The Check Engine Light Mystery

By: Evander Klum

That little amber light that reads CHECK ENGINE or SERVICE ENGINE SOON may sometimes make you feel like you are one car doctor that can diagnose engine problem in just one snap. However, you may feel good that you know there is something wrong with your engine, but only the computer know what is wrong and it unnerves you sometimes.

Revealing the mystery of this seemingly enigmatic lamp is easier than what others think. If the light is on, it shouldn't be ignored for too long, you have to run to the nearest mechanic to avoid problems you cannot give solutions to in the future.

"It's your car's way of telling you, 'You might be meeting Larry the tow-truck guy soon,'" says Bill Jaap, owner of Good Carma VW and Audi Repair in Minneapolis.

"It's a warning, and it can be menacing. Even though the car still runs well, I think it's a good idea to bring it in."

The formal name of the lamp is the malfunction indication light or the MIL. The lamp works with dozens of sensors and a computer that makes adjustments to increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. If the sensors detect some problem, it sends signal to the computer and will make the light say "CHECK ENGINE".

The code sent to the computer is saved making the light stay on unless it is recovered. Retrieving the code and eventually turning off the light can be done by plugging a handheld gadget into a connector located beneath the steering column.

In case that your engine light is on, you should not panic. If your car is still driving smoothly, it's okay that the light is on. But if your car is idling rough, hesitating, starting hard, smoking and for some models like Honda CR-V (with ) the engine light flashes or turns red to signal a serious problem, pulling over is the best choice. Bring your vehicle to the nearest auto shop for checking and repair.

"It's kind of a false signal to some people who maybe have been driving around with it on for a year," Jaap says. "Even though the problem can be very slight, my opinion is that you shouldn't get desensitized to it. It's on for a reason."

If your car is new and still under warranty, bring it to the dealer. For older cars, owners can take their vehicles to mechanics and auto-parts servicing centers to retrieve the code for free.

For those who want to do the code retrieving them, code readers can be purchased for $50 to $200 and other software will make your ordinary laptop a scan tool with a special connector. Depending on the price, come scanners give out codes that needs to be referred and the expensive ones will display the details. But sometimes the readings are vague and won't necessarily tell you what needs to be done.

"It can be even more expensive to try and guess what's going to fix it, just based on what a scan at an auto-parts store tells you," Jaap says. "That's kind of hearsay and conjecture, and I'd go broke if I did that."

Although the data given by the code retriever is vague, it can help you and your mechanic to determine if the problem is something that can be taken cared of immediately or it can be put off for some time.

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