You’re purring down the highway, not a care in the world and the Check Engine light comes on. Now what? Do you pull over to call for a tow or see the glass as half-full and keep going? It’s a little like having a doctor peer over your files and say, “You have a problem.” Is the solution a good night’s rest and more fiber or is it time to update your will? In reality, that Check Engine light could mean anything from a defective light to the automotive equivalent of major surgery.
The good news: You can get a diagnosis without heading to your mechanic. The auto aftermarket’s answer to the labyrinth of microprocessors and engine control units (ECU) is a selection of stand-alone or laptop compatible diagnostic tools so you can determine and, hopefully, resolve the problem without the hassle of an overnight in the mechanic’s bay.
All this technological wizardry began back in the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established strict emission standards. The state of California compounded the issue with even stricter regulations, forcing the auto manufacturers to comply if they wanted to sell cars in the world’s most car-obsessed state. The solution to controlling emissions was simple: Just control the air/fuel mix with computer technology. The ECU, loaded with optimum engine parameters, monitors data from the engine’s sensors and adjusts everything from spark timing to how long the fuel injector is open. Where appropriate, this info is communicated to your vehicle’s instrument panel, including that pesky little Check Engine light.
As long as the engineers were computerizing our engines, they figured it would be relatively simple to use all this data to help diagnose engine issues. On Board Diagnostics (OBD) have evolved since the early 1980s from non-standardized systems to the current OBDII standards, mandated for all cars sold in the U.S. beginning with the 1996 model year.
Diagnostic tools are simply plugged into the port (usually located on the driver’s side of the passenger compartment near the center console) and out pours information on what ails your vehicle. Of course, the diagnosis information is in code, but the value of OBD is obvious. The mystery of the engine light can now be solved. Plus, those annoying intermittent problems that disappear the minute you pull into your mechanic’s driveway and then re-appear after you leave cannot hide from the diagnostic tool.
Diagnostic tools fall into a couple of categories, ranging from those professional systems used by mechanics to consumer units, some of which require a laptop, others simple stand-alone tools. Before the advent of computer-controlled engines, auto enthusiasts could troubleshoot engine problems and tweak carburetors for improved performance. Those do-it-yourself repairs and adjustments limited only by the size of the enthusiast’s garage and tool kit.
Today’s scan tools won’t return us to those blissfully simple days, but they give that frustrated enthusiast a valid picture of how the engine is running. Armed with that information, you can determine if you’re up to the repairs or approach the mechanic’s bay with your own diagnosis. Weekend racers also use these tools to analyze and optimize their car’s performance.
The consumer tools that require a laptop computer are less expensive, with nearly unlimited storage capacity for data logging and other functions. The screen offers higher resolution, you’ve got a choice of software programs and the more sophisticated units can actually reprogram some of the ECU’s parameters. On the down side, you have to have a PC laptop to do your diagnosis.
The standalone tools are available in a broad range of functions from simple code read tools to more sophisticated functions. They are easier to operate and require little to no actual computer skills. Many come with carrying cases and offer rugged construction with the intent of living in the vehicle’s glove compartment or storage bins.
If all this whets your appetite to communicate with the mystery that is your engine, here are a few features to look for in standalone scan tools: Make sure the OBD codes are compatible with your vehicle. The codes should include both generic and manufacturer-specific codes. If your vehicle is pre-OBDII vintage (before 1996), can the tool be upgraded with the appropriate codes?
Along those lines, is the tool updatable? Units that last your lifetime, rather than your vehicle’s, should be updatable over the Internet. Can you read the screen? The tool should not only display the trouble code, but define it.
All told, maybe the most important feature, it should be able to reset that puzzling Check Engine light.
Created by Wayne Scraba
To be quite honest, there are times when you really don’t have to care much about a car. Take for example, the classic rental. As long as it’s not a smoldering hulk and as long as there isn’t an extra big dent on the body flanks or a smashed windshield, the car is considered “safe” to return. It won’t cost you any extra money. And we’re betting that when you rented that non-descript metallic grey four-door sedan you never once thought about popping the hood to check the fluids or to check the tire pressure.
On the contrary, though, is the car parked in your driveway. You know the one: It has your name (or your favorite bank’s name) on the title. You’re paying for it (or you’ve already paid for it). Cars aren’t cheap today, and it just makes good sense to look after the thing. The day we drove the car from the dealership, most of us aspire to keep the thing pristine. But plenty of folks have “memory lapses,” or more than likely they fall back into bad habits. Car maintenance just happens to be one of them. Falling into a maintenance rut can be expensive (in some situations, really expensive). Here’s our list of the 10 biggest maintenance mistakes you can make:
Upwards of 90 percent of all the vehicles on the road are driven with improperly inflated tires, and we suspect the majority are under inflated. Incorrect tire pressure can compromise cornering, braking and stability. In a worst-case scenario, incorrect tire pressure can lead to tire failure. It should come as no surprise that under-inflated tires also have an affect on fuel economy and tire life. Tire pressure changes constantly. This may be caused by a minor leak, but the most common factor in pressure change is ambient temperature. Should tire pressure be too low, friction between the road and the tire increases. This result is increased tire wear. Low tire pressure also creates a situation where the tire can overheat, which usually ends in catastrophic failure.
It’s really important to check the oil level in your vehicle engine on a regular basis. That should be a no-brainer. Two things can cause drops in oil level: The engine burning oil or leaking oil. Either way, if the oil level becomes too low, you’re risking major engine damage. Often, the first thing to go—the bearings—is the worst that can happen. If they’re toast, you won’t go very far before the crankshaft and the connecting rods become welded together (we’re talking feet here, not miles if you run it out of oil). Checking oil level (and condition) is not difficult. For the most part, it’s a good idea to check the oil every time you gas up, especially if your vehicle is considered “high mileage,” or one with more than 75,000 miles on the odometer. It’s not difficult to check your car’s oil and it doesn’t even take five minutes.
Okay, we’ve mentioned checking the oil, but how many people postpone fluid and filter changes (engine oil, engine oil filters and coolant as well)? Plenty, we’ll bet. Maintaining a clean, adequate supply of oil within the engine is absolutely critical for the long-term life or your vehicle. Operating conditions have an effect upon how often oil should be changed. Seasons have an effect too. Many of today’s cars and light trucks are engineered so that the condition of the oil is monitored based upon your driving habits. And when its time to change the oil, a message (actually, an “electronic nag”) will be displayed somewhere on the instrument cluster. If not, the owner’s manual will clearly spell out when it’s time for a change. Oil filters should be changed with the fluid, but at some deep discount oil change businesses, they use the cheapest filter they can find. When it comes to oil filters, the words cheap and good usually cannot be used in the same sentence. Ditto with coolant. Coolant, does, in fact, wear out. As a result, the system should be “cleaned” and replenished on a regular basis.
Stop-and-go driving (including freeway travel), driving in mountainous terrain, hauling loads or pulling a trailer can severely shorten the lifespan of your brake pads. Mix all or some of them together and your brake pads (particularly the fronts, since they get the most use) will usually be worn quicker than you might imagine. Now modern cars and modern brake pads are virtually all equipped with audible wear sensors. Basically, once worn, the pads will emit healthy squeals, and not only when the brake pedal is depressed. The squawking and squealing will go on continuously, which is your key to getting the pads replaced soon. If you don’t, then the rotors will eventually be destroyed. What was a routine (and inexpensive) brake job then becomes costly.
Unlike some of the fortunate few, many of us live in snow country. That means you have to have the right tires for the season, particularly in the winter. Up north, you’ll need appropriate rubber (usually marked “mud and snow” or with a snowflake logo on the sidewall), or you won’t get far. Case in point: mountain passes. If you want to cross them, you’ll either need the right tires or chains. We once prepared to cross the 4,068 foot high Coquihalla Highway in British Columbia, Canada during the dead of winter (there’s absolutely plenty of snow; it’s measured in meters). Chains or proper winter tires are mandatory. While checking over our 4x4 at a roadside pullout, we ran into a couple of young guys chaining up their FWD Cadillac. Unfortunately, they were chaining up the back wheels, and didn’t make it out of the pullout. But we digress. Proper tires are mandatory or you won’t go far. The same applies to summer driving. Tires engineered for cold weather use don’t last long in the summer. In fact, they’ll wear out in a heartbeat. And that means wasted money.
How many times do you take a walk around your car or truck and check the lights? You’re not alone. Plenty of folks neglect vehicle lamps. Lamps are (obviously) incredibly important, and there’s no reason not to check them regularly, since it’s a dirt simple process. Turn on the headlights. Check park lamps; high and low beam lamps and the license plate light. If equipped with fog or driving lamps, inspect them. Examine the turn signals (all four corners) and follow up with an inspection of the emergency flashers. Back up against a wall where you can see the lights, apply the foot brake and check the brake lights. Place the vehicle in reverse (with the park brake on) and check the backup lights. If any bulbs are burned out, or if there is a lighting problem, it’s obviously time to repair. And the repairs aren’t difficult or expensive.
Drive down any road, in any part of the country and you’ll see it soon enough: An overwhelmed car or truck filled to the brim with someone’s “load” and/or yanking a trailer. Most frequently you’ll see the results at the side of the road, with the hood raised. Often, it’s simply a matter of an overtaxed cooling system but in other cases we’ve even examined buckled frames and broken axles. As you can well imagine, those things cost plenty to fix. It’s a lot less costly to simply figure out what load you’re carrying (or towing) then cross reference it against the load capacity decal on door jamb of your car or truck. Keep in mind that passengers and their luggage are also included in the total “load” figure. If the load it too big then either reduce the size or rent something more capable of handling it. This is a serious safety issue and it’s nothing to take lightly.
A few years ago, we spent some quality time visiting Eastern Europe. While in Romania, we saw a Dacia fitted with a couple of rags in place of the wiper blades. But only a few short days ago, we witnessed a tennis ball jammed onto the wiper arm, and that was right here in the Pacific Northwest. Now, we can understand not being able to come up with a wiper refill in Romania, but in America? Windshield wipers need regular inspection. The reason is rubber (no matter the blend) deteriorates over time. Sunlight, ozone, cold weather and other factors contribute to the deterioration. Once the deterioration begins, wiper blades lose the ability to flex and flip over in use. They also crack. Additionally, normal use simply wears down the blade. Once the sharp edge is gone, the squeegee effect of the blade goes away as well. All of those factors prevent the blades from making full contact with the windshield. Wipers can chatter against the glass and, in most cases, the result is a blade that can’t clear the windshield effectively. There’s only one fix: Replace the blades.
Driving with a cracked (some are shattered) windshield is an invitation for trouble. Little cracks soon become big cracks and before long, visibility can be impaired, or it becomes illegal. The reality is that windshields suffer damage in varying degrees. Often, car owners ignore a small crack caused by an errant stone. Often, this small chip can spread on a car windshield, particularly in very cold weather. Manufacturers manufacture laminated windshield glass under intense pressure. The glass has very high density, which causes cracks to widen progressively. That means the trouble increases with the extent of the damage. Because of this, it’s far easier (and cheaper) to simply have stone chips and bruises fixed before they spread and become cracks. There are various techniques out there where resins are injected into the cracks with or without vacuum. This process can take a few minutes or last as long an hour, depending upon the chip size. When complete, you can’t spot the repair. With cracks, you have no option but to replace the glass. They’ll only get bigger with time.
Plenty of drivers OD on Octane, usually falling for the “If some is good, more is better” line of thinking. In this case, the real rule is to supply whatever octane the engine is rated for—nothing more and nothing less. Higher-than-required octane doesn’t improve mileage nor does it yield more power. It only costs you more money. FYI, cheaping out by using poor quality fuel in a vehicle that calls for high-octane gas isn’t a good idea either. With this approach, the engine management system will sometimes decrease ignition timing, which in turn will decrease your fuel economy (sometimes dramatically). And if it can’t decrease the timing enough, there’s a chance the engine will experience detonation. The result? Major engine carnage.
A true hands-on “gearhead,” Wayne Scraba has a diverse background in both writing and motorsports. Over the past two and a half decades, Scraba toiled as a magazine editor, technical editor, freelance magazine contributor, and has authored five automotive books. His background also includes racecar fabrication, muscle car and street rod restoration and construction, and operating his own automotive parts and repair business.