create a leak. Try unbolting the two pieces. You might need to spray the bolts with penetrating fluid and soak overnight to make them easier to remove. Replace the gasket and bolt everything back together to see if it seals the leak.

If the hangers—the devices used to hold pipes—come loose, you might need to replace them to prevent the exhaust piping from rattling, sagging, and leaking.

If a section of exhaust piping has corroded and failed, it’s time to install replacement pieces. That process can be easy when the tube is short and straight. It’s harder with curved segments.

Leaks caused by catalytic converter or muffler problems can be best fixed with a visit to a professional repair shop—unless you have the necessary welding skills.

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You might be tempted to try a short-term solution, such as covering leaks with metallic tape or an epoxy bond. But that’s only going to last a few days or weeks. Remember, a leaky exhaust wastes fuel and can be dangerous. If you detect a leak, complete the repair as soon as possible.

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