Help! My check engine light is on

Help! My check engine light is on

I have had people call me in an absolute panic about the little yellow light that just came on in their car - also known as the check engine light, the service engine soon light, the maintenance required light or even the "lit up little fish symbol."

Unless the check engine light is flashing, turns red, or your vehicle is running roughly, hard to start or is smoking, it is usually OK to drive (cautiously if necessary) to your local auto repair shop.

There are literally hundreds of operations within the car's systems that the engine control computer constantly tests and monitors. Mostly the reason for the check engine light coming on is related to the emissions system, which could indicate something simple like the gas cap not being screwed on tightly or a more costly repair like needing a new catalytic convertor.

Did you recently fill up the gas tank? Be sure to tighten the cap tightly, as that is a commonly overlooked reason for the malfunction indicator light (MIL) to come on. The computer may see this gross leak in the evaporator system and throw the code, but after you tighten it and the vehicle tests the system again after a couple of days of normal driving, it may turn the light off.

It should be safe to see if the light comes on again after a day or two and notice if the vehicle is running any differently. If it returns, definitely take it in and have your technician scan the computer for the latest codes (this should only take a few minutes and be provided free of charge). They will usually be able to make a quick diagnosis at that time and provide you with a free estimate.

Sometimes, however, there are cases when your auto service shop will need more time to accurately diagnose the problem, but they should tell you how long they think to will take and how much it will cost. Be sure to ask if that diagnosis time will be applied to the repair. Sometimes the most urgent repairs will have to be performed, and the computer may then see another problem, so if you have recently had a repair and the check engine light comes on, definitely take it back to that shop and have them scan it again.

Basically, the check engine light is a courtesy for you;  the car is saying “Hey, I am seeing something wrong here,” which you will need to get repaired before any annual state inspections (if your state requires them). Some states such as Delaware have repair waivers where repairs are documented and regular fees may be waived for particular vehicles. Call your local Delaware Emission Certified Technician for more information.

About this Angie's List Expert: JoAnn Shilling is the office manager for Joe Shilling, Inc., which has been proudly providing automotive repair services in the Wilmington, Del., area for over 30 years. The company, which hires only ASE-certified technicians,  is Delaware emission certified, a NAPA Auto Care Center, a AAA approved repair facility and affiliated with the Automatic Transmission Rebuilders Association.

As of July 9, 2013, this service provider was highly rated on Angie's List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check Angie's List for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie's List.


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