If your check engine light has come on, there is no need to panic. It is unlikely anything is going to explode. However, this does not mean you should ignore it.
The check engine light or engine diagnosis light, also called the idiot light, means that the electronic gadgetry in the car have detected a problem. Modern day cars have electronics controlling or monitoring virtually everything in your vehicle. This includes braking systems, lights, engine performance, emissions and so on. It is a long list of possible items.
In the good old days, so to speak, car electronics were much simpler and fewer things were managed by computer. Sometimes it was possible just to disconnect the battery and the check engine light would switch off. Not only will that not work now, but you risk damaging the more sensitive electronic appliances by fiddling unnecessarily with your battery. Other annoying hassles include your car radio going into safety mode and requiring a pin code before operating. Do you remember where you put it? The long and short of it is that you are not going to get this light off unless you go to a mechanic. This is actually a good thing.
Regulations force manufacturers to adhere to certain safety checks. When one of these checks fails, the check engine light comes on.
Common Causes It takes only a few minutes for a mechanic to hook your car up to their diagnostic tool, sometimes called an OBD (On Board Diagnostic). This watchamagoodjit then talks to your car's computer. Brace yourself, here comes another three letter acronym. The car's main computer is called an ECM (Electronic Control Module). The ECM does all sorts of clever things to get the best balance of performance, fuel economy and emissions from your car. Retrieving the error code is quick and some mechanics will even do the check for free. There are hundreds of codes and this will narrow down what the issue is, but not necessarily the actual defect. For example, if the computer is getting a faulty reading from the sensor in the exhaust, it may be because the sensor is dirty, faulty or there is a bad connection somewhere. While the list is long, the likely culprits for the check engine light coming on are: The electronic fuel system i.e. a valve, sensor or even something to do with the spark plugs is not functioning correctly There is a vacuum leak. In English, this translates to a loose or damaged hose if you are lucky and a cracked manifold if your luck has run out. A manifold is the top bit (normally) of the engine that bolts onto the main 'block' of the engine. To create a perfect seal between the engine block and the manifold, something called a gasket is used. A blown head gasket is when that seal has deteriorated or overheated and is no longer functional. This is unfortunately more serious than it sounds because although the gasket is relatively cheap, it means disassembling the engine i.e. an average of 8 hours labor. Don't be fooled into using wonder products that will fix the gasket for a super low, friends only special price of $20 - you will almost certainly crack the block or in simpler terms destroy your engine. Most cars today use a fuel injection system. This is much more efficient than carburetors which basically just pour fuel into the motor. The injection system does mean that there are more things that can go wrong. Fuel injectors can get clogged, the o-rings which help them seal properly can wear out etc. These items are not going to send you to the bank for a loan but will cost more than a few dollars.
As a general rule of thumb, if nothing is smoking and there is no obvious sign of damage such as lack of performance, unusual engine noises or vibrations, you might be lucky. Either way, don't risk causing further damage to your car by delaying the visit to your mechanic. It may cost you a lot more if you do and possibly render your car unsafe to drive.
Fixes Excluding an obvious and possibly easy to replace item like a visibly broken hose, most of these problems are best left to a mechanic to sort out. The diagnostic tools used can be bought but are not cheap and even if you had them, obtaining the error code is only the first step in the process. Other specialized tools are needed and you may spend hours fiddling about with the wrong thing, possibly doing even further damage or concealing the original problem.
Modern day cars are more and more complicated which means that it is less and less possible for the man, or woman, on the street to open the hood and wiggle something here and bash something there to get the car to go again. Your mechanic probably has a lot more training than you might think and at the very least, more experience than you, fixing motor cars.
Costs Like I said, it could be one of a hundred things and costs could range from $20 to $1600 for something more serious like a blown head gasket. Just a smoke test, to check for leaks in the engine due to cracks will cost around $60. Of course, the make and model of the car will influence the price. The figures above are an average guide. If you drive a Lamborghini, make sure you can afford the repair bills. Replacing the clutch on a super car like that may cost more than the new price of a small car.
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Star Tech European in Vacaville specializes in European Automotive service and reapirs. The auto repair business doesn't have the best reputation, so we go the extra mile to build trust. That includes taking extra time to really explain what your car needs and why. Our goal is to give professional, friendly, honest service without the stress and hassle of going to the dealer. We will never sell you something you don't need.