Posted on Aug 3, 2011 in Automobiles
My “check engine” light just came on, and I don’t know if my car is about to explode or what… help!
It’s amazing how one tiny little 1.5w bulb can do so much to increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and overall anxiety level. Take a deep breath, relax, and read this very carefully to yourself once or twice: If your Check Engine Light (also sometimes Service Engine Soon and hereinafter referred to as CEL) is on and your car is otherwise running fine/normally… don’t panic.
The FindersFree.com Legal Team Super Happy Fun Disclaimer: I’m not a professional mechanic and I never have been. I am a guy who does (most of) his own repair work on his cars, has built a couple race cars from the ground up, rebuilt the occasional engine… and has the scars and empty wallet to show for it. For professional advice, please talk to your mechanic.
Believe it or not, that light isn’t there solely to annoy you. Since the 1980s, cars have been increasingly reliant on computers for everything from regulating your fuel mixture to telling your automatic transmission when to shift, and everything in between. When the computer find a problem with one of these systems that it cannot correct or compensate for, it illuminates that little lamp to let you know something’s up — and yes, that can be anything from “hey, your gas cap is loose” to “hey, you’re running on 3 cylinders.”
In the vast majority of cases, especially on cars made in 1996 and later with the OBD-II system, it’s going to be something related to emissions. Your car has a number of interconnected systems aimed at reducing the amount of hydrocarbons and “greenhouse gases” that it expels into the atmosphere. In a lot of those cases, this won’t cause your car to do anything more than stumble at idle, run a bit rough, or possibly suffer a drop in gas mileage. In short, nothing horrible. However, it’s bad for the environment to continue driving this way — and if your state requires emissions testing, an illuminated CEL is an automatic failure.
If your car is under warranty, just take it to the dealer. This is what warranties are for.
It’s not? Okay, no problem. The vast majority of auto parts stores (in the US) will hook up a scan tool to your car and read the trouble codes for free. They’ll then tell you what the codes are, though not always necessarily what they mean. That’s okay, if they can’t translate them for you, write them down and go home check out OBD-Codes.com. You can also just go to Google and type in your year, make, model, and trouble codes and see what you find.
You’ll often find forums and messageboards dedicated to your particular car make/model, with posts from people who’ve had the same issue you have, complete with (possible) solutions and costs to repair.
If you’d like to skip the “go to the auto parts store” step, scan tools can be surprisingly affordable. If you do any of your own work on your car or just want the piece of mind of being able to check why your CEL is on at 2am in your own garage, I highly recommend purchaing one. I personally own the Autel MaxiScan MS409 which at the time of this writing (August 2011) was $68. Harbor Freight sometimes has the same one (under their CEN-TECH brand) for around $55 with coupon.
Well, anything wrong with your car should be repaired. It’s designed to work a certain way by people who know a lot more about cars than you and I — and if it’s not working that way, it’s not working as well as it can be. The question then becomes, “How urgent is it that I get this fixed?”
As I said above, if your car seems to be running normally, doesn’t idle or run roughly, and the trouble code indicates a minor malfunction… don’t panic. Yes, do have the problem fixed as soon as is feasible, but you don’t have to immediately pull over and call AAA. When you get a chance, take it in to your mechanic — or, if you’re feeling adventurous, go ahead and DIY it. (To be perfectly honest, I let my last CEL go about a month and a half when I realized it was just a minor emissions system vacuum leak. And everything turned out fine.)
If your CEL comes on and your car starts running badly or performing oddly, and/or the trouble code indicates a more serious issue, get it fixed ASAP. Failure to do so could result in the repair being even more expensive, injury to you, or worse. Worse? If your car suddenly stops running in rush hour freeway traffic… yeah.
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