Pre & post catalytic converter lambda sensors

You will require a PicoScope to perform this test. A list of suitable accessories can be found at the bottom of this page.

How to perform the test

Channel A: Pre-cat sensor

  1. Plug a BNC test lead into Channel A of the oscilloscope.
  2. Fit a black clip on the black (negative) plug on the test lead.
  3. Fit a Back-pinning Probe on the colored (positive) test lead.
  4. Fit the black clip on a suitable earth connection.
  5. Locate the pre-catalytic converter lambda sensor and back-probe the sensor's signal wire using the acupuncture probe. This is normally the black wire: refer to manufacturer's data. See Figure 1.

Channel B: Post-cat sensor

  1. Plug a BNC test lead into Channel B of the oscilloscope.
  2. Fit a black clip on the black (negative) plug on the test lead.
  3. Fit a Back-pinning Probe on the red (positive) on the test lead.
  4. Fit the black clip on a suitable earth connection.
  5. Locate the post-catalytic converter lambda sensor, and back-probe the sensor's signal wire using the Back-pinning Probe. This is normally the black wire: refer to manufacturer's data). See Figure 2.

Press the space bar on the computer to start looking at live readings.

Example waveform

Waveform notes

The pre- and post-catalytic converter lambda sensors can be either Zirconia or Titania sensors, and the waveform will vary according to the type of sensor and between motor vehicle manufacturers.

The voltage range from a Zirconia sensor, in most cases, varies between 0.2 and 0.8 volts: 0.2 volts indicates a lean mixture and 0.8 volts shows a richer mixture. A Titania sensor produces an oscillating voltage between 0.5 volt (lean) to 4.0 volts or above (rich) when running correctly.

The pre-cat Zirconia sensor (Channel A), when working correctly, should switch approximately once per second (1 Hz) when at normal operating temperature. This switching can be seen on the example waveform.

The post-cat Zirconia sensor (Channel B) should show a virtually straight line at about zero volts. This low voltage is a result of the effective operation of the catalytic converter, which cleans up the exhaust gases.

Technical information

A lambda sensor is also referred to as an Oxygen or O2 sensor, or a Heated Exhaust Gas Oxygen (HEGO) sensor, and plays a very important role in control of exhaust emissions on a catalytic-equipped vehicle. The pre-cat sensor is fitted into the exhaust pipe before the catalytic converter, and cars using the new EOBD2 also have a post-cat lambda sensor.

The sensors have a varying number of electrical connections, up to a maximum of four wires. They reacts to the oxygen content in the exhaust system and produce a small voltage depending on the air/fuel mixture seen at the time. The voltage range, in most cases, varies between 0.2 and 0.8 volts: 0.2 volts indicates a lean mixture and 0.8 V shows a richer mixture.

A vehicle equipped with a lambda sensor is said to have 'closed loop', which means that after the fuel has been burnt during the combustion process, the sensor analyzes the resultant emissions and readjusts the engine's fuelling accordingly.

Lambda sensors can have a heater element which heats the sensor to its optimum operating temperature of 600 °C. This enables the sensor to be located further away from the heat source at the manifold to a 'cleaner' location. The sensor is inoperative below 300 °C.

The lambda sensor is essentially two porous platinum electrodes. The outer electrode surface is exposed to the exhaust gases and is coated in a porous ceramic, with the inner coated surface exposed to fresh air.

The most commonly used sensor has a Zirconia element, producing a voltage when there is a difference in oxygen content between the two electrodes. This signal is then sent to the Electronic Control Module (ECM) and the mixture is adjusted accordingly.

Titania is also used in the manufacture of another type of lambda sensor that offers a faster switching time than the more common Zirconia sensor. The Titania Oxygen sensor differs from the Zirconia sensor in that it is incapable of producing its own output voltage and is therefore reliant on a 5-volt supply from the vehicle's ECM. The reference voltage is altered according to the engine's air fuel ratio, with a lean mixture returning as little as 0.4 volt and a rich mixture producing in the region of 4.0 volts.

Faulty waveforms - troubleshooting

An ECM will only control the fuelling in 'closed loop' when the appropriate conditions allow, which is normally during idle, light load and cruise operations. When the vehicle accelerates, the ECM allows overfuelling and ignores the lambda signals. This also happens during initial warm-up.

Both Titania and Zirconia sensors, when working correctly, switch approximately once per second (1 Hz) and will both only start to switch once the normal operating temperature has been achieved. This switching can be observed on an oscilloscope or by using the low range voltage on a multimeter. On an oscilloscope, the resultant waveform should look as the illustration above. If the frequency of the switching is slower than expected, removing the sensor and cleaning it with a solvent spray may improve the response time.

A constant high voltage output from the Zirconia shows that the engine is running constantly rich and is outside the ECM's adjusting range; whereas a low voltage indicates a lean or weak mixture.

A switching voltage on the post-cat sensor indicates that the gases are passing across the catalytic converter's ceramic monolith without being subjected to chemical change and therefore the cat requires replacing with a known good unit, providing that the pre-cat waveform is within specification.

Pin data

A typical Zirconia lambda sensor has four wires. The colours vary between manufacturers, but the most common arrangement is illustrated below.

Top wire: White heater (+)
2nd wire: White heater (-)
3rd wire: Black - signal
4th wire: Grey - earth

zironia lambda sensor wires

AT128-3

Disclaimer
This help topic is subject to changes without notification. The information within is carefully checked and considered to be correct. This information is an example of our investigations and findings and is not a definitive procedure. Pico Technology accepts no responsibility for inaccuracies. Each vehicle may be different and require unique test settings.

Suitable accessories

  • Back-pinning Probe Set

    £48.00

  • Flexible Back-pinning Probe

    £7.00

  • Multimeter Probes

    £7.00

  • Small Crocodile/Gator Clips

    £5.00

  • Large Dolphin/Gator Clips

    £10.00

  • PicoScope Battery Clip

    £5.00

  • Premium Test Leads: Set of four leads 3 m (TA125 - TA128)

    £179.00

  • Premium Test Lead: BNC to 4 mm, 3 m

    £48.00

Share your experience

If you have any suggestions to improve this guided test please do so using the 'add comment' button.

1 comment | Add comment

Jerzy Gładysek
June 12 2016

Presented red waveform signal from the lambda sensor located after the catalyst corresponds to a lean fuel. This suggests that the catalyst produce oxygen instead of accumulating it. Such a waveform can be observed in certain conditions of the engine, but in this case it’s confusing and can generate incorrect diagnostic conclusions.

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Guided test: Zirconia Pre & Post Cat