Check Engine Light: What You Need to Know

The check engine light warns drivers that something is wrong and occurs when the computer issues an error message.

What does it mean when my check engine light comes on?
A glowing check engine light means that the onboard diagnostic system has detected a problem affecting the emission controls. There are dozens of possibilities as to why it has illuminated. It could be something as simple as a loose gas cap, bad airflow, a bad oxygen sensor or a faulty catalytic converter. When this warning light comes on, it generates a trouble code that can be read by connecting a diagnostic scanner to the vehicle’s onboard diagnostic system; that will steer your mechanic to specific areas and help find the cause. A flashingcheck engine light means the problem is serious enough that it warrants immediate attention to prevent expensive repairs. Stop as soon as it is safe to do so.

How soon do I have to get my check engine light checked once it illuminates?
Though a check engine light doesn’t always signal that something needs immediate attention, it shouldn’t be ignored. While it might be minor, it could be something bad, something that will grow worse quickly if left unchecked. For example, a faulty oxygen sensor can reduce fuel economy, raise emissions and cause the catalytic converter to overheat. Replacing a catalytic converter will be much more expensive than an oxygen sensor. If the check engine light is flashing that means the situation is dire and needs to be addressed pronto.

Why is it important to diagnose an illuminated check engine light?
The only way to find out what caused the check engine light to illuminate is to have a mechanic connect a diagnostic scanner to the on board diagnostics system to extract trouble codes that will help locate the source. The sooner that’s done the better.

How much should I pay?
The cost of repairs can depend on where you are as much as it does on what you need fixed. To get an estimate for your repair, go to our estimator, plug in your car’s year, make and model information, add your ZIP code, and choose the repair you need. We’ll give you a range for what your repairs should cost in your area.

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Catalytic Converter: What You Need to Know

The catalytic converter is part of your car’s emissions systems, and it plays a crucial role.

It’s located upstream of the muffler, close to the engine, and it changes environmentally damaging pollutants in the exhaust stream into more benign gases. Under extreme heat, precious metals in a honeycomb structure catalyze the chemical reactions; they make today’s vehicles dramatically cleaner than older vehicles.

How do I know when it’s time to replace my catalytic converter?
Catalytic converters can be damaged by road debris, contaminated by engine oil or coolant, or become clogged and restrict exhaust flow. Among the signs of a bad catalytic converter are sluggish performance, dark exhaust smoke or the smell of rotten eggs in the exhaust. A misfiring spark plug, faulty oxygen sensor, or other fuel or emissions-related problem can cause a catalytic converter to overheat.

How often should I replace my catalytic converter?
It often lasts 10 years or longer and should be replaced only when needed. It can become clogged, physically damaged, or contaminated by oil or engine coolant. Occasionally it might even be stolen by thieves looking to get the precious metals inside. Some symptoms can be caused by other parts of the emissions system, so a mechanic should diagnose the entire system before replacing the converter.

Why do I need to change my catalytic converter?
Catalytic converters need to be replaced only if they become clogged or damaged and can’t function properly. They’re expensive to replace, so they aren’t considered a regular maintenance item.

How much should I pay?
The cost of repairs can depend on where you are as much as it does on what you need fixed. To get an estimate for your repair, go to our estimator, plug in your car’s year, make and model information, add your ZIP code, and choose the repair you need. We’ll give you a range for what your repairs should cost in your area.

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ABS System: What You Need to Know

The antilock braking system control module is a microprocessor that runs diagnostic checks of a vehicle’s ABS. It processes information from wheel-speed sensors and the hydraulic brake system to determine when to release braking pressure at a wheel that’s about to lock up and start skidding. Antilock systems prevent skids when braking, and stability control intervenes to prevent skids even when the brakes aren’t applied.
A dashboard ABS warning light is supposed to come on for a few seconds every time a vehicle is started, but if it comes on while you’re driving it signals that the control module has conked out, a wheel sensor has failed or another problem has developed.
On many vehicles, the brakes should still operate normally when the warning light is on, but the antilock function won’t work. On some vehicles, though, braking ability will be reduced if the antilock system malfunctions, and stability control and traction control (on vehicles with those features) might also be disabled.

How do I know if my ABS system is not working?
A warning light for the ABS is supposed to illuminate briefly every time you start your car. If the warning light stays on, that means the antilock system has been deactivated because of an electrical or mechanical malfunction. Your vehicle’s regular brakes should operate, but the antilock feature that prevents wheels from locking up during braking will not work. In addition, if your vehicle has stability control and traction control, those will be disabled too because they rely on the same wheel-speed sensors as the antilock system.

How often should I replace my ABS control module?
It’s the brains of the antilock braking system: a microprocessor that adjusts braking force to individual wheels to prevent skids based on signals from wheel-speed sensors. It is more likely that a wheel-speed sensor or other component exposed to the elements will fail before the control module, but as with other electronic components, it can happen. When it does, the antilock system will be disabled and an ABS warning light should illuminate.

Why do I have to replace my ABS control module?
Since the ABS control module manages the ABS, without it the ABS portion of your brakes won’t work. Before blaming the control module, a mechanic should diagnose whether the problem is a loose or corroded connection or a component at one of the wheels.

How much should I pay?
The cost of repairs can depend on where you are as much as it does on what you need fixed. To get an estimate for your repair, go to our estimator, plug in your car’s year, make and model information, add your ZIP code, and choose the repair you need. We’ll give you a range for what your repairs should cost in your area.

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How Do I Know My Headlights Are Aimed Properly?

It may not seem obvious at first, but the adjustment on your headlights might be all wrong. How do you know for sure? Among obvious signs that your headlamps aren’t properly aimed are oncoming drivers flashing their lights at you because your lights are blinding them even without your high beams turned on, or the road ahead is brightly illuminated for only 20 feet or so, meaning the headlights are aimed too low.

Suspension problems or a heavy cargo load can change your vehicle’s ride height and shift one or both headlights subtly. A collision or hitting a road hazard also can move a light assembly and misalign your lights.

One way to tell if headlights are correctly aimed is to park the vehicle on a level surface and shine the headlights on a garage door or wall 25 feet ahead (some cars may require a different distance). The top of the low beam shining on the wall should be at or slightly below the height of the center of the headlight lens for most vehicles. You should expect the light pattern to be higher on the right side (passenger side) to illuminate road signs and lower on the driver’s side to prevent blinding other drivers. This should give you a good idea of whether the beams on both sides are aimed correctly.

Another method is to pull the vehicle within 5 feet of the wall and then use masking tape to mark the vertical and horizontal centers of the light beams on the wall. Move the vehicle back 25 feet. With the aid of the tape line, the light beams should be roughly the same height vertically and horizontally.

Vehicles have an adjustment screw or bolt on the headlight assembly for adjusting headlight height, and some also have a screw for horizontal aim. Some vehicles also have a bubble level to help with adjustments.

On some vehicles, you might have little or no space to reach the adjusters without removing parts, such as the battery. Additionally, to get an accurate reading, the vehicle should be on truly level ground, the ride height shouldn’t be affected by damaged suspension parts, flat tires or cargo, and the vehicle needs to be perpendicular to the surface on which you’re shining the headlights.

Many vehicle owner’s manuals give little or no guidance on headlight aiming. When in doubt, ask a repair shop to check. If a vehicle is still covered by the basic warranty, a dealership may check the headlight aim and align it at no cost.

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How Long Should Shock Absorbers Last?

The answer to the question question of when to replace shock absorbers and struts hinges on several variables, including how many miles a vehicle is driven, on what kinds of roads it’s driven, and whether it’s driven gently or with reckless abandon.

Those variables make it virtually impossible to assign a number of years or miles as a broad stroke, though we would expect shock absorbers (or struts on vehicles with strut-type suspensions that incorporate the shocks into an assembly with springs and other suspension parts) to last at least four or five years unless the vehicle has been subjected to extreme use. It’s also not unusual for shocks and struts to last 10 years before needing to be replaced on a vehicle that has lived most of its life on smooth pavement.

On the other hand, rough roads marked with potholes, large cracks, and sharp ridges that run across the pavement (the typical urban torture test) and bounce the car will cause faster wear in shocks (also known as dampers because they dampen the bounce). Frequently carrying heavy loads or driving on unpaved roads with deep divots or imbedded large rocks can cause excessive wear. And if you’re the type who takes bombed-out roads’ bumps at the same speed as fresh asphalt, that devil-may-care approach to road conditions and bumps is bound to exact a damage toll on shock absorbers over time. Winter weather and road salt can also shorten a car’s shock absorber and strut life by contributing to corrosion.

Instead of using time or mileage to decide when to replace shocks and struts, use them as guides for when to have your entire suspension inspected for part wear, damage and leaks (shocks contain fluid). Some shock absorber manufacturers say you should replace them at 50,000 miles, but that’s more for their benefit than yours. Having the shocks and suspension parts inspected at 40,000 or 50,000 miles, then annually after that, is a better idea. A thorough inspection should uncover what parts, if any, actually need replacement.

The springs in your vehicle’s suspension do most of the shock damping. The shocks and struts improve the ride and reduce the bouncing caused by springs compressing and releasing so you don’t go boing-boing down the road. If you notice your car has more bouncing or sway than usual, a “porpoising” motion over wavy surfaces, bottoming out over railroad tracks or having more more body lean in turns, the shocks might be in worn condition or leaking fluid and will need replacing.

Longer brake distances or abrupt reactions through the steering wheel are changes that also can be caused by worn shocks, though your first inclination might be to blame something else for those problems. The same is true of uneven tire wear: If you’re having none of those issues, the shocks might still need attention. Bushings — the rubber and metal “cushions” at mounting points and connections — may be worn and allowing abnormal suspension movement or vibrations that can cause a tire to wear faster or put more stress on other suspension components.

But there are plenty of other potential culprits among the suspension system parts and components that could cause ride or handling issues or unusual noises, such as ball joints, tie rods and control arms in bad condition. Don’t automatically point the finger at shock absorbers or buy a new set of replacement absorbers because new shocks are on sale at the repair shop. Have a complete checkup of the entire suspension by a qualified mechanic and repair with replacements as needed for a smoother, safer ride.

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How I Can Tell What That Leak in My Driveway Is?

Whether you spot a puddle under your car or just a few drops, there are several possible culprits, and color alone might not explain what it is. How can you figure it out? To be sure, you’ll need to pinpoint where it’s coming from using your eyes and your nose.

Amber, dark brown or even black fluid is probably motor oil, but it could also be brake fluid. Reddish fluid is usually from the transmission, though it could also be power-steering fluid. Most antifreeze used to be green; now it comes in several hues.

First, if it smells like gas — and it’s not just a few drops you spilled while filling the tank — treat it as a big deal, because it probably is. It’s unsafe to drive a car that’s leaking gas.

If gas isn’t the culprit, start your investigation by dabbing the fluid with your finger and/or a clean paper towel to get a closer look at the color, as well as to smell it and feel it with your fingers (keep reading for more details on this). Your car’s owner’s manual will show the location of fluid reservoirs under the hood, and that could help you identify the leaking fluid.

If you’re really lucky, that initial investigation will show that it’s colorless and odorless, which would mean it’s just water draining from the vehicle’s air-conditioning system, typically in the front on the passenger side. If it’s watery, it could also be windshield washer fluid.

If it appears to be coming from under the hood, narrow the possible culprits down by placing clean cardboard, such as a flattened box, under the engine and transmission immediately after the car has been driven, then check it later. That should give you a better look at the color and help you find where it came from, either by looking up from underneath the vehicle or down from above the engine. Even if fluid isn’t visibly dripping, leaks will leave tracks, and seepage will leave dark spots around gaskets and seals that you might be able to spot.

Ways to Identify Leaking Fluids

Engine oil can be amber (if it’s fresh), brown or — if it hasn’t been changed for 10,000 miles — black, and it will leave slickness on your fingers that’s hard to wipe off. Oil can leak from gaskets and seals on the front or rear of an engine, from valve covers or from the oil pan underneath, so there are several possible sources of an oil leak.

Transmission fluid is usually reddish and slick, though some come in other colors and can be thicker or thinner than engine oil. If you suspect a transmission fluid leak, consult your owner’s manual to see how to check the fluid level. If you can get a clear look at the transmission, check for leaks around the seals or gaskets.

Power-steering fluid is usually reddish, and on some vehicles it’ll be the same fluid that goes into the transmission. Check the fluid level in the power-steering reservoir and look for leaks in the reservoir and the hoses coming from it.

Engine coolant can be green, yellow, pink or another color, so check your coolant overflow tank to see what’s in your radiator. Is the overflow tank empty? Maybe you’ve found your problem. Coolant usually feels like slimy water and has a sweet smell. Leaks can come from the overflow tank, the radiator, the water pump, coolant hoses and elsewhere. For your own safety, wait until your engine is cold before opening the radiator cap.

Brake fluid can be light brown or even clear when new, but it typically darkens as it ages. It’s also slippery — and vital to stopping your car. That’s a good reason to treat a brake fluid leak as an emergency. Check the brake fluid level in the reservoir (usually near the firewall on the driver’s side) and see if you can see any leaks there. The fluid gets pumped through brake lines to the wheels, so leaks could be much further downstream and out of sight.

A few drops of fluid on your driveway isn’t reason to panic, especially on an older car. Seepage and minor leaks are par for the course on vehicles with several years and thousands of miles on the clock. That said, any leak should be a wake-up call to keep an eye on things before it becomes a gusher, and to regularly check fluid levels (all of them) to make sure you aren’t running low anywhere.

If you’re losing sleep worrying about a fluid leak, ask your dealership or local repair shop to take a look. Draining fluids can be a drain on your wallet, but the earlier they’re caught, the better.

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What’s Included in a Tuneup?

A car tuneup is an outdated service consisting of replacing parts to bring the ignition and fuel systems up to spec for maximum engine performance and efficiency. A traditional tuneup hasn’t been available or necessary for years. Today’s remaining tuneup services include new spark plugs and cabin air filter replacement. Both are part of your vehicle’s maintenance schedule just as much as checking tire pressure or getting an oil change are — and today’s “tuneup” services are likely to be more like checkups for your car.

Spark plugs, for example, are typically replaced every 100,000 miles. And the federal EPA and Department of Energy say that replacing a clogged air filter will not improve gas mileage but can improve acceleration by roughly 6 to 11 percent. The agencies do not say what benefit can be derived from fresh spark plugs, but computers that control today’s engines adjust the air-fuel mixture and spark timing to compensate for wear, such as when the electrodes on spark plugs are worn down.

Even so, some car owners still dutifully take their vehicle in periodically to have it “tuned up.” Instead, what actually happens is that service technicians will inspect and perhaps test the fuel, ignition and emissions systems to look for faulty vacuum hoses, oxygen sensors and various other parts that can hurt the car’s performance. The federal government, for example, says a bad oxygen sensor can give engine computers false readings and reduce fuel economy by as much as 40 percent.

Don’t Ask for a Tuneup, Just Follow Your Car’s Maintenance Schedule

Having your vehicle serviced and inspected periodically is a good way to extend its life and keep it operating efficiently. (Here are some signs your car needs to be checked by a mechanic.) However, walking into a repair facility and asking for a tuneup is a bad idea because it indicates you’re still living in a previous century with no knowledge of what your car actually needs and have extra money to spend. Some in the auto repair business will take advantage of those opportunities.

Look in the owner’s manual for your vehicle (or separate maintenance schedule) to find what the manufacturer recommends, and see if you can even find the word “tuneup.” (Finding it with a hyphen counts; don’t worry, we’ll wait.) For example, we looked at the maintenance guide for the Ford Fiesta that also applies to other Ford vehicles. The first mention of anything related to a traditional tuneup was to replace the engine air filter every 30,000 miles. The only other related item was to replace the spark plugs every 100,000 miles.

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