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Your "Check Engine" Light is Your Friend
By: Zack Bowman, DriverSide Contributor
 

While it might seem like the end of the world at first glance, your Check Engine light is an integral part of keeping your car in top shape. Within its pocket-sized hues, lies the key to unlocking so many mysteries lurking inside your engine and beyond.

One day, this might happen to you, you glance down at your vehicle's dashboard only to see the check engine light turned on. You burst into a cold sweat wondering just how badly your car's engine needs to be checked.

If your car doesn't sound like there is a monkey swinging a hammer under your hood and your vehicle is not billowing smoke, you're probably not in immediate danger. The check engine light, or malfunction indication light, as it's known to the auto elite, is designed to keep the driver informed of any number of sensor failures or engine irregularities.

As automotive environmental standards became stricter throughout the 1980s, onboard engine monitoring became more and more complex. Today, a variety of sensors feed your vehicle's computer information on everything from ambient air temperature to the amount of oxygen in the car's exhaust gasses.

The vehicle's onboard computer, or engine control unit (ECU), then makes adjustments to ensure that the engine is running as efficiently, and cleanly, as possible in the given conditions. When one of those sensors fail, or gets a strange reading, you get the dreaded amber light of doom. So what do you do?

First, save the cold sweats for your yearly review with the boss. Second, go ahead and get it checked out. You can do this in a number of ways. If your car is still under warranty, take it to the dealer. If it's not, most local mechanics offer free diagnostic checkup. You'll be able to find a local mechanic on our website. They're rated too, making your choice less of a shot in the dark.

Some auto parts shops offer a free diagnosis and use generic readers that will display a numerical code that can be cross-referenced to diagnose your car's problem. This may require you to know where the data port is on your vehicle, which is a little plug that is usually tucked up under the dash that the mechanic or store employee will plug into the reader. The issue here is that most times the cross-referenced descriptions are less than helpful. You may get "fuel supply system" as the cause of your troubles. Unfortunately, the fuel supply system on most vehicles is made up of a slew of parts, and choosing to replace each and every one until you hit the trouble spot would be costly. While getting a parts store to check your code is a good place to start, getting a mechanic to translate your car's woes might be a better idea.

Occasionally, there may be a simple solution to your check engine light dilemma. Failing to tighten your gas cap all the way, not fully seating your engine oil dipstick or a loose oil fill cap can all cause the check engine light to flash. If you check all of the above and you're still stuck with a little extra amber on your dash, pay a visit to your mechanic.

If you haven't noticed any huge drop in performance when the light comes on, you can probably get away with putting off your check up for awhile. Don't take too long though, as the light may indicate the beginnings of a much more serious problem.

Even if that's not the case, not addressing the issue will inevitably lead to a failed emissions inspection and you bumming a ride from coworkers. Pull that piece of electrical tape off of the light, and get it taken care of.

Five Signs There Is No Serious Problem

  1. Your car seems to be behaving normally
  2. No strange noises
  3. No smoke
  4. No strange smell
  5. You're getting the same gas mileage

Five Signs There Could Be A Serious Problem

  1. A consistent rattle, knock or other unusual noise
  2. Smoke
  3. A severe loss of power
  4. A serious decline in gas mileage
  5. The vehicle does not start

    As you begin to study up on what makes your Check Engine Light tick, check out these helpful tools.

 

 

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