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Your check engine light is on… take a breath and follow these steps

Patrice Banks

Girls Auto Clinic is here to help you navigate through the most feared dashboard light: Check Engine.


tWhen this light came on my dashboard, I used to throw my head back, close my eyes and whisper, “s***!”

t The check engine light, also known as the MIL or maintenance indicator light, illuminates anytime the computer in the car reads the car is burning fuel inefficiently. Therefore you are using more gas and/or polluting the air with toxins.

t That’s no reason to panic. Something as simple as the gas cap not being on tight enough can cause this light to come on. It could also be something more complex. And if you live in a state that performs emissions testing, a lit check engine symbol on the dashboard with cause you to fail.

tImportant: If the Check Engine/MIL light is flashing, that means damage can be done to other parts of the vehicle. Shut the vehicle off as soon as safely possible and get it to a shop ASAP. Do not drive the vehicle with the check engine light flashing.

t So, what should you do when the checking engine light comes on? Start to notice any changes in the way your car runs or drives. Is it running rough or shaking when you are in park? Does the car lack “oomph” or power when you press on the gas? Is it shifting hard when you try to go faster? You may not feel any difference at all.

t You will have to take the vehicle to a repair a shop and have a mechanic/technician scan for a code on the vehicle’s computer. The code will help the mechanic/technician diagnosis why the vehicle is burning fuel inefficiently. This scanner is most commonly called a scan tool.

t Please be aware of two things:

  1. Most shops no longer charge you to hook up the scan tool and read you the codes the car is sending to the computers. This is not a diagnostic, however. It will lead you to the system and location that is causing the check engine light to come on. A diagnostic still may need to be performed to get to the root cause of the problem. This will cost money. We charge $75 per hour here in Philadelphia to diagnosis a car problem.
  2. t

  3. Auto parts stores advertise they will hook up a scan tool to your car and read your codes. They can give advice as to what they believe might be going on, but they are not mechanics. Most of them don’t even have automotive training. Save your printout from the scan tool and take it to a repair shop. They are most likely going to re-scan the car with their own scan tool anyway.
Photo credit: michaeljung/iStock/360/Getty Images

tFor more helpful tips on handling car problems, check out our ladies guide to stupid car problems.

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