Many people have experienced this all too familiar scenario… Your driving in Chantilly Va. traffic home with hungry, cranky kids in the pouring rain and what happens? Suddenly you see the bright colors of the check engine light pop on. Your heart begins to beat faster, your palms are sweating, should you pull over? Should you wait, go home and ignore? What if it’s serious? What if it’s not? What should you do? What could it mean?
If you’re anything like me, I would like to hear from a knowledgeable expert the best thing to do at that moment and if I am in any real risk. Well, after much research and talking to the experts here is a summary of advice and answers to the questions: What should I do when the check engine light comes on and what are the most common causes?
In most cases you will need to have your car looked at by a professional. Do you need to call a tow truck or car service at that moment? Most likely, no. Unless your car is smoking, stalling or showing true signs of distress, the best bet would be to get your little rascals home and make an appointment with your trusted auto mechanic. They will be able to do diagnostic testing and tell you the cause of the problem. Basically, they will plug a little computer into your car which in turn will communicate back the problem. Prior to 1996, carmakers had their own engine diagnostic systems, primarily to ensure their cars were compliant with Environmental Protection Agency pollution-control requirements. Starting with model-year 1996, automakers standardized their systems under a protocol called OBD-II, which stipulated a standardized list of diagnostic trouble codes (DTC) and mandated that all cars provide a universal connector to access this information. It’s usually located under the steering column and is easy to access. Most auto mechanics in Northern Virginia will be able to help you with your make and model, but it is best to tell them the year and model car you are driving just to be sure.
Do-it-yourselfers can buy inexpensive code readers that connect to this standardized onboard diagnostics (OBD) port and search for the code’s meaning on the web. The Check Engine light can even be turned off by some code readers, even though this action alone does not actually repair the underlying problem. In many such cases the light will simply come back on later. Or your reader may indicate a problem that may not get to its root therefore leading you to buy and install an expensive part and yet not truly getting to the heart of the problem. Experts also say that many drivers confuse the “service required” light on the gauge cluster for the Check Engine light. These warning lights are unrelated. The service required light just means the car is due for an oil change or other routine maintenance. It is not the indicator of trouble that the Check Engine light is. While there are also those with older vehicles who prefer to ignore for fear of a large bill and wait until state inspections to do anything about it.
These answer is: DO NOT IGNORE. Yes, the check engine light may be an indicator of a minor problem or a significant problem. But it can also tell you that there is an overall problem with the life of your vehicle and ignoring can only make matters worse. As many as 9 out of 10 automatic transmission failures are a result of transmission fluid contamination and overheating; a simple fix if attended to quickly.
Here are some of the most common problems as reported by CarMD. In order of frequency, they are:
- O2 sensor (part of the emissions system, monitoring and helping adjust the air-fuel mixture)
- Loose gas cap
- Catalytic converter
- Mass air flow sensor (monitoring the amount of air mixed in the fuel injection system)
- Spark plug wires