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What Does the Check Engine Light Mean | Check Engine Light Flashing

What Does the Check Engine Light Mean? And Why You Should Never Ignore It! 

What does the "check engine light" mean? All cars sold in the United States have been required to have OBD (On-board diagnostics) installed since 1996. OBD is a standardized way for your engine control computer to detect and report malfunctions to a service technician. And the check engine light is also the primary visual method for communicating to the driver that some sort of problem has occurred and likely requires attention. This one little light can strike fear and panic into the hearts of most car owners.

When your check engine light comes on, it could mean a variety of things. Oftentimes, the light comes on because of something minor like a loose gas cap that needs tightening or replacement. To replace it, it will only set you back a few dollars. And by doing so, you are preventing gas from evaporating and your car's fuel economy from decreasing. However, the check engine light could also mean that a repair costing thousands of dollars is necessary. 

Regardless of severity, the sooner you diagnose the problem the better. This article offers insights into the question of "what does the check engine light mean?" to better understand why it comes on and what to do about it.

What Does the Check Engine Light Mean? - Diagnostic Process

A code relating to the problem will be recorded in your car's diagnostic system immediately when the check engine light comes on. The best course of action is to take your car to your dealership so a service technician can troubleshoot the situation immediately. The service technician will connect a scan tool or a laptop with specialized software to your car via its OBD port. The OBD port is typically located under the driver's side dashboard. This connection will allow the service technician to download and begin analyzing the various diagnostic codes.

What Does the Check Engine Light Mean? - Common Causes

Although all vehicles are equipped with some type of OBD system, some higher-end vehicles provide more detailed graphic displays, which offer more information about what is causing the problem. And in some vehicles, a check engine light is much more sensitive than others. Here are some guidelines to consider regarding common causes of your check engine light flashing:
  • Don't be alarmed if the check engine light flashes briefly. This usually means the vehicle has experienced a momentary problem and is nothing to panic about. 
  • If your check engine light comes on -- and stays on -- this likely indicates there is a serious problem. Or, if the check engine light blinks constantly, this could mean that a major malfunction has occurred. You should pull over immediately. Continuing to drive your car when the light is blinking could cause serious damage.
  • Check Engine Light Flashing - oxygen sensor: the amount of unburned oxygen in the exhaust is measured by this sensor and relays to the car's computer how much fuel remains in the tank. By not repairing the sensor, it will send false information to the car resulting in a drop in your car's fuel economy.
  • Check Engine Light Flashing - spark plugs: they power the car's engine, and misfiring spark plugs can damage the catalytic converter, affect engine power, fuel economy, and will likely trigger the check engine light.
  • Check Engine Light Flashing - air flow sensor: the amount of air supplied to the engine is measured and determines how much fuel should be delivered. You can lose power to the car if this sensor malfunctions.

So, what does the check engine light mean? In short, it is your car's recommendation to schedule an appointment with your service technician. It is always a best practice to have a reliable service technician inspect and diagnose your vehicle if/when your check engine light comes on, even if the light is only on temporarily. A brief inspection now because of your check engine light flashing may help avoid a serious and/or expensive repair later. 
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