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Is Your Check Engine Light a Serious Problem? Don’t Panic!

Is check engine light serious?

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Is a check engine light serious? This is a question that most drivers tend to ask mainly because a check engine light can cause vehicle owners a massive amount of stress. No one wants to be stuck with a costly repair bill or worse an accident due to ignorance. However, there are a few drivers tend to bury their heads in the sand preferring to ignore the situation altogether.

Is check engine light serious?

What is a check engine light?

Table of Contents

Just like most car warning lights, the check engine light which can be a yellow, red or orange symbol that appears on your car’s dashboard indicating that your vehicle’s system has malfunctioned. This light can either flash or remain steady. If your engine light is steady it means that there is no cause for immediate alarm. However, if the check engine light is flashing this might be an indication of an emergency and you might want to pull over as soon as possible.

How it works

Cars that were manufactured in 1996 and beyond are equipped with an On-Board Diagnostic II system (OBD-II). It is sensors that are found within your engine system that monitor each operation in your car and sends messages to its computer. Whenever an error code is sent for the part of the engine that has malfunctioned, the check engine light of your car switches on to alert you.

Depending on the model of your car, the warning light can be red, orange or yellow. This symbol is always in the outline of a car engine and most times is accompanied by the words “check engine”.

Is it safe to drive with a check engine light on?

The question of whether it is safe to drive with the check engine light on entirely depends on the type of warning light you get. Here are the two types of check engine lights and what they indicate.

1. The check engine light is on but blinking or flashing

As mentioned above, this is normally an indication of an issue that is much more serious. If your check engine light is blinking or flashing, the safest option for you is to safely pull over and the shut off the engine. The next step you should take is to tow your car to the nearest auto repair shop for diagnosis and repair.

2. The check engine light is on but steady

This means that there is an issue with your engine and even though it needs to be looked into, it is not that serious at the moment. Despite it not being as serious, you should not ignore a steady engine light. Instead, book an appointment with your mechanic as soon as possible to avoid potentially worse damage in the future.

Service light vs engine light

Some people tend to confuse the service light with the engine light thus why we felt the nee do help you differentiate the two.  The service light usually in the outline of a wrench and is accompanied by the words “service now” or service soon”. This is just a reminder that you need to take your car for its routine scheduled maintenance and doesn’t indicate any mechanical issues.

What could cause the check engine light to come on?

Your check engine light glows or blinks depending on what is wrong with your vehicle. This could be due to a number of things. It could be indicating a serious problem or a less urgent issue. Regardless, it is easy to find out what is up with your car. Keep in mind that the quicker you do it the more money you could be potentially saving and also prevent more damage down the road. Here are common reasons as to why your engine light might be on.

1. Your gas cap is missing, loose or damaged

The function of gas caps is to seal the fuel system as well as help to maintain pressure within the fuel tank. In addition to this, they also prevent gasoline fumes also known as hydrocarbons from being released into the atmosphere when you’re not driving your vehicle.

This is what will happen if you don’t replace your gas cap:

  • You may find yourself taking more trips to the gas station
  • You can lose a lot of fuel through evaporation

2. It’s about time you replaced your Mass Airflow Sensor (MAF)

This is what measures the amount of air that enters your car’s engine. Its main job is to determine how much fuel your car needs to run the engine efficiently.

This is what may happen if your MAF is not replaced:

  • You will most likely experience reduces performance as well as fuel economy
  • Faulty sensors could potentially cause damage to your car’s spark plugs, catalytic converter or oxygen sensors

3. Your Oxygen Sensors need replacing

The purpose of oxygen sensors is to measure t6he amount of unconsumed oxygen in the exhaust system of your vehicle.

This is what may happen to your car if you don’t replace your Oxygen Sensor

  • You will get fewer miles per gallon and lose fuel economy
  • The faulty oxygen sensors can potentially cause damage to your car’s catalytic converter and spark plugs
  • Your engine will be burning more fuel than needed

4. Your car needs new plug wires or spark plugs

While your car’s plug wires deliver the spark to the spark plugs from the ignition coil, the spark plugs ignite the fuel/air mixture in the combustion chamber.

This is what might happen if you don’t replace the spark plugs or spark wire:

  • Worn out plug wires and plugs can potentially damage your car’s ignition coils and oxygen sensors or cause clogged catalytic converter
  • You may experience poor performance such as reduced power or missing engine and also reduced fuel economy

5. Your catalytic converter is spoilt

The catalytic converter of a car helps in protecting or environment through the conversion of harmful carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide.  A damaged or spoilt catalytic converter is usually due to neglected maintenance.

Failure to replace a spoilt or damaged catalytic converter might lead to the following:

  • Your car running at a much higher temperature
  • Your vehicle will not pass an emissions test
  • Experiencing reduced performance and fuel economy

Common things to do when your check turns on

In the event that your check engine comes on, here are some tips on what you should do:

1. Reduce speed and load

If you notice that your check engine light is blinking or any other serious performance problem such as loss of power, the first thing you ought to do is reduce your speed and then try to reduce the demands of your car’s engine. It would be a good idea to stop a towing track and take your car to the nearest repair shop to have it checked. This may prevent expensive damage in the future

2. Check to see if there is a serious problem that may require immediate attention

Check the gauges on your dashboard as well as the lights to see if there any indications for overheating or low pressure.  Any of these conditions mean that you have to pull over and turn your engine off as soon as possible. However, always ensure that you find a safe place to pull over. On some cars, the red light means stop right now while the yellow one means to investigate the situation.

3. Use your car’s built-in diagnostic services if you have

A lot of modern cars are equipped with integrated remote diagnostic capabilities. This allows them to report on trouble codes and also schedule a service appointment. At present, many automakers including Land Rover, Fiat Chrysler, Volvo, Jaguar, Hyundai, and Ford support remote diagnostics as well as the ability to schedule a service appointment.

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4. Try to tighten your gas cap

Tighten your gas cap can quite easily solve the problem. However, it may take some time before the lights reset. There are also vehicles that warn when your gas cap is loose.

Other things you should watch out for:

If your cable ends are loose or corroded as they may prevent your car’s battery from maintaining a full state of charge
ensure that the battery rating meets at least the minimum, cranking amperage (CCA or CA) requirement for your car

Ensure that you routinely check the condition of your car’s charging system and battery as both are critical to the proper operation of the electronic control system

The alternator/fan or serpentine belt on your car is inspected for signs of wear or tear as well as proper adjustment. This is because they are an integral part of your car’s charging system.

Can check engine light turn itself on?

The answer is no. naturally, when the check engine light turns on it means that your car is talking to you. The severity of the issue will depend on the type of light as well as the type of error code the computer scanner has identified. As mentioned earlier, this may be due to a faulty catalytic converter or failing oxygen sensor which is more serious and costly to repair or it may be something minor like a loose gas cap.

If you find your head racing at the sight of a check engine light, slow down, take a breath and analyze the situation.

Check engine light error codes and what they mean

Once you have gotten your check engine light error code, it is essential that you try and find out what it means. There are a plethora of websites that explain such error codes in simple English that you can easily understand. Similarly, you can just type the error code on Google or another search engine. While doing so, you might want to include the make and model of your car and the year it was manufactured.

More often than not, you will get results pertaining to the issue your car may be facing as well as repair suggestions. However, one downside for looking up for code errors online is that they do not accurately diagnose the issue that your car is facing. Getting the code might still mean that it’s a general area defect thus requiring further diagnosis.

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1. Error Code P0440

This is a very common error code which means that the vapor from your fuel tank is escaping into the atmosphere. The main cause of this is usually a loose gas cap. The logical solution here is to stop your car and tighten the cap or have it replaced altogether. Once that is fixed the check engine light will automatically go off after driving for about 50 to 100 miles.

Should the light still remain on, this could mean that the leak is caused by another underlying issue which needs to be determined by a certified mechanic.

Your options after reading the codes

Once you have read the check engine light error codes you can do either one of the three things:

1. Purchase an inexpensive code scanner and read it for yourself

If you are driving an older model then this might be a good option for you. This is because the occasional check engine light might just be due to minor issues. These scanners cost as little as $15, there are even some that send information to your phone using a wireless connection.

2. Take your car to a mechanic and pay to have it diagnosed

Most mechanics agree to waive this fee if you agree to have the necessary repair services done at their garage.

3. Take your car to an auto spare shop and have the error code read for free

Getting a free check engine light diagnosis may be good for you especially if the error turns out to be something minor meaning you can fix it by yourself.

Will check engine light reset itself?

Once you have fixed the issue, your check engine light is supposed to automatically come off after a few minutes of driving. If you have a code reader then resetting your car’s computer error codes is possible. This will allow you to turn off the check engine light on your own. However, keep in mind that if you have not fixed the core problem with your car, this light will come back on after some time. Avoid this especially when your car up for an emissions test as this will outrightly make you fail the inspection test. Since sometimes the check engine light error code is stored in your computer system, it may fail to illuminate on the dash.

A potential snowball effect is another disadvantage of ignoring your car’s check engine light warning. When a simple inexpensive part malfunctions but is left unattended, this may slowly but surely damage other parts as well which could again be costly to repair.

When not to panic if your check engine light comes on

How urgent is the check engine light? When it comes on should I pull over or go straight home? Should I check for something or start to panic? This are just some of the questions that pop in the minds of most drivers whenever they think about a check engine light warning. While there are many reasons why this can happen to you, there are a few situations where you don’t need to panic and here are some of them.

1. It may not be an emergency

Your check engine light rarely singles anything disastrous especially if it is steady, unlike some other lights that may come on in your car such as the oil light which could mean a big problem if you don’t address it right away.

Sometimes, if the light is steady it could mean that you’re probably okay to drive a few more days or a few more miles. However, the smart thing to do in this situation is to take your car for diagnosis and repair if needed.

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2. It may just be a minor issue such as a loose, damaged or missing gas cap

Many car owners are not aware that a faulty, loose or cracked gas cap can cause fuel in your car to evaporate thus turning your check engine warning light on. When this happens, the first thing you need to do is pull over in a safe place to check on your gas cap. Secondly, ensure that the cap is on tightly. Lastly, your check engine light should go off in about 10 to 20 minutes once you’re back on the road if this indeed was the problem.

A certified mechanic should be able to diagnose the issue quite easily

Thanks to advancement in technology, we will soon be able to figure out what the core issue is whenever our car’s check engine light goes on. For now, however, we still have to rely on the services of certified mechanics which is your only best bet of knowing what the problem is.

Consider other reasons why the check engine light might be on

Apart from a faulty, cracked or loose gas cap, there are a dozen other reasons why your check engine light is on. Some of these reasons might be more complicated than you think thus requiring a certified mechanic to diagnose. In addition, some of these issues may not be fixed on the side of the road. The triggers can be anything from a faulty catalytic converter or worn out spark plugs to damaged ignition coils or vacuum hose.

The next time your check engine light comes on, just know while you will require the service of a mechanic in the near future, you don’t need to panic. It may be okay to keep going as long as you ensure that you get the issue diagnosed and fixed as soon as possible.

How many more miles can you drive if the check engine light is on

Typically, as long as your car is running smoothly you can still drive even if the check engine light is on provided to take your car to the mechanic for diagnosis as soon as possible. When the check engine light is steady and not blinking, you can drive your car for hundreds of miles without encountering any grave issue. However, this, of course, depends on the error code that is stored on your computer.

The most common check engine light repair costs

Costs for repairing whatever issue your car has that is causing the check engine light to come on vary greatly. According to CarMD’s 2016 analysis of millions of repairs, the cost of repair for the most common types of check engine light problems can range between $20 to almost $1,200. Below are the most common types of check engine light issues and the average amount of money it will cost you to repair.

  • Problem: Faulty oxygen sensor. Repair: replacement of the oxygen sensor. Cost: $259
  • Problem: Loose fuel cap. Repair: Inspect tip check if replacement is necessary or just needs tightening. Cost: $17
  • Problem: Mass air flow sensor. Repair: Replacement of the mass airflow sensor. Cost: $378
  • Problem: Ignition coil and spark plug. Repair: Replacement of the ignition coil and spark plug. Cost: $401
  • Problem: Catalytic converter. Repair: Replacement of new OEM catalytic converter. Cost: $1,190

Why checking your check engine light is important

While the check engine light doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an emergency, it is important that you don’t ignore it. Most of the times, it is an indication that you have to visit your mechanic for proper diagnosis. You would be surprised to know that there are very many drivers on the road who just choose to ignore this warning sign. Paying attention to what your car is trying to say to you by responding to the check engine light is very important because it might save you from incurring more expenses in regards to repairs as well as stop your car from getting more damages as a result of a snowball effect.


It is paramount that every driver whether old, new or potential know what a check engine light means, how urgent it is and why they should not ignore it. Now that you have all the information you need what’s stopping you from being a better driver.

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