How To Gauge The Seriousness Of A Check Engine Light

by | Dec 24, 2020

Most of us know the feeling of dread when we see that little yellow or orange check engine light illuminate on our dashboard. A check engine light can come on for a variety of reasons, from issues with the exhaust system to the need for a simple spark plug replacement. . 

The answer to how serious is the issue causing your light to illuminate, is that it completely depends, unless the light is flashing. A flashing check engine light does mean a very serious problem has occurred and you should have your car towed to the mechanic immediately. Every check engine light should be taken seriously, though not immediately, because even the most simple repair like replacing a fuel filter can lead to big and expensive issues if not treated in a timely fashion. 

If you aren’t a car expert your best bet is to take your vehicle to the dealership or to a trusted mechanic for a computer reading.

So What Is A Check Engine Light?

The check engine light, which is also referred to as the malfunction indicator lamp, illuminates when the computer system in your car detects an issue using it’s various sensors. 

Your vehicle’s computer system monitors all of the workings in the car from the amount of oxygen your car is getting in its controlled combustions to the oil or coolant levels your car is currently holding. As cars become more complex machines, the computer system becomes more advanced to keep all components functioning optimally. 

The check engine light comes in a variety of shades of yellow, orange and amber but they all mean that you have an issue when they come on. If your check engine light is flashing, or is red, then you have a serious problem on your hands. 

When there is an issue with a part of the car, the computer will turn on the check engine light alerting you to an issue. There are thousands of reasons that this light can come on, and you can access the error codes pointing you to the area of the vehicle having issues by plugging into the car’s computer system. 

In 1996 the computers of vehicles were standardized to have coded error messages that mean the same things across all car makes and models. The name of the system is OBD-II and all vehicles have a standard port that allows access to the error messages it gives readings of. Prior to 1996 each car manufacturer had their own system  which was a nightmare for mechanics, not that the readings were as important then as they are today. 

Don’t Get The Other Lights On Your Dashboard Confused

Your car has a few different lights relating to the health of your vehicle that may pop up on your dashboard. Typically cars have a check engine light, maintenance required light, and even a tire pressure light. Make sure that it is actually the check engine light that is on.  

Can You Drive With A Check Engine Light On

You can drive with the check engine light on but you should limit it and get the car to a mechanic to diagnose the computer reading as soon as possible. The one exception to this is if you have a blinking check engine light, especially one that flashes for longer than 6 seconds. A flashing check engine light is a sign that you have a catastrophic issue on your hands. Pull over immediately and call a tow truck or you could risk causing a ton of damage to your car which may be very expensive to repair and even total your car. 

What Could Cause the Check Engine Light to Come On?

Here is a list of the top ten most common causes of check engine lights as reported by CarMD

  1. Replace ignition coils and spark plugs which averages $391 to repair
  2. Replace oxygen sensors in your exhaust system which averages $244 to repair
  3. Replace catalytic converter which averages $1,372 to repair
  4. Loose gas cap which may need to be tightened or replaced which averages $26 to repair
  5. Replace ignition coils which averages $217 to repair
  6. Replace evaporative emissions purge control valve which averages $150 to repair
  7. Replace mass airflow sensor which averages $341 to repair
  8. Replace evaporative emissions purge solenoid which averages $154 to repair
  9. Replace fuel injectors which averages $450 to repair
  10. Replace thermostat which averages $245 to repair

How To Turn Off The Check Engine Light

Most computer scanners that diagnose the engine issue for you also have a feature to turn off the check engine light or reset it. You can turn off the light without fixing the problem, of course that doesn’t make the problem go away and the light will likely come back on. 

Whatever You Do, Don’t Ignore It

It is totally normal to get a pit in your stomach when you see the check engine light come on. It is completely understandable. Most people don’t understand how their cars work and going to a mechanic who could be taking advantage of that can be stressful. Whether you don’t have the time or money to take the car in, know that the worst thing you can do is continue driving your car for weeks or months just avoiding the problem. 

Many of the components in the engine are connected and when one breaks and is operating broken, you are much more likely to cause excess damage and severe issues for yourself to deal with down the road. No pun intended. If you don’t want to go to the mechanic, know that you can buy a reader yourself which will scan your car’s computer and spit out an error reading. This can be a good option for diagnosing the issue from the comfort of your own garage. 

Know that the check engine light is just a clue as to what is happening below the hood. Consider it a point in the right direction. The real problem should be diagnosed by a trained vehicle mechanic and fixed by one as well. 

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Resources: 

https://www.edmunds.com/car-maintenance/what-your-check-engine-light-is-telling-you.html#:~:text=The%20check%20engine%20light%20%E2%80%94%20more,computer%20that%20something%20is%20wrong.&text=If%20the%20light%20begins%20flashing,quickly%20overheat%20the%20catalytic%20converter.
https://www.autozone.com/diy/maintenance/top-five-reasons-check-engine-light
https://www.consumerreports.org/car-repair-maintenance/what-does-check-engine-light-mean/
https://www.digitaltrends.com/cars/check-engine-light-explanation/
https://www.autoselectonline.com/article/is-your-check-engine-light-on-what-does-that-really-mean

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