When you suddenly notice that your vehicle’s Check Engine light is on, it’s usually accompanied by a sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach. This little red or orange beacon could mean a costly problem, like a bad catalytic converter, or something minor, like a loose gas cap or bad spark plug wires.
What is it?
The Check Engine light, also known as the Malfunction Indicator Lamp, is signal from your car’s computer (the Engine Control Unit or ECU) that something is wrong with your vehicle. It is often depicted as an engine with a lightning bolt inside it (see right), an engine with the word “CHECK” written on or below it, or as the words “SERVICE ENGINE SOON.” If this light begins flashing, there problem is much more serious.
What should you do?
When the light comes on, first check to see if the gas cap is loose (a common cause). A loose cap can send an error message to the computer, reporting a leak in the vapor recovery system. If the gas cap is loose, tighten it and continue driving; it will take some time for the light to go off even after you tighten the cap. If the light remains on, get your engine checked promptly. Ignoring the light could lead to larger, more costly problems later.
The Check Engine light is designed to alert drivers to a conditions that can waste fuel or shorten engine life, and potentially expensive repairs. Maintaining your vehicle on a regular basis is one of the best ways to avoid costly repairs and keeping the vehicle operating at peak levels.
Adopted as a government mandate to lower emissions, all 1996 and newer vehicles manufactured for use in the U.S. have Check Engine lights. Experts say that 10 percent of all cars on the road have their Check Engine lights illuminated. This isn’t to say that you should ignore the problem. Have your mechanic perform a diagnostic to find out what’s wrong.