It happens to everyone. You’re driving along when that pesky yellow light comes on. Like many drivers, you have no idea what could be causing the warning. Although this service light doesn’t have to mean your car spends weeks in the shop with a hefty price tag afterward, it does mean you should have it looked at by professionals as soon as possible.
What the Check Engine Light Means
As technology advances so do modern vehicles, and cars have become increasingly computer-reliant since the 1980s. As such, the service engine light is part of the onboard diagnostics system; one that monitors and regulates things like fuel mixture, engine speed, gear shifting, and ignition timing. When this computer spots an issue it can’t correct, the check engine light will illuminate to tell the driver something’s amiss.
As it alerts the driver, the system also stores a code in its memory that points to the source of trouble. This trouble code can be accessed with a scanning tool or diagnostic computer, standard equipment at any auto shop. Though this code will give you a good idea about the problem, most issues still require a licensed technician for full diagnosis and repair.
What to Do If the Service Engine Light Comes On
Either a constant or blinking light, this warning should never be ignored. In most cases, a light that turns on and stays on means the issue is not an emergency. While you needn’t pull over and have the car towed, you should consider taking it in as soon as possible. Sometimes, the car will start performing poorly after the check engine light comes on, further proof that professional help is needed.
A blinking light (or one that turns red) indicates a more pressing matter, and going straight to a mechanic is your best option for avoiding increased damage or engine failure. In current models, a blinking light generally points to a severe engine misfire that’s damaging surrounding components (like the catalytic converter).
Here are a few more ways to handle this service light warning:
- Tighten the gas cap – It sounds strange, but this move solves the problem in many cases.
- Reduce speed – Slowing down and heading to a shop is your best option if the light starts blinking. You don’t want to risk a catastrophe mid-commute.
- Pull over – Also useful for a red or blinking light, having your vehicle towed to a mechanic can save your peace of mind…and your pocketbook.
- Use built-in diagnostics – Many modern vehicles allow you to access trouble codes at home (Volvo, Hyundai, and Fiat, for example), saving you time at the shop.