Don’t Ignore The Check Engine Light
Don’t Ignore Your Vehicle’s Check Engine Light - Here’s Why
Don't’ ignore the check engine light - it is trying to tell you something is going on with your car and needs attention. Sensors in your engine monitor the operation of its various systems and connect to what’s called the On-Board Diagnostic II (OBD-II) system. (Note that pre-1996 cars have an older version of the diagnostic system.) When something isn’t functioning properly, the check engine light appears to alert you.
Automakers started standardizing their systems with 1996 model-year vehicles under a protocol called OBD-II, which instituted a list of diagnostic trouble codes and mandated that all cars provide a universal connector to access this information.
The connector is usually located under the steering column and is relatively easy to access. Before 1996, carmakers had their own engine diagnostic systems, primarily to ensure their cars were compliant with Environmental Protection Agency pollution control requirements.
Cars are not made to last forever, but at least they are made with this feature that informs us when something goes wrong. The check engine light — more formally known as the malfunction indicator lamp — is a signal from the car's engine computer that something is wrong.
The light could be a minor issue, like a loose or faulty gas cap, or it could mean something more serious, like a misfiring engine or a faulty oxygen sensor.
What Does the Check Engine Light Mean?
The check engine light means one of your car’s systems is malfunctioning. If the symbol appears and stays on steadily, our car should be taken to a repair garage soon. If the symbol is blinking or flashing, this is a more serious problem. In these cases, you should pull over at a safe location, shut off the engine and have the car towed to a repair facility for diagnosis.
Serious problems, such as a misfire, can quickly overheat the catalytic converter. These emissions devices operate at high temperatures to cut emissions but can pose a fire hazard if faulty.
Many people do nothing when faced with the check engine light, perhaps fearing an expensive repair bill. Some drivers with older vehicles may want to squeeze out as many remaining miles as possible without visiting a service garage.
Before passing a state's vehicle inspection, or a smog check, you’ll have to get the light turned off. A state inspection can be a good motivator for dealing with the problem. If the light is on, there's a good chance the car is releasing excess pollutants or consuming too much fuel. That's obviously bad for your gas mileage as well as for the environment.
Some vehicles have a check engine light that turns yellow when you need to investigate a problem and red when it’s an emergency that requires you to stop right away. If you happen to have one of these vehicles, you will know right away whether you need to get to a repair shop soon or pull over immediately.
Unfortunately, a check engine light is just an alarm with no obvious specifics on what has triggered it. However, this light does a very important job of bringing to your attention that something is off and needs to be checked. This can save you a lot of money in the long run, as you can be proactive and fix the issue before it spreads or worsens.
What To Do When Your Check Engine Light Comes On
Performing routine maintenance can help prevent your engine light from coming on. If your check engine light is on, a mechanic can run a diagnostics test to see what’s wrong. Once you know what’s causing your light to come on, you can take steps to fix the problem and extend the life of your vehicle.
The first step is to read the check engine light code provided by the car’s computer system. This is the information that’s been logged by the sensors in your engine. It can be read with OBD II scanners or readers through a connection (OBD port) usually located under the steering column.
To read the code you have three options:
1. Take your car to a mechanic and pay a diagnostic fee. Often, the fee is waived if you agree to have the necessary service performed at that garage.
2. Bring your car to an auto parts store and have the code read for free. The free check engine light diagnosis is good because if the code turns out to be for something minor, you might even be able to fix it yourself.
3. Buy an inexpensive scanner and read the code yourself. This is a particularly good option if you have an older car that might occasionally be showing a check engine light for minor problems. Scanners cost as little as $15, and some will wirelessly send information to your mobile phone.
However, simply getting the code doesn’t always tell you exactly what the problem is. It could put you in the general area of the malfunction, but a further diagnosis is often required. If you’re unsure of the diagnosis, it’s best to have a professional take a look so you don’t miss anything important.
One thing’s for sure: don't ignore that check engine light. It's important to address problems indicated by the light promptly. Ignoring them could lead to larger, costlier problems later. Here’s why:
1. Your Oxygen Sensor May Need to Be Replaced
Your vehicle’s oxygen sensor measures how much unburned oxygen is in your exhaust system. These sensors can fail because of engine problems, neglected repairs, and using gas with a high ethanol concentration.
Failing to replace your O2 sensor can cost you more money in gas, as your engine will burn more fuel than necessary. In some cases, you can lose up to 40% of fuel economy because of a bad oxygen sensor.
Over time, a bad O2 sensor can also damage your catalytic converter and spark plugs. This will lead to more costly repairs in the long run and will hinder your vehicle’s performance.
2. You May Have a Faulty Catalytic Converter
A catalytic converter helps minimize your vehicle’s environmental impact by converting carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. In most cases, catalytic converters become damaged because of poor vehicle maintenance.
Damaged spark plugs and faulty oxygen sensors are the primary causes of damage to a catalytic converter. If you don’t fix a faulty catalytic converter, you won’t pass inspection, which means you won’t be able to legally drive your vehicle on the road (if your state requires inspections).
A faulty converter will also reduce your fuel economy and your vehicle’s performance (less power when you accelerate) and cause your vehicle to run at a higher temperature.
3. Your Mass Airflow Sensor May Need Replacing
A vehicle’s mass airflow sensor measures how much air fuel is needed to run your engine and how much air is entering the engine. Failure to replace a faulty sensor can damage your vehicle’s O2 sensors, spark plugs and catalytic converter. A faulty sensor can also hinder your vehicle’s performance and lower its fuel economy.
It’s important to replace a failing mass airflow sensor as soon as you possibly can. Otherwise, you will be spending more money on gas and repairs. Failing to replace this sensor in a timely manner may cause damage to other parts, which will cost you more money in the long run.
4. Your Gas Cap May Be Loose or Missing
A damaged, missing, or loose gas cap can cause you to lose more fuel due to evaporation, which means you’ll spend more on gas because you’re making more trips to the pump. A vehicle’s gas cap is responsible for sealing the fuel system and maintaining the right amount of pressure in the fuel tank.
The cap also prevents hydrocarbons, or gas fumes, from entering the atmosphere when you’re not driving. Gas cap issues can also cause your vehicle to drive a little differently. It may feel jerky or strange when you’re out on the road.
If your check engine light comes on, pull over and check the gas cap first. If it’s loose, tightening the cap and driving for a while may reset the light. If the cap is missing or damaged, you may need to replace it. A bad gas cap is a simple and inexpensive fix that should not be ignored.
One of the top reasons not to ignore your check engine light is that you may ultimately be damaging your vehicle, which may eventually make your vehicle unsafe for driving. You may damage your vehicle and put lives at risk.
The system is primarily designed to continuously monitor a car's emissions system over the life of the car. The engine and the emission control system are so interlinked that the health of the emission control system is a good indication of the general health of the car's engine.
DIY or Professional Auto Repair?
Check engine code readers are not exclusive to auto repair shops—you can order one online. And if the reading is specific enough, you might even be able to perform the repair yourself. Tightening a gas cap or replacing an oxygen sensor is an easy fix. But this is not always the case.
Most error codes have more than one possible cause, which can complicate the diagnostics process. It might take some disassembling, visual inspection and additional testing to isolate the faulty component. This is better left to your trusted auto repair pro who has the right tools and experience.
A good mechanic will also run your vehicle against the recall database to make sure the problem isn’t a recognized manufacturing defect.
Even an inexpensive check engine code reader could be useful for car owners, even if they aren't mechanically inclined. If the mechanic gives you the same information, at least you know they are going down the right road. Car owners will be able to discuss with their mechanic and avoid costly or unnecessary auto repairs.
So, if a check engine light comes on, we hope you don’t gamble on the cause and instead take the steps to diagnose and fix the problem. Our expert technicians at American Auto Care/ASR are here to help you. Call us at (951) 461-2507
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