Low oil pressure is a common cause of a check engine light turning on, and it can seriously interfere with your car’s performance. Usually, if this is the case, your oil light will also appear. In any case, low enough oil pressure will disable your vehicle, so get this repaired immediately. When the check engine light is solid, you can typically drive the car for hundreds of miles without an issue. Of course, that depends on which code is stored in the vehicle’s computer. If an engine sensor is faulty, the car will usually use made up sensor values to keep running.
Driving a car is one of those things that works best when you don’t have to worry about how everything works. You have enough to pay attention to on the road without having to worry about what’s going on under the hood. But then one day you’re driving home, minding your own business, and your check engine light comes on with no warning or explanation.
The check engine light is one of the most frustrating and confusing warnings out there. It’s just a light, with no information telling you what the problem is. It’s a cry from a baby with no explanation, but here’s how you can take some steps towards figuring it out yourself before heading to a mechanic for costly repairs.
A steady light means there’s no immediate cause for alarm, but you should still get it checked out. Head to an auto parts store and have them run a diagnostic to find the cause of the check engine light. Call ahead and make sure they can handle your make and model, since some cars have special computers. Once you’re there, they’ll plug a small computer underneath your dashboard and read back a code stating what happened.
In general, five common malfunctions can cause the check engine light to come on, and some of them are simple to fix yourself. Let’s take a look at the most common issues.
Your oxygen sensor needs to be replaced: An oxygen sensor is a part that monitors the unburned oxygen from the exhaust. It helps monitor how much fuel is burned. A faulty sensor means it’s not providing the right data to the computer and causes a decrease in gas mileage. Most cars have between two and four oxygen sensors; the code you get from the scanner will tell you which one needs replacing. Over time, the sensor gets covered in oil ash and it reduces the sensor’s ability to change the oxygen and fuel mixture. A faulty sensor not only reduces gas mileage, it also increases emissions. Not replacing a broken oxygen sensor can eventually lead to a busted catalytic convertor. However, an oxygen sensor is easy to replace on many cars and is usually detailed in the owner’s manual. If you know where the sensor is, you only have to unclip the old sensor and replace it with a new one. Regardless of how you approach it, get this fixed right away.
You have a loose or faulty gas cap: You wouldn’t think a gas cap would be that important, but it is. When it’s loose or cracked, fuel vapors leak out and can throw the whole fuel system off. This causes a reduction in gas mileage and increases emissions. If you get an error pointing to the gas cap, it means fuel vapors are leaking out of your cap. This means it’s either cracked or just wasn’t tightened well enough. If your car isn’t feeling jerky or strange when the check engine light comes on, the first thing you should check is the gas cap. Pull over, tighten it, and take a look at the cap to see if it has any cracks in it. Continue driving and see if the check engine light turns off. Alternately, you can purchase a gas cap for a few dollars online or at an auto parts store. All you need to do is take the old one off and screw on the new one. If you’ve already made it to the store, you might as well replace it. While not car-threatening, it’s good to take care of this right away to improve gas mileage.
You need to replace the catalytic convertor: The catalytic convertor works to reduce exhaust gases. It converts carbon monoxide and other harmful materials into harmless compounds. If your catalytic convertor is failing, you’ll notice a decrease in gas mileage or your car won’t go any faster when you push the gas. Catalytic convertors shouldn’t fail if you’re keeping up on regular maintenance. The main cause of failure is related to other items on this list, including a broken oxygen sensor or deteriorated spark plugs (we’ll get to those in a second). When it fails, it stops converting carbon monoxide into less harmful emissions.
If your catalytic convertor fails completely, you eventually won’t be able to keep the car running. Your gas mileage will also be terrible, so you should try and fix it as soon as you can. Unfortunately, a new catalytic converter can cost you a couple thousand dollars and you can’t do it yourself unless you’re an experienced mechanic.
You need a new mass airflow sensor: The mass airflow sensor tells the car’s computer to add the proper amount of fuel based on the air coming through to the engine. A faulty one can increase emissions, cause the car to stall, and decrease gas mileage. Most mass airflow sensors fail because of an improperly installed (or never replaced) air filter. You should replace the air filter at least once a year to help prevent the airflow sensor from failing.
Theoretically you can drive for a few weeks or even months with a broken MAF sensor. You will notice a decrease in gas mileage and over time the car will eventually start stalling a lot. It’s not terribly difficult to do on your own, but the process is quick enough you may want to let a mechanic handle the project in case the sensor doesn’t end up being the issue.
Most spark plugs in cars from before 1996 should be replaced every 25,000-30,000 miles. Newer ones can last up to 100,000 miles. Still, plugs fail over time and there’s not much you can do about it.
Get them replaced right away. It’s easy, cheap, and your car will run better for it. If your spark plugs fail and you’ve made your way to the auto parts store, you can replace them easily following the video above. Since this is part of your vehicle’s regular maintenance, the spark plugs are usually easily accessible from the hood of the car. It’s simple enough that I’ve seen people doing this in the auto parts parking lot on several occasions. There are plenty of other possibilities for a check engine light are out there, but the five above are the most common and a good place to start.