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my check engine light came on, what should i do?

Most of us have had, or know someone who has had a "check engine light" come on in their car. Some people have even driven around for years with such a light on, (as some of you chuckle, because you know I'm talking about you!), that is until you had to take your car in for an emission test! Let me explain what it is and what you should do about it.

The check engine light is controlled by the cars "on board diagnostic system" (OBD). Car manufactures are required to install these systems on all new vehicles since 1996, to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act. This system monitors and controls many different areas of your car's engine and emissions systems.

Basically, when the light goes on it means something is wrong. It could be as simple as a loose gas cap, or as serious as an engine misfire. Once the light goes on it stores information in the ECM (engine control module). The first thing it will store is data. It takes a snap-shot of some of the more important sensors, like coolant temperature, engine speed and throttle position. The it stores the infamous "Code". This code tells us what system, or sometimes more specifically, what componant the computer sensed a problem with. All of this data can be extracted with our scan tools, and helps guide us in the right direction to diagnose the pending problem.

So what should you do when the light goes on? No matter what, I would have it checked out as soon as possible. Even though some issues are not detrimental to the running of the car, some issues are, and could potentially do more damage long term if left alone. Here are a few simple checks to go through when the check engine light goes on.

  1. If the light is flashing, there is a serious misfire problem with the engine. Reduce power and speed. Don't drive it anymore than you have to, and have it looked at ASAP! This can cause other damage if left unchecked.
  2. If the light is on steady, take a moment to check the other instruments. Make sure no other warning lights are on, check the engine temperature and oil pressure guage if equipped, and make note if there is any change in performance of the engine, or shifting of the transmission. If all seems normal then have it checked out at your earliest convenience.
  3. Check the gas cap. It should click 3 times when it's tight. If it was loose, give it a couple days to see if the light goes out. If not, have it looked at at your earliest convenience.

Just remember, even if the car seems to be running great, your emissions out the tailpipe could be through the roof, your fuel economy may drop, and the engine could be running under reduced power. It's always better to find out what it is, than take a risk of doing more damage in the future.

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