Pay attention to your check engine light

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Close-up of a car's check engine light. This specific version reads, “Service engine soon.”

Don't ignore your check engine light. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/IFCAR/Wikipedia)

Your car’s check engine light isn’t there merely for visual entertainment during your Sunday drive. While the “Car Guys” Click and Clack may joke that the best solution is a piece of duct tape, the truth is that a car owner should pay attention to the warning. It’s important to understand what the check engine light can mean to a car.

Harbinger of expensive repair tidings

When a car’s engine computer detects a problem, the check engine light comes on. A variation on this would be “Service vehicle soon” or “Service engine soon.” While the initial appearance of the check engine light isn’t necessarily catastrophic, it can be if left unaddressed in the long term. While most older cars have one single light, newer, high-end vehicles may also offer a graphic display that delivers more detailed information to help identify the problem.

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Not a single hiccup, but a sustained visit

Even under the best of circumstances, cars may occasionally flash the check engine light. If it disappears as quickly as it came, the light should not necessarily become a cause for alarm. If the light is sustained or blinks constantly, however, you should pay attention. The former should be addressed soon, while the latter means serious trouble that should be addressed immediately in order to avoid damaging the engine or placing the owner in physical danger.

Enter the OBD-II

Since 1996, all vehicles sold in the U.S. have been required to have the On-Board Diagnostics (OBD-II) system installed. It is the standard by which engine computers report problems. When the check engine light comes on, the system records a code corresponding to the specific problem. In order to read the code, an OBD-II-compatible scan tool must be connected to the corresponding port, which is commonly located under the dashboard on the driver’s side. This can be done either by the consumer or a mechanic.

What codes can tell

Sometimes, a check engine light can appear because the gas cap is loose. Other times, it can be more serious, like catalytic converter trouble or other conditions than can cause a vehicle to lose power. With the OBD-II code in hand, a consumer can inform the mechanic and conceivably save themselves money on repairs.

Don’t ignore, fix today

If the problem signified by the check engine light is something other than a loose gas cap, it pays to actively pursue a solution. If the vehicle is still under warranty and the dealer happens to see that a driver has been ignoring the check engine light, it can be grounds for voiding the warranty.

What to do when the check engine light comes on


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Associated Press:

Consumer Reports

OBD-II codes

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