What Does Your Check Engine Light Mean?

Has that little yellow “check engine” light ever—for lack of a better phrase—freaked you out before?

It’s happened to everyone. After a busy morning, you’re on your way to work in your car or truck, everything seems normal, and then right as you’re in the middle of traffic it pops on. Cue impending sense of dread.

But is it really that bad?

It depends. When your check engine light comes on, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pull over to the side of the road and shake your fist at the heavens. It does mean that something is up and you should have your vehicle looked at immediately.

Unless, of course, you can resolve whatever the issue is yourself. Some cars are equipped to turn on the check engine light if the driver forgets to put the gas cap on, for example.

In this post, we’ll be discussing how the check engine light works, why it’s a very useful tool, and a handful of scenarios you can make it shut off on your own. We’ll also discuss the times when you’ll need to take it to a automotive professional.

What’s The Purpose of the Check Engine Light?

The check engine light can be thought of as something of a “catch all” for a rather wide variety of problems (or potential problems) that the vehicle may be having. As part of the vehicle’s onboard diagnostics (OBD), the check engine light is part of a system that monitors everything from air temperatures to road speeds.

A Trick to Know If The Problem is Big or Small

While this isn’t always true, you can often determine if the check engine light is referring to a potentially big problem or a small one by checking to see if the light stays on or blinks. Continuous illumination generally means that the problem is not an emergency (though something still needs to be resolved). Blinking usually means that the problem is more severe or immediate, such as an engine misfire that could lead to damaging the catalytic converter.

If your check engine light is blinking, in most cases it’s best to pull over, let the car cool, and only drive it again after you’re sure you can get it to a nearby service station. Yes, it’s going to be a hassle, but the diagnostic system might as well be saying, “Hey, if you keep driving much further, it’s going to cost you big time.”

Since the blinking feature isn’t in all vehicles, though it is in most newer cars and trucks, another way to try and determine the severity of the check engine light warning is to see if other dash lights have come on. The overheating indicator light, the low oil pressure light, and so on also mean that ceasing to drive the vehicle as quickly as possible is a good idea.

What to Do When Your Check Engine Light Comes On

Usually when the check engine light comes on, it’s in one of two scenarios:

  1. The check engine light comes on “out of the blue.” Everything seems fine and you’re not sure what could be causing it.
  2. The check engine light comes on while the performance of the vehicle is obviously impaired.

In the second scenario, pull over, especially if the check engine light is blinking or if the temperature warning light has also come on. Call for help and only drive the vehicle as far as is absolutely necessary. If you’re a member of a roadside assistance program, like BG On The Road® roadside assistance, now is the time to use it!

Fortunately, the first scenario is far more common. Here’s a few things to check:

  • Tighten your gas cap. Many modern cars are equipped to illuminate the check engine light if the gas cap is off completely or even if it’s loose. Remove and replace the gas cap and make sure it’s snug.
  • When was the last time you changed your oil? Many vehicles have a built-in mileage counter that gets reset every time you have your oil changed. If you know you’re due for an oil change, it’s very possible that this is the cause for the check engine light. When you take your car in to have the oil changed, let the automotive professionals know the light came on so that they can keep an eye out for any other possible issues.
  • Reduce weight in the vehicle. If you’re on a road trip with a lot of luggage plus many passengers, it can trigger the load tolerance warning for the vehicle, which illuminates the check engine light. As soon as possible, reduce the amount of weight in the vehicle.
  • Look under the hood for any obvious damage. Things like vacuum hoses becoming damaged or disconnected, ignition coils going bad, or spark plug failure can all be responsible for the check engine light to come on.

If you can’t diagnose the problem yourself, take your vehicle to a certified BG service center where a trained technician can check the diagnostic code and determine exactly why your check engine light has come on.

Bottom line? The check engine light should never be ignored, but in the large majority of cases isn’t a reason to panic.

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