REPAIRING MY CAR > My Check Engine Light is On

My Check Engine Light is On

A check engine light can indicate a very cheap repair - or a sign of impending doom

The Dreaded Check Engine Light!

How many times has this happened to you? You start your car or are just tooling down the road and a yellow light appears on your instrument panel. The first thing I did when I had one of these yellow lights come on was panic. What was this?

First of all, don’t panic like I did – but equally important, don’t ignore it. In general, there are two types of icons that can appear. One says “maintenance required.” The second is in the shape of an engine. There are a few other icons, but we are only going to talk about the check engine lights in this piece. My best advice is to pull over when it is safe, if you’re driving, or don’t start driving down the road if it comes on when you start the car. I recommend turning the car off as soon as possible.

Use Your Owner’s Manual to Identify Check Engine Lights

Get out the owner’s manual – you do keep it in your glove compartment, right? If you bought a car and don’t have a manual, go to the dealership’s parts department or online and get one right away. Knowledge is real power in this situation. In the past, the owner’s manual was the bible for car repairs. Today you can also turn to the Internet for information. I know it sounds boring, but I have been known to read my owner’s manual from front to back – every car is different. Don’t be afraid of your friends calling you a nerd.

The lights on your dashboard can indicate that your car needs an important repair or that it requires regular scheduled maintenance. It may tell you to immediately turn off the car to prevent serious damage. If it is the latter, it’s time to use that roadside assistance and call the tow truck. If it is just a reminder light or a light indicating a maintenance issue, you have the option of getting it serviced when it fits your schedule or budget.

Getting It Checked Out

Assuming that the owner’s manual indicates that the car is safe to drive, you need to take it somewhere to have the car hooked up to a computer and the check engine light codes read. This will tell you what is wrong. You can get this done at a dealership (even if you bought the car from someone else) but they often charge for the service. In many cases the major auto-parts stores will perform a fee check engine light diagnosis. I have also seen a lot of repair shops that do this for no charge.

By scanning the codes they can cross-reference it to the actual repair that is needed. Quite often these codes indicate an issue with the vehicle’s emission systems – the parts that keep your car from spewing excessive pollutants. They can indicate broken O2 sensors, vacuum leaks, transmission issues, low oil pressure – the list is quite long. Once the problem has been identified, you have the knowledge to call around to both independent repair shops and your dealership to find the best price on fixing the car.

The Engine Light Doesn’t Have to Leave a Dent in Your Wallet

Having the check engine light come on in the car can be scary, but it doesn’t always mean that it’s a costly problem. Not doing anything about it is where the bills can accumulate. For example, I just had a friend who had a check engine light come on in her car. She didn’t do any research and drove straight to the dealership. They diagnosed the problem and told her she needed a $300 software upgrade to her car’s computer. Since it didn’t immediately have any effect on the safety of driving the vehicle she decided to wait on the fix until it fit her budget.

If the diagnosis indicates a problem with one of the car’s major systems, I recommend getting it fixed right away – you don’t want to get stranded on the side of the road – and you don’t want a small fix to mushroom into a costly repair. One last thing: If your car is still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, check to see if the repair you need is covered.

Now you have an idea of what those yellow lights on the dash can mean. Remember that you can most likely get the car’s computer scanned for error codes for no charge. In my experience, when the check engine light comes on it is often because the car’s emission control system needs attention. But I am not a certified mechanic. Be sure to do a little homework on this before you panic or open up that wallet – and make sure you don’t drive like me!  





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