Your check engine light came on – now what?

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Check Engine Light

When the Check Engine Light comes on, what should you do? Image from Flickr.

It may be red or yellow, flashing or solid, a graphic or some words – but the “check engine” light is an important communication tool between you and your car. Usually, when the check engine light is off, you don’t even think about it. When it comes on, though, it is a warning from your engine that something is wrong. So what should you do if your check engine light comes on?

What the check engine light means

Thankfully for most people, when the check engine light goes on it doesn’t tell you to pull over and call for help. It does, however, mean that your engine needs attention as soon as possible. Depending on when your car was made, the check-engine light may flash or “strobe.” If your light is strobing, then your engine problem is most likely serious and you should get to a mechanic as soon as possible. However, there are a few simple things you can do to get more information when your check engine light goes on.

Read the check engine error code

Most engines have an internal computer that records and stores information about your engine. Many auto parts stores keep code reader computers on hand and available for free or inexpensive use. As soon as possible after your check engine light, go to one of these auto parts stores and ask to use their code-check computer. The plugin for this computer is usually located under your dash, between the steering column and the pedals. Follow the instructions on the computer, and you will get an “error code” on the screen. Write down this error code.

Decipher the check engine light error code

The check engine light code that the code-reader computer will give you is often cryptic. Talk to the auto parts store staff, or search the web for the meaning of the error code. As soon as you know why your check engine light is on, you can make an educated decision about what to do.

Do it yourself?

If you are comfortable with vehicle repair, then you might be able to fix the check engine light problem yourself. Sometimes, the problem is as simple as a loose gas cap. Other times, it may be a major malfunction in your engine. Be sure you know how to repair the problem before you do it yourself. If you have the tools, the confidence and the parts, then fixing the problem yourself can be relatively simple.

Take your vehicle in for service

If, once the check engine light code has been deciphered, you decide that fixing the problem yourself might be too difficult, you should take your vehicle in for service. Almost every car-repair shop should have a code reading computer, and you should let your mechanic know that the light is on. Ask for a detailed repair estimate before any work is done. As soon as you get your vehicle back, keep an eye on the performance for a few weeks to ensure the check engine light fix is actually working.

Should you ignore the check engine light?

It can be tempting to ignore the check engine light when it goes on. Be warned, though, that ignoring the light could be very dangerous. Depending on the severity of the problem, you could be seriously damaging your engine. Your miles per gallon fuel efficiency will go down, and you could end up having to do much more expensive repairs down the road. In short, the check engine light is the first indication that something is wrong – so if you pay attention, you will save yourself time and heartache.

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