What to Do if Your Check Engine Light is On

Frustrated Commuter - Check Engine Light

We’ve all been there – driving along believing that everything is well in the world, and suddenly the check-engine light pops on. Boy does this light get us angry and frustrated. What does it mean, how much is this going to cost, and how long the problem will take to fix this time?

Assuming your check engine light is on as the result of something more significant than a loose gas cap (yes, that is often the culprit, so check it first!), here is a step-by-step guide for what to do next.

1.Read the Code. When the check engine light is on it indicates that our emissions are not correct and that a code is stored to help aid repair. A good starting point would be to have someone retrieve the diagnostic code and offer some basic advice as to what a repair may entail. Many parts stores and shops will do this service for free, or if they charge a fee, that will be applied toward your repair. Remember, it could be as simple as a loose gas cap. The key here is to find out what’s going on, and whether the repair needs to be done right away* or if there is time to prepare and seek alternative proposals for the repair.

2. Look for More Advice. After reading the code, look for additional advice and information. Never just change the part, especially if your parts store or shop person only pulled the diagnostic code. Some additional knowledge is needed, and at least a quick look should be performed before any recommendations are made. If you don’t feel comfortable, or you are confused with initial advice, try a different service location and compare notes. As an added supplement, many owners have turned to the internet to look up the code and have joined forums and discussions with other owners. Remember: you don’t have to make a decision yet, but it’s worth it to spend some time collecting information and advice.

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3. Arrange a Professional Diagnosis. Use Openbay to compare pricing and book a general diagnosis with a qualified repair shop in your area. From your advice and information, you should have a good idea what kind of diagnostic time is needed. Some error codes only require confirmation that the component has failed. Other codes will describe a running condition (e.g. ‘lean’ or ‘rich’), rather than a component failure and will need more time to figure out. In these situations, there could be quite a few reasons or parts that could cause this condition. Here you’ll want to know the exact cause of the problem in a reasonable amount of time. Find a shop that has a good reputation for engine diagnostics, and also one that may negotiate the diagnostic fee.

4. Get the Fix. Usually the repair will be done by the shop that performed the diagnosis, but don’t feel obligated, especially if the cost is higher than anticipated. You can always cross-shop for local auto repair, and just because you’re in the shop doesn’t mean you have to stick with that one. Most error codes are not indicating safety-related problems, so you most likely have time to shop around for price and quality. As always make sure the parts that are installed will fix the problem permanently. Sometimes an aftermarket catalytic converter, spark plug or oxygen sensor might turn that light off for a while but those aftermarket parts may not make for a permanent fix; sometimes it’s worth investing in pricey new parts.

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5. Follow Up. Most newer cars will have to go through “drive cycles” before everything is back up and running. This involves the driving of the car for several days while the computer checks to see that sensors and monitors are running correctly – think of it as rebooting a computer. If the check-engine light does not come on, usually your car is fixed, but not always. So a good idea is to return to the shop after a few days or a week, and have them recheck the codes to confirm that everything is normal, especially if you’ve got an emissions inspection to pass.

As you become more comfortable with your shop and technician, then you may skip or combine several of the above steps. It’s always helpful to collect information and advice in advance of repairing car, to reign in costs within a reasonable amount of time. What you’ll want here is to fix the car correctly the first time, in order to avoid changing the wrong parts, making return visits to the shop, or being left without wheels for too long.

* Caution: A blinking check engine light is very serious. Damage is being done to the catalytic converter and possible other parts of the motor. The car should not be driven, and should be repaired as soon as possible to avoid higher costs.