Why Is My Check Engine Light On?

The Check Engine Light strikes fear into the hearts of some and is totally ignored by just as many. Just what it means is a mystery to most drivers.CheckEngineLight_0909_NicholleJoel_SN_s

Let’s get the urgency issues out of the way first. If your car’s check engine light is flashing, that means that something is wrong that could cause severe engine damage. Naturally, Drivers should get that taken care of right away.

If your check engine light is flashing, you shouldn’t drive at highway speeds. Take it easy all the way to your service center.

If the light is glowing steadily, owners should keep an eye on it for a day or two. If the light doesn’t go off, schedule an to get it checked out.

An explanation on how the Check Engine Light works may be informative. Most of your car’s engine functions are controlled by a computer, not surprisingly, called an engine control computer. The computer is able to adjust many engine parameters for environmental conditions, engine condition and even the way you drive.

In order to make these adjustments, the computer relies on a network of sensors to provide data. The computer knows the proper operating range for each sensor. When a sensor reading is out of range the computer runs some tests and may turn on the Check Engine Light.

A simple example is a loose or missing gas cap. This may cause one of the sensors to read out of range. The pickup’s computer doesn’t know if it’s a serious condition that caused the reading or just a loose gas cap, so it stores a trouble code and turns on the Check Engine Light.

Now when you tighten up the gas cap the sensor readings will be in the correct range. The computer will keep checking on the report for a day or two. Since a bad reading didn’t come up again, it turns off the Check Engine Light. The computer will also try to make adjustments to compensate for some readings. If it can do so, it’ll then turn off the Check Engine Light. If the problem can’t be resolved then the light will remain on and you should get your car looked at.

Your technician will plug a scanner into the on-board diagnostic port and read the trouble code stored in the computer. The trouble code will give the technician a starting place as he diagnoses the cause of the problem.

Avoiding Car Emergencies

In response to the demise of the neighborhood service station, the car companies have installed some systems to ensure that drivers stay off the side of the road. Tire pressure monitoring is one system meant as an early warning indicator of an impending emergency. The rest of the instrumentation on your dashboard (coolant temp, oil pressure, for example) adds to the feedback available to the motorist.

However, some potential problem areas are not monitored by your car and are best detected by alert drivers who employ all of their senses to stay out of trouble. These are the sensual warning signs:

The smell of gas.

An unwritten rule at gas stations that did repairs was to never send a car on its way if it was leaking gas. The garage either resolved it or suggested that the vehicle be towed to someone who could fix it within the expectations of the customer. The threat of fire is imminent due the myriad of ignition sources under the hood of a car, which includes various electrical connections and also superheated components. An aware driver should always respond to the smell of “raw” gasoline and seek out its source with the help of a professional if needed.

The noise of an axle.

It is not unusual for drivers to complain about noises emanating from the axles of their cars. A clicking or clunking noise when making turns is usually the marker for a failed CV or axle shaft. A roar from the area of the wheels can be a bad wheel bearing or hub unit. The roar is sometimes accompanied a slapping or whoop sound that is uniform to the speed of the wheel.

The feel of a front-end shake.

The front end that shakes badly and commands the attention of the driver to the degree that he is hesitant to drive the vehicle may be traced to a failed tire. When the belt shifts in a tire it becomes egg shaped and at any speed will create fierce shaking. There are many other suspension and steering issues that can cause the front end of a car to shake, but usually not as bad as a tire that is out of round.

The sight of leaking fluid.

Before a car runs hot, loses its brakes, or has a transmission that slips, due to fluid loss there is a window of time that the fluids involved are visible around the car. This would be prior to your car’s instrumentation detecting a problem. This is why we suggest a “walk around” your car. Antifreeze will show up in the extreme front of the car, while transmission fluid is usually further back and brake fluid will be found around the perimeter.

Not all problems can be detected by your car’s early warning system, but with an awareness of your vehicle and the use of your senses to detect problems you can avert an emergency.

Eight Facts About Warming up Your Car in Winter

Old habits die hard, and one of the oldest — still rigorously enforced by many drivers — is that “warming up” the car for a few minutes is necessary to avoid some kind of unspecified damage. In reality, idling is totally unnecessary, which is why many communities have enacted ordinances against the practice.

You don’t really need to idle your car, because of the efficiency of modern fuel injection, which eliminated carburetors and chokes. The only reason to let the car idle at all is to get the oil circulating, but after 30 seconds that’s a done deal.

Here are some quick facts and tips that should put the idling question to rest:

1. Driving warms the car faster than idling

If your concern is not the health of the car, but simply your own creature comforts, Bob Aldrich of the California Energy Commission points out that “idling is not actually an effective way to warm up a car — it warms up faster if you just drive it.”

2. Ten seconds is all you need

Environmental Defense Fund, which produced the Idling Gets You Nowhere campaign, advises motorists to turn off their ignition if they’re sitting stopped for more than 10 seconds.
“After about 10 seconds, you waste more money running the engine than restarting it, said Andy Darrell, deputy director of the EDF Energy Program. “Switch the car off at the curb, and you’ll be leaving money in your wallet and protecting the air in your community.”

3. Idling hurts the car

According to the Hinkle Charitable Foundation’s Anti-Idling Primer, idling forces an engine “to operate in a very inefficient and gasoline-rich mode that, over time, can degrade the engine’s performance and reduce mileage.”
The Campaign for an Idle-Free New York City points out that idling causes carbon residues to build up inside the engine, which reduces its efficiency.

4. Idling costs money

Over a year of five minutes of daily idling (which causes incomplete combustion of fuel), the “Anti-Idling Primer” estimates that the operator of a V8-engine car will waste 20 gallons of gasoline, which not only produces 440 pounds of carbon dioxide but costs at least $60.

5. Idling in the garage can kill you

Idling a car in a garage, even with the door open, is dangerous and exposes the driver to carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If the garage is attached, those fumes can also enter the house.

6. Block heaters beat remote starters

A block heater, which is designed to heat the engine and can cost under $30, on a timer set to start one to two hours before driving, does the trick in very cold climates.

7. Quick errands aren’t quick enough

Natural Resources Canada points out that leaving your car idling while you’re running into a store on an errand or going back into the house to pick up a forgotten item is another way to waste gas and pollute both your town and the planet.

8. Idling is bad for your health (and your neighbor’s health)

According to Minneapolis’ anti-idling ordinance, exhaust is hazardous to human health, especially children’s; studies have linked air pollution to increased rates of cancer, heart and lung disease, asthma and allergies.”
Isabelle Silverman, who runs EDF’s anti-idling campaign, says that car idling “is the second-hand smoking of the outdoors. One of the problems is that cars idle close to the curb, where pedestrians are walking. And when you have a child in a stroller, they are particularly close to the tailpipe. Studies show that children’s IQ levels are lower when they live near major roads with lots of traffic.”

5 ways to make your car last

Yes, we’re going to tell you to baby your wheels. A little love and attention can keep your vehicle on the road for years to come — and save you a bundle.

Irv Gordon owns a 1966 Volvo P1800 with more than 2.8 million miles on the odometer. He holds the Guinness world record for the most miles driven by a single owner in a noncommercial vehicle. The car still has the original engine (although it has been preventively rebuilt twice), transmission and radio.

The secret to his car’s longevity? Gordon has always changed the oil and fluids — and performed other maintenance — according to the recommendations in the owners manual.

Think about how much you’ll save by keeping your current car on the road before you surrender to the lure of a new set of wheels. For example, buy a 2011 Ford Fusion SEL, ($25,380) and in the first year you’ll lay out about $7,450 on the down payment and loan payments — assuming you put down 10% and get Ford’s 2.9% financing for five years — plus taxes, tags and registration fees. And those loan payments go on for four more years.
If you have a paid-off Fusion that’s a few years old, you skip the monthly payments and new-vehicle taxes, and you’ll probably pay less in insurance premiums. Maintenance and repairs will cost more, but they’re likely to average only $1,000 a year, according to numbers from Vincentric, an automotive research firm.

So how do you keep your car in the pink? Whether you’re aiming for a couple more years or a couple hundred thousand miles, the advice is the same.

1. Read the owners manual

According to CarMD.com, slightly more than half of people who have owned or leased a car follow a regular maintenance program.
Stick to the manufacturer’s recommendations on oil changes (forget the old 3,000-mile rule and go by your book), as well as other regular maintenance. Getting checkups at regular intervals can help spot problems that could imperil your car’s overall health.
Don’t be swayed by every service notice from your dealer. Dealerships typically recommend more-frequent maintenance than the manual does, says Phil Reed of Edmunds.com. For example, the book may recommend an automatic-transmission flush, which runs about $120, at 80,000 miles, but a dealer might recommend it as early as 20,000 miles.

2. Use online forums

You want to learn about potential problems before they happen so that you can prevent them — or fix them immediately. Jeff Cuje of Sag Harbor, N.Y., plans to be buried in his 1986 Mercedes-Benz SL, so he’s taking pains to make it last. His best advice is to find an owners forum online and “get on the wavelength of what the problems are as your car gets older,” he says.
Sports cars and classic vehicles have enthusiastic online followings, but you’ll also find lots of sites that cover daily drivers. For example, we searched the Internet for a Nissan Altima owners forum and a Ford Taurus owners forum and got plenty of hits.

3. Become friends with your mechanic

Finding a mechanic you can trust is key to keeping up with repairs you need.

4. Don’t ignore small problems

Pay close attention not only to your vehicle’s noises but also to its warning lights and even cosmetic things, like a piece of rubber trim that’s loose. Ignoring a problem allows it to get worse, and parts for aging vehicles get harder to find.

5. Give your car some love

Wash it, wax it and vacuum it. Treat leather surfaces with Armor All or a similar product, and lubricate plastic and rubber parts. Doing these things protects both the paint and the interior from premature aging.
Also consider having your car detailed, which typically includes steam-cleaning the carpet, shampooing the upholstery, buffing out scratches and sometimes even removing small dents. The cost is usually less than $300. The better your car looks, the more you’ll want to take care of it.

How Often Should I Change My Oil?

Most vehicle manufacturers recommend changing the oil once a year or every 7,500 miles in passenger car and light truck gasoline engines. For diesel engines and turbocharged gasoline engines, the usual recommendation is every 3,000 miles or six months.

If you read the fine print, however, you’ll discover that the once a year, 7,500 mile oil change is for vehicles that are driven under ideal circumstances. What most of us think of as “normal” driving is actually “severe service” driving. This includes frequent short trips (less than 10 miles, especially during cold weather), stop-and-go city traffic driving, driving in dusty conditions (gravel roads, etc.), and driving at sustained highway speeds during hot weather. For this type of driving, which is actually “severe service: driving, the recommendation is to change the oil every 3,000 miles or six months.

For maximum protection, most oil companies say to change the oil every 3,000 miles or three to six months regardless of what type of driving you do.

A new engine with little or no wear can probably get by on 7,500 mile oil changes. But as an engine accumulates miles, blowby increases. This dumps more unburned fuel into the crankcase which dilutes the oil. This causes the oil to break down. So if the oil isn’t changed often enough, you can end up with accelerated wear and all the engine problems that come with it (loss of performance and fuel economy, and increased emissions and oil consumption).

Oil Analysis

Truck fleets often monitor the condition of the oil in their vehicles by having samples analyzed periodically. Oil samples are sent to a laboratory that then analyzes the oil’s viscosity and acid content. Oil is then burned in a device called a spectrometer that reveals various impurities in the oil. From all of this, a detailed report is generated that reveals the true condition of the oil.

Oil analysis is a great idea for fleets and trucks that hold a lot of oil. But most consumers would have a hard time justifying the cost. Having an oil sample analyzed typically costs $12 to $20 for the lab work and report. Most quick lube shops charge $16.95 to $19.95 for an oil change. So why spend your money on a report that will probably tell you your oil needs changing? Just change the oil every 3,000 miles and don’t worry about it.

Regular oil changes for preventative maintenance are cheap insurance against engine wear, and will always save you money in the long run if you keep a car for more than three or four years. It’s very uncommon to see an engine that has been well maintained with regular oil changes develop major bearing, ring, cam or valve problems under 100,000 miles.

What About The Oil Filter?

To reduce the costs of vehicle ownership and maintenance, many car makers say the oil filter only needs to be replaced at every other oil change. Most mechanics will tell you this is false economy.

The oil filters on most engines today have been downsized to save weight, cost and space. The “standard” quart-sized filter that was once common on most engines has been replaced by a pint-sized (or smaller) filter. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that a smaller filter has less total filtering capacity. Even so, the little filters should be adequate for a 3,000 mile oil change intervals — but may run out of capacity long before a second oil change at 6,000 or 15,000 miles.

Replacing the oil filter every time the oil is changed, therefore, is highly recommended.

An engine’s main line of defense against abrasion and the premature wear it causes is the oil filter. The filter’s job is to remove solid contaminants such as dirt, carbon and metal particles from the oil before they can damage bearing, journal and cylinder wall surfaces in the engine. The more dirt and other contaminants the filter can trap and hold, the better.

In today’s engines, all the oil that’s picked up by the oil pump is routed through the filter before it goes to the crankshaft bearings, cam bearings and valvetrain. This is called “full-flow” filtration. It’s an efficient way of removing contaminants, and it assures only filtered oil is supplied to the engine. In time, though, accumulated dirt and debris trapped by the filter begin to obstruct the flow of oil. The filter should be changed before it reaches this point, which is why the filter needs to be replaced when the oil is changed.

If you wait too long to change the filter, there’s a danger that it might become plugged. To prevent this from causing a catastrophic engine failure due to loss of lubrication, oil filters have a built-in safety device called a “bypass valve.” When the pressure drop across the filter exceeds a predetermined value (which varies depending on the engine application), the bypass valve opens so oil can continue to flow to the engine. But this allows unfiltered oil to enter the engine. Any contaminants that find their way into the crankcase will be pumped through the engine and accelerate wear.

Filter Replacement

If you do your own oil changes, make sure you get the correct filter for your engine. Follow the filter manufacturer’s listings in its catalog. Many filters that look the same on the outside have different internal valving. Many overhead cam engines, for example, require an “anti-drainback” valve in the filter to prevent oil from draining out of the filter when the engine is shut off. This allows oil pressure to reach critical engine parts more quickly when the engine is restarted. Filters that are mounted sideways on the engine typically require an anti-drainback valve.

CAUTION: The threads on a spin-on filter must also be the correct diameter and thread pitch (SAE or metric) for your engine. If you install a filter with SAE threads on an engine that requires metric threads (or vice versa), you can damage the threads that hold the oil filter in place. Mismatched threads can also allow the filter to work loose, which causes a sudden loss of oil pressure that may ruin your engine!

Some people say it’s best to change the oil when the oil is hot (like right after driving), while others say it makes no difference. CAUTION: Hot oil is thinner and runs out faster but can also burn you if you’re not careful. In any event, avoid unnecessary skin contact with oil because oil is a suspected carcinogen (causes cancer).

Changing the oil when it is cold may take a bit longer because the oil will drain more slowly from the engine, but there’s no danger of being burned. Also, most of the oil will have drained down into the oil pan when the engine has sat for a period of time, which means you’ll actually get a little more of the old oil out of the engine than if you attempt to drain it while it is still hot.

Used motor oil should be disposed of properly. The Environmental Protection Agency does not consider used motor oil to be a hazardous chemical, but it can foul ground water and does contain traces of lead. The best way to dispose of used motor oil is to take it to a service station, quick lube shop, parts store or other facility for recycling. Your old oil will either be rerefined into other lubricants or petroleum products, or burned as fuel.

Do not dump used motor oil on the ground, down a drain, into a storm sewer or place it in the trash. Many landfills will not accept used motor oil even if it is in a sealed container because it will eventually leak out into the ground. If you can’t find an environmentally-acceptable way to dispose of the stuff, maybe you shouldn’t be changing your own oil. Service facilities that do oil changes all have storage tanks and recycling programs to dispose of used oil.

What if you use the wrong stuff?

By Consumer Reports, October 8, 2010

It’s not uncommon for people to use the wrong fluids in their cars, and the results of doing so can vary from irritating to deadly. For example, adding antifreeze to the windshield-washer reservoir might just create a slimy mess. But filling it with only water creates a good breeding ground for the bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, according to a study conducted by the British Health Protection Agency. This can increase your chances of becoming ill.

Here’s what else could happen if you use the wrong fluids:

Oil slip-ups

The brand of motor oil matters little, but its viscosity grade (10W-30, for example) is important. Use only what the owner’s manual specifies. Using the wrong oil can lead to reduced lubrication and shorter engine life. If the manual says to use synthetic oil, do so. Contrary to what some believe, adding a synthetic oil to regular oil won’t harm the engine, but there’s also no benefit in doing so.

Taps for your battery

Some car batteries have accessible individual cells that might need replenishing with a little water to cover the lead plates. Only use distilled water, which contains no salts or minerals. If tap water is added to a battery’s electrolyte liquid, it can allow minerals from the water to build up on the battery’s internal lead plates, which will reduce the battery’s power and shorten its life.

Be cool with the water

A car’s cooling system uses a blend of water and antifreeze, properly called coolant, at concentrations (typically 50/50) designed to keep it from freezing on a cold day and boiling on a hot one. Adding too much water to the mix can make it more susceptible to freezing and boiling. That can keep the car from starting when it’s freezing and cause overheating in warmer weather. Tap water could also lead to mineral buildup in the cooling system, reducing its effectiveness. Too much antifreeze in the coolant can cause corrosion, water pump failure, and increased engine wear.

Fuelish faux pas

Adding diesel fuel to a gasoline-powered car’s tank will make the engine stumble and knock if it runs at all. Fortunately, diesel pumps have oversized nozzles, so that mistake is hard to make. Depending on the quantity of gasoline that’s added to a diesel vehicle’s tank, it could do little harm or it could damage the fuel pump, injectors, and other parts. If the mix-up is caught soon enough, a technician can limit the damage by draining the contaminated fuel. Meanwhile, don’t run the engine.

Special sauce for your brakes

Brake systems use hydraulic fluid that’s specially formulated for the purpose. Substituting transmission or power-steering fluid, which are similar to each other, can affect the seals, damage the system, and possibly cause brake failure. Note that if the brake fluid is low, your vehicle probably needs brake-system service anyway. Either the brakes are worn or there’s a leak.

Glued-up gears

Automatic transmissions must only use the fluid specified by the automaker, such as General Motors’ Dexron series or Toyota’s Type T. Using the wrong fluid can cause poor lubrication, overheating, and possibly transmission failure. A mechanic might not be able to reverse the damage, even by flushing the transmission. Mistakenly adding motor oil or brake fluid can also destroy your transmission.

More washer-fluid no-nos

In addition to creating the perfect environment for deadly bacteria, water doesn’t clean as well as washer fluid does and is subject to freezing. Using household glass cleaners or ammonia can leave suds on the windshield, damage a car’s finish, and get into the air-intake system and create a potentially noxious environment in the cabin.

Saving on Fuel Economy

#1. Slow and steady wins the race

Gasoline mileage drops off in most cars once you’re going faster than about 60 mph. For every 5 mph you drive over 60 mph, you’re essentially paying an extra 24 cents per gallon of gas.

Try using cruise control on interstates and other highways to maintain a constant speed. It can also help to use your car’s overdrive gears, which save fuel and engine wear by reducing your speed.

#2. Be cool in traffic

Aggressive driving — speeding, swerving, sudden acceleration and braking — is not only dangerous, it can lower your gas mileage 33 percent on highways and 5 percent on city streets. Revving your engine while stopped is even more wasteful.

#3. But not too cool

Air conditioning can be a big drain on gasoline, so make sure you don’t just leave it on absentmindedly, and certainly don’t leave it on while windows are open, even if they’re just cracked. You can improve your fuel efficiency in stop-and-go traffic by turning off the A/C and rolling down the windows instead, but that’s not necessarily always the best idea.

When driving above 55 mph, especially for long periods on highways, the opposite is true — open windows make a vehicle less aerodynamic by letting in air, which increases air resistance and decreases fuel efficiency. On long road trips, using air conditioning could actually improve your mileage by up to 20 percent.

#4. Don’t just sit there

On top of pointlessly pumping out greenhouse gases without actually getting you anywhere, idling automobiles also contribute to ground-level ozone, airborne particulate matter, and other near-surface air pollution. These emissions can aggravate asthma and even hinder breathing in otherwise healthy people, especially children and the elderly.

If you’re just idling to warm up your car in winter, it still only needs to run about a minute. Anything beyond that is just wasting gas.

#5. Stay in tune

Fixing a car that needs a tune-up or has failed an emissions test can improve its fuel efficiency by an average of 4 percent. More serious problems, like a faulty oxygen sensor, can reduce mileage by up to 40 percent.

And don’t forget to get an oil change roughly every 3,000 miles or three months, whichever comes first.

#6. Get pumped

Keeping a car’s tires properly inflated can improve fuel efficiency by about 3.3 percent. It’s also safer and lengthens the lifespan of your tires, since under-inflated tires lose their tread quickly in addition to wasting fuel. Regular checkups for your tires’ alignment and balance aren’t a bad idea, either.

#7. Take a load off

While it mainly affects smaller cars, carrying extra weight means burning extra gasoline, no matter how big your vehicle is. On average, you may be cutting your fuel efficiency by up to 2 percent for every 100 extra pounds you haul.

#8. Develop motor skills

Using the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil can boost mileage by 1 to 2 percent. Try to also use the lowest grade of gasoline that’s appropriate for your car, since high-octane grades cost several cents more per gallon.

Check your owner’s manual to be sure, but as long as your engine doesn’t start knocking, you’re probably OK. Switching from premium to regular gasoline would save hundreds of dollars every year.

#9. There’s a cap for that

Gasoline can evaporate from a vehicle’s fuel tank if it’s able to find an opening, which is bad for your wallet and your lungs. Make sure your gas tank’s cap is tightened securely after you fill up, and if the cap’s threading is stripped or it fits too loosely, you might want to buy a new one.