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Rust's Damage Can Be Exhaustive


Question: The muffler on my Ford Taurus recently began to make some noise, but it isn't really loud. My mechanic wants me to replace the entire exhaust system for more than $400, because he says he can't just put a muffler on the car. Is that true? I can't believe something so simple should cost so much.



Answer: It is truly a bitter pill, but one that may not yet be necessary to swallow. There was a time when an exhaust-system repair was relatively inexpensive. A muffler was bolted onto an exhaust pipe for $50.

But most exhaust systems are no longer composed of separate exhaust pipes, mufflers and tailpipes. Typically, they are fully integrated, meaning when one part of the system fails, the entire unit must be replaced.

The reasons for this decision are lodged in some engineer's brain, but no doubt it resulted from an effort to cut manufacturing costs.

Although many parts of newer cars are electronically controlled, the exhaust system remains relatively low-tech. Think of it as the sewage system of your car. The hot exhaust gases from the engine pass through a catalytic converter and then through the exhaust pipe, muffler and tailpipe. When a hole develops, a driver gets a quick lesson in the incredible noise that a 100-to-200-horsepower engine can make.

The culprit is rust. Engine exhaust contains large quantities of water vapor, which condenses as it passes through the pipes and collects in low spots. The only way to avoid this is by routinely driving long distances.

Auto makers have tried to help the problem by introducing stainless-steel exhaust systems, which last longer than plain alloy steel systems. But they will rust too.

Now for the good news. If you have a single small hole or just a few small holes and the rest of the system appears to be sound, you can patch it. If you are lucky, you might find a garage or muffler shop that will weld a permanent patch over the bad areas for a small fee.

But an even cheaper way to go is a muffler tape sold at most auto-parts stores. Victor Automotive Products makes several varieties of tape that are applied by winding them around the pipes or muffler.

The Victor repair system (under $5) uses gauze that hardens after it is dipped into a resin solution. You can also stuff it into holes. The firm also markets a fiberglass tape that sets up from the heat of the exhaust.

A Victor executive said the company makes no guarantees about how long the product will last, but in many cases it will last over a year. One word of caution: If you have holes in the passenger-compartment floor, trunk or anywhere else in your car, there is the potential for exhaust fumes to leak into the car. You can contact Victor at (800) 423-4201.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006.

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