Check Engine Light on? What does it mean?

7/29/2015 AutoAdBuilder
 

A malfunction indicator lamp (MIL), commonly referred to as the "Check Engine Light" is an indicator of malfunction of the computerized engine management system. It is found on the instrument console of most automobiles. When illuminated, it is typically either an amber or red color.

On vehicles equipped with OBD-II, the light has two stages: steady (indicating a minor fault such as a loose gas cap or failing oxygen sensor) and flashing (indicating a severe fault, that will eventually destroy the catalytic converter, such as a misfire).

When the MIL is lit, the engine control unit stores a fault code related to the malfunction, which can be retrieved with a scan tool and used for further diagnosis. The malfunction indicator lamp is usually labeled with the text check engine, service engine soon, check engine soon, or a picture of an engine


What the Light Means

The "check engine" light is part of your car's so-called onboard diagnostics (OBD) system. Since the 1980s, computers increasingly have controlled and monitored vehicle performance, regulating such variables as engine speed (RPM), fuel mixture, and ignition timing. In some cars, the computer also tells the automatic transmission when to shift.

When it finds a problem in the electronic-control system that it can't correct, the computer turns on a yellow warning indicator that's labeled "check engine," "service engine soon" or "check powertrain." Or the light may be nothing more than a picture of an engine, known as the International Check Engine Symbol, perhaps with the word "Check." In addition to turning on the light, the computer stores a "trouble code" in its memory that identifies the source of the problem, such as a malfunctioning sensor or a misfiring engine. The code can be read with an electronic scan tool or a diagnostic computer, standard equipment in auto repair shops. There are also a number of relatively inexpensive code readers that are designed for do-it-yourselfers.

If the check-engine light comes on, here are some tips on what you should do:

  • Look for a serious problem that requires immediate attention. Check your dashboard gauges and lights for indications of low oil pressure or overheating. These conditions mean you should pull over and shut off the engine as soon as you can find a safe place to do so. On some cars, a yellow "check engine" means investigate the problem, while a red "check engine" means stop right now.
  • Try tightening your gas cap. This often solves the problem. Keep in mind that it may take several trips before the light resets. Some vehicles have a separate indicator that warns of a loose gas cap before the condition sets off the "check engine" light.
  • Reduce speed and load. If the "check engine" light is blinking or you notice any serious performance problems, such as a loss of power, reduce your speed and try to reduce the load on the engine. For example, it would be a good idea to stop towing a trailer. Have the car checked as soon as possible to prevent expensive damage.
  • Have the code read and the problem fixed. If you want to diagnose the malfunction yourself, you can buy a scan tool at most auto parts stores. Prices range from about $40 to several hundred, depending on the model and the features. The tools come with instructions on how to hook them up and decipher the codes. But unless you have a good knowledge of automotive diagnostics, you're probably better off taking the vehicle to a professional. Some automotive parts stores will read and interpret the code for you without charge. Unless there is an easy fix, they may simply refer you to a mechanic.
Don't go for a state emissions test. In a late-model car, an illuminated "check engine" light probably is a sure sign your car will fail the test. In some states, it's an automatic failure, even if the problem was nothing more than a loose gas cap. By the way, don't bother trying to fool the inspection station by disconnecting the battery or using any other method to erase the trouble code and turn off the "check engine" light. Your vehicle's computer will let the inspection station know that its codes have been erased, and you'll just have to go back again. 
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