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Symptoms of a Bad Muffler, and How to Fix It

Stephen Fogel
May 1, 2018

muffler

The average muffler will last around five to seven years. It is a wear item, although improved materials and the hotter operating temperatures of today’s emission-controlled engines have resulted in higher-quality, longer-lasting exhaust system components. But you will eventually have to replace your muffler.

Your muffler is constantly exposed to high levels of heat and pressure. The metal can rust, it can crack, and holes can form. Your replacement intervals may be even shorter if you live in a cold climate with heavy salt use on the roads, or if your area has bad roads, big potholes and speed bumps that your car bottoms out on. All these factors will shorten your muffler’s lifespan.

Here are some symptoms of a bad muffler:

Your car sounds louder: Most symptoms of a bad muffler are sound-related. After all, if the single part of your vehicle responsible for keeping it quiet goes bad, you’ll hear it.

A sudden increase in the loudness of your car can mean that your muffler is bad, but it could also mean that your exhaust system is leaking somewhere else. An exhaust leak can also cause a fluttering noise. You could have a loose exhaust manifold, a rusted or separated exhaust pipe, or even a damaged or loose catalytic converter. Call your mechanic and have your entire exhaust system checked out.

Your engine is misfiring: Some engine problems can be the result of damage to your muffler. Engines are designed to run best with the entire exhaust system intact and sealed. Internal damage to your muffler may also cause the engine to run rough, without making your exhaust sound any louder. Call your mechanic before it gets worse.

Your fuel economy drops noticeably: A damaged or loose muffler can harm your gas mileage — as can a number of other problems. If you notice reduced fuel efficiency, have your mechanic take a look at your vehicle. Whatever the cause, you’re losing money every day if you’re wasting fuel.

You hear a rattling noise under your vehicle: This can indicate a loose muffler, or a loose component rattling around inside of it. It can also mean you have a loose exhaust bracket or heat shield. Either way, your mechanic should check it out before anything gets loose enough to fall off or cause a blockage. 

You see something wrong when you look under your vehicle: A simple visual inspection can help you see any obvious muffler or exhaust system problems. Safely get under the car and use a flashlight to check the exhaust system from both sides and the rear. If you see rusted areas, cracks, clogs, holes or separation between exhaust parts, call your mechanic and have the system checked.

There’s a bad odor inside your vehicle: It's essential that all muffler- and exhaust system-related issues be dealt with immediately, because if exhaust gases get inside your car, they can be lethal. While the main villain here is odorless, colorless carbon monoxide, you will probably smell other elements of the exhaust as well. If you suspect that this is happening, open all your windows immediately and drive your car directly to your mechanic. 

Get it diagnosed by a professional
 

What does the muffler do?

Your engine is loud. That’s not surprising, considering the amount of power it has to produce in order to move your car. Each time the air-fuel mixture is compressed and ignited in one of your engine’s cylinders, it explodes, producing power — and a lot of noise. And there are thousand of these explosions per minute.

That’s where your car’s muffler comes in. It’s an essential component of the exhaust system, even though it acts separately from the rest of the exhaust system.

Your exhaust manifold, exhaust pipes and catalytic converter are there to move the spent exhaust gases out of your vehicle’s combustion chambers, remove remaining pollutants, and release them safely to the atmosphere. 

But your muffler is there to reduce the sound level produced inside the cylinders by the combustion process. As a result, when you have a muffler problem, you will likely hear it direct from the source.

How your muffler works

Your muffler is located along the route of your exhaust pipe, usually somewhere past the catalytic converter and before the exhaust outlet. It contains several components designed to reduce the sound passing through it.

There are several muffler design strategies to cut these sound levels. These are called reactive, absorptive, or a combination of the two.

Reactive design uses the internal structure of the muffler to change the character of the sound. As the sound waves pass through a combination of chambers, perforated tubes, baffles and resonators, they bounce around and react to each other. Through this process, the sound waves lose their energy. Some frequencies are cancelled out entirely, using a process called destructive interference. Heat is also produced, which is dissipated through the metal structure of the muffler. What is left comes out the tailpipe as a barely audible exhaust note.

Absorptive design uses the sound-absorbing qualities of various materials that are placed around the perimeter of the muffler. Many performance-oriented mufflers use this approach, as they tend to be less restrictive of the exhaust flowing through them. They also sound better to performance car enthusiasts.

A combination of reactive and absorptive design can produce a muffler that both controls the exhaust sound intensity and leaves you with a pleasing exhaust sound. These are usually available as aftermarket parts.

When it’s time for a replacement, talk to your mechanic about what your muffler priorities are. Discuss whether you just want your car to be quiet, or if you’d like to hear the engine as you drive. He or she can steer you in the right direction.

» MORE: Get an estimate for your muffler repair 

Fixing a bad muffler 

Your exhaust isn’t easy to work on. It’s buried underneath your vehicle, and it operates at very high temperatures. For these reasons, it’s best to let an experienced mechanic deal with your muffler-related repairs.

Loose exhaust system connections can sound just as bad as a rusted-out muffler. The first thing to check is that all the clamps, hangers, brackets and connections between the parts of the entire system are tight and secure. 

If your muffler has minor damage, such as small cracks or holes, it may be possible to fix it with an inexpensive patch kit. These kits contain an adhesive material that bonds with the muffler surface, activating at the high temperatures that the muffler operates at. These patches may or may not work long-term, but they could be worth a shot as a low-cost stopgap, before you have to commit to a replacement muffler.

Anything beyond very minor damage will usually require a replacement muffler. If your muffler is rusted out, damaged from road impacts, or has internal damage, a replacement is the best course of action. Your mechanic can advise you of the replacement muffler options available, then get one and correctly install it on your vehicle. 

 

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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