Are You Making This Costly Mistake with Your Car's Fuel Efficiency?

Michael Accardi
by Michael Accardi
O2 sensors are directly responsible for the amount of fuel your car uses.

If your car experiences poor fuel economy, lacks power, feels sluggish, idles rough, or has an illuminated check engine light, your O2 sensor might be to blame.


An O2 sensor, also known as an oxygen sensor, measures the oxygen content in your vehicle’s exhaust stream. It plays a crucial role in controlling the air-fuel mixture your engine burns. Constantly monitoring this mixture, it determines whether the ECU needs to add or remove fuel from the ratio to maintain proper stoichiometry, reducing emissions and improving fuel economy.

As your car ages and accumulates mileage, its O2 sensor readings can drift too far from the ECU’s expected values. When this occurs, it triggers the check engine light and stores an OBD-II code. By using an OBD-II scanner, you can retrieve these codes and begin diagnosing the issue.


An OBD-II scanner plugs into a port in the driver’s footwell or low on the dashboard, retrieving error codes from the onboard computer and displaying the reason for the check engine light. Each error code corresponds to a different part of the vehicle.


If you don’t have an OBD-II scanner, you can consult our list of the best code readers as tested by AutoGuide experts.


Remember, sometimes the O2 sensor is a symptom rather than the cause, so it's always wise to have a qualified mechanic inspect your vehicle if you suspect other issues may be at play.

Some cars have easily accessible O2 sensors.

HOW TO REPLACE AN O2 SENSOR


Fortunately, replacing O2 sensors isn’t overly difficult. With the right tools and a bit of research into the correct procedure for your specific vehicle, it’s a task most people can tackle in their own garage or parking space. Here are the steps for replacing an oxygen sensor.


Once you’ve decided to replace the O2 sensor, it’s time to order a new part and any other tools needed to complete the job. Ensure the new sensor matches the old one. While off-brand sensors may be cheaper, only the sensor used by the manufacturer is guaranteed to work properly with your vehicle’s onboard computer.


A new O2 sensor waiting for installation.

1) LOCATE THE TROUBLESOME SENSOR


The first step is to locate the oxygen sensor you need to replace. Depending on the engine, your car will have between two and four O2 sensors. The code reader will indicate which sensor is faulty, whether it's bank 1 or bank 2, and each bank will have two sensors: sensor 1 is upstream of the catalytic converter, close to the exhaust manifold, while sensor 2 is after the catalytic converter. You can opt to replace just the problematic sensor or replace all the oxygen sensors at once.


Typically, an 18 mm or 22 mm wrench is required to remove an O2 sensor.

2) REMOVE THE OLD OXYGEN SENSOR


Depending on which O2 sensor is faulty, you may not even need to raise the vehicle off the ground. For example, the bank 1, sensor 1 oxygen sensor on some inline-4 front-wheel drive vehicles is accessible from under the hood.


Let the engine cool before attempting to remove the oxygen sensors, as the exhaust system becomes extremely hot during operation, posing a risk of severe burns. Wear gloves and protective gear like Kevlar sleeves if you must work on the vehicle while it’s still hot.


Next, raise the front of the vehicle using a hydraulic jack and place it on safety stands—or lift it on a hoist if you have access to one—and remove any splash shields or lower engine covers that may obstruct access to the exhaust system.


Locate the O2 sensor you’re replacing, and to disconnect the wiring, follow the wiring away from the exhaust a short distance until you locate the plastic connector.


While you may be able to use an open-end or adjustable wrench on the O2 sensor—usually 18mm or 22mm—it's recommended to use an O2 sensor socket. These sockets either resemble a standard deep well socket with a slot cut out to clear the wires or large crowfoot flare sockets.


Removing an oxygen sensor can be challenging due to the constant heat cycling and corrosion to which the exhaust system is exposed. You can spray penetrating oil on the base of the sensor where it threads into the exhaust to aid in removal, or you can heat the area surrounding the threaded exhaust bung with a heat source to help free the stuck threads.


Using an O2 sensor socket allows you to apply more usable torque to removing the sensor while providing at least four points of contact with the flats of the sensor, helping prevent rounding the flats and turning a simple job into a nightmare.

3) INSTALL THE NEW OXYGEN SENSOR


Once the old sensor or sensors have been removed, it’s time for reinstallation.


Installation is as simple as screwing the new sensor into the exhaust bung. Pay special attention as some brands require the application of supplied anti-seize paste to help the sensor seal, while others come with the paste pre-applied under a protective plastic cap.


Once seated, tighten the sensor to the factory torque specification.

4) RECONNECT THE WIRING


Don’t forget to reconnect the wiring. Pay close attention to the routing of the wiring to ensure it's not at risk of coming into contact with the hot exhaust pipe.


Reinstall any splash shields or lower engine covers and lower the car back to the ground.

Don't forget to clear any trouble codes using an OBD-II scanner or by disconnecting your car's battery.

5) CLEAR THE TROUBLE CODE


Lastly, you’ll need to clear the check engine light. You can do this via your OBD-II scan tool or by disconnecting the battery for a few minutes.


Now you can start the car and take it for a drive to see if the code returns. If you still have an O2 sensor-related trouble code, there’s likely another problem causing out-of-spec readings.


If the code indicates rich readings, it’s possible your ignition system isn’t working optimally. If your codes indicate lean readings, you could have fuel injection issues, an issue with your catalytic converter, or even a cracked exhaust manifold allowing unmetered oxygen into the exhaust flow before it's read by the O2 sensors.


Further diagnosis will be necessary to trace the symptoms to the root cause.

Michael Accardi
Michael Accardi

An experienced story teller known for engaging and insightful content. Michael also brings a wealth of technical experience having been part of the Ford GT program at Multimatic, and built cars that raced in IMSA and IndyCar.

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