Car Time, December 2018

Car Time header

    If you drive a modern vehicle, you may have experienced this annoying phenomenon before: You are driving along minding your own business when a yellow colored light pops on. It may look like a funky picture of an engine. It also may display the words “check engine” or “service engine soon.”
    This light is often mistaken for a maintenance light designed to let you know when a factory recommended service interval is due. The check engine light is a whole different story. It lets you know that there is a malfunction with one of your engine management components or systems. It often causes panic and unrest to the person behind the wheel. Does my car need engine work? Will this be expensive?
    The words “check engine” are misleading. Perhaps “malfunction” would be a better choice. Now let’s get back to how much it is going to cost. That is a good question. A check engine light is like a porch light with a hundred switches. There are literally hundreds of different reasons why your check engine light may come on.
    Times have changed. Car parts like carburetors and points have been replaced with computer-controlled parts such as oxygen sensors and idle air control valves, to name a couple. These parts are controlled and monitored by your engine management computer. If they go out of a specific electronic range, the computer will recognize it and turn on the check engine light. There are other scenarios that can cause the light to come on such as vacuum leaks, transmission problems or even a loose gas cap.
    Why is this necessary? Do I really want to know if my car is failing? Well, the government thought you did or should. This is how the OB2 program came to be. The government mandated manufacturers to have this system on all new cars sold to help control vehicles emissions. Yes, big brother is alive and well in the automotive industry.
    Modern cars are designed to monitor engine control functions, including tailpipe emissions and evaporative fuel leaks. If these systems are problematic, the check engine light comes on.
    If the “check engine” light comes on, the vehicle will not pass the smog test. The “on-board diagnostic” system does actually serve to pre-warn you of future faults. Many times, faulty components can be determined and can be replaced before they ultimately fail.
    This brings me to the moral of this tale. Do not ever, ever, ever and I mean ever ignore a “check engine” light! The long-term effects of doing so are often harmful, sometimes unknown, and usually not good for your pocket book. Even the small engine control components will affect the exhaust gases that come through your exhaust system. Your catalytic converter is very sensitive to the gases that come through the tailpipe and engine miss-fires.
    Long term neglect of such a thing is a silent killer that can cause problems down the road. While many other different scenarios are too complex to explain in a few paragraphs, the point is to have the “check engine” light diagnosed as soon as possible. A flashing engine light indicates the vehicle should not be driven.
    Nobody can tell you the cost of the related repair until you or more likely a mechanic can communicate with your on-board diagnostic system and retrieve a code that represents the failing system to perform related diagnosis. Easy as that. It is best left to professionals that you can trust. Pulling a code is not that big of a deal. Coming up with the accurate diagnosis that will fix the problem and make it stay fixed is another story. “Check engine” lights are a part of car ownership. Car maintenance and the grade of fuel used can also come into play. Pick your car care provider carefully and be a good consumer of auto repair.
    John Vanek can be reached at

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