What to Do When Check Engine Light Comes On
The check engine light can be nerve-racking. It turns on and you have no idea why. There are so many things that can be wrong with a car. Is it going to fall apart?!
When Keri and I took a road trip, her check engine light popped on just when we were about as far from home as we could be on this trip. The same thing happened to Tiff and me. As soon as we drove to Austin from Dallas, the light popped on.
Luckily, the check engine light has a few very specific meanings and isn’t as scary as it seems. My father was a mechanic and taught me a few things about cars and travel.
First of all, if the light is flashing, it means things could be much more serious. So if your light is flashing, please don’t risk it and have it looked at!
Most checked engine light problems are issues that affect your performance and fuel mileage but don’t mean the car is ready to fall apart. Note: I do not mean that you should drive around like this for ages. I just mean you should be able to make it home fine and do not need to immediately pull over and call for a tow.
But then follow these steps:
1. Check your gas cap
The problem could be as simple as issues with your gas cap. Is it on all the way? Is it on at all?
When I was passing through New Jersey, the attendant at the gas station never put the cap back on. When my check engine light came on, I checked that immediately. Unfortunately, the New Jersey turnpike has awful tolls, so it ended up being cheaper to head to an auto parts store than to circle back!
If your cap is on fine, it can still be your gas cap. If air pressure builds up, it can set off the check engine light sensor too. Try unscrewing it, hanging on for a little bit, and then screwing it back on.
You’ll need to drive a while for the check engine light to shut off after that (20-30 miles sometimes!), but if you are in the middle of a long stretch of a road trip, you should be able to see it go off at some point if this was the issue.
2. Consult your car manual
Hopefully, you keep it in your driver’s glove box! My assumptions here are that your problem could be a fuel cap, O2 sensor, airflow problem, fuel pump, ignition coil, spark plug, or catalytic converter. Here is an AutoZone article I found explaining them.
If something else is listed in your manual as being a non-flashing check engine light issue, then this post does not necessarily apply (just because I don’t want to give advice about potential issues I don’t know anything about). But you can drive with these items listed with no to minimal damage for a little while. (Spark plugs, ignition coils, and O2 sensors are the biggest worry, but your car should be okay in the short-term).
3. Head over to AutoZone (or another car parts place)
Places like AutoZone have a check-engine light machine. They can figure out what your issue is and how serious it is.
They can also tell you if your issue is a you-should-get-fixed-while-on-your-trip issue, or if you could drive to Dallas from Austin with no huge issues.
AutoZone does this for free which is much better than the $70+ some mechanics charge for the same thing.
I’m particularly a fan of AutoZone because when I’ve had parts crap out, they’ve assisted me in putting the new part in my car. No mechanic stop necessary! (These were easy to replace parts, so I wouldn’t expect them to help me install a–let’s say–catalytic converter).
Important: I am not intending the takeaway of this article to be–oh sure, just go ahead and keep driving with that issue. I mean that you do not have to immediately stop what you are doing on vacation and spend hours in a repair shop. Most of the issues with a non-flashing repair light are non-emergency, and you can easily find that out for free from auto parts stores like AutoZone.