Check Engine Light? See What’s Wrong For Free

We all dread that check engine light flashing on the dash, don’t we? It usually means to get ready and drop some cash and get something fixed. A buddy of mine with a Ford Escape had a check engine light pop up, so he took it to the dealership to see what was wrong. He paid something like $80 just to check it out…not even fixing anything.

Sometimes a check engine light can come on for something as minor as the gas cap needing replacement. Do you really want to pay $80 just to find out you need a new $5 gas cap? Wouldn’t it be nice to find out what the problem is for free before deciding on dropping some cash? I found out that you could when my maintenance light came on my Honda Accord.

I was driving, and all of the sudden a yellow maintenance light came on the dash. I later found out that this was not the check engine light, but a “timed” warning to take the car to get serviced…aka, pay the dealership money…but more on that later.

The reason a check engine light comes on in the first place is because the cars computer is throwing an error code. The computer is known as OBD, or on-board diagnostics. On 1996 and newer cars, they use ODB-II. When you take your car in to see why the check engine light came on (or to turn it off), they simply plug a little device in called an OBD-II scanner, which allows them to do a variety of things, including clearing the CEL (check engine light) and seeing what error(s) was causing it to light up in the first place. The plug is normally located around the steering wheel column.

What you may not know is that going to your local auto parts store like Autozone or Advance Autoparts, they have an OBD-II scanner on hand as a courtesy to customers. Simply walk up to the front counter, and tell them your CEL is on, and you want to find out what codes it’s throwing. This way you can at least know what you may possibly need to fix it. Another benefit is if you don’t trust your mechanic, you can ensure exactly what’s wrong with the car.

So back to my maintenance light. Once I saw it on, I went over to my local Advance Auto Parts and asked them to read for any error codes. After checking, we both found it odd that no errors were being shown in the scanner. Luckily the employee had a Honda Civic and realized that the light was not in fact the CEL, but just the service car light. We popped open the owner’s manual (which I should have just done in the first place probably) and found that you can simply reset or turn off the light by following a couple simple steps. 15 seconds later, problem was solved.

My whole point is, you can either pay $80/hour of labor for the dealership to do the same exact thing that a local auto parts store will do for free in seconds. I didn’t know this until a friend told me, so I would assume some of you may not either.

Good luck with all of your car troubles, and I hope you learned something!

[Check engine light photo sources: crazyscientist_11, music for the eyes]

  • John

    On a lot of new cars and trucks, you dont even need a code reader to see the codes. I have a 2000 Dodge Dakota and if I cycle my ignition ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON within 5 seconds, all the codes will be displayed in the odometer display. A lot of cars do this now, its just a matter of figuring out how to get your vehicle to do it. Older cars with old style OBD sometimes can even do it by blinking the check engine light in patterns that you count to learn the light (kind of annoying though, probably better to just go borrow the scan tool). So do a little research online on your car and you may not even have to go all the way to the parts store (good if your car isnt running at the time).

  • Nick

    Auto parts stores are out to make money, and they’re not trained on OBDII systems. As a technician, I’ve had many customers that have gone to an auto parts store to get their ecm scanned and once the code is retrieved the parts sales person will sell them whatever part they believe will fix it. For example, plugs and wires for a multiple miss fire code. Oxygen sensors (huge markup) for a lean/rich condition. Just because you have a lean code, or a miss fire doesn’t always mean it’s a o2 sensor or a spark plug. Use the information they give you as a guide and a guide only.

  • David Pitlyuk

    Good points Nick and John, thanks for sharing.

  • Derek

    Just a few weeks ago my wife called me at work to say her CEL came on. My first thought was the gas cap but I told her to run by the mechanic to have the code checked. He looked at it and it was in fact the gas cap – total charge of $0.00.

    It is so nice to have found a mechanic that treats us well.

  • David Pitlyuk

    @Derek – Definitely nice to have a good mechanic that you can at least trust!

    I’ve gotten hosed a couple times when I was younger, so it’s hard for me to trust any now.

  • Derek

    You and me both! I’ve had a few bad mechanic experiences over the years. This guy we use now grew up with one of my neighbors and my neighbor introduced me to him. Great guy and I trust him completely.

    It is kind of like your experience when ordering your exhaust, little things he does ensures that I am going to come back to him whenever I need work done.

  • Shoma Plasztan

    My CEL light came on on my 05 Altima. I went to the local Auto Zone to get it scanned as I did before on my other vehicle. At the store they told me that they don’t offer free scan anymore by law(California???), I have to buy the scanner. Any advice from anyone?

  • Jeffrey

    Here’s One, 1998 Grand Am 2.4liter Dohc it needed a water pump so I didnt want to tackel it because it involves the timing ect, took it to a garage that I had been to before, got the car back it didnt run right so i took it back to him,(no check engine yet)he said he put differsnt ignition parts, plugs, coilpacks, wires,ect.He told me to drive it so it will reset,in about 100 miles check engine on, took it to auto zone code 300 multiple engine misfire,so i tried playing mechanic I started changing parts,intake gasket, fuel pump,cam sensor, crank sensor,Yes new still comes up code 300. What should I do next?

  • Jed Smith

    In Bay Area California, Autozone no longer reads CEL error codes, however Midas does for free.

  • George

    Hi there,my wife want to buy some Saturn L series wagon 2001 for around $2,100 and she say this car have this issue “check engine light” and the guy told her that was because the Gas Cap that need to ajust or get it a new one and that will fix the problem…. but she say if or will be someting also.? sensor problem or….. i told her to go to the autoparts and to get this new Cap and put it there before she buy it……….
    so what you guys think..?.. thanks G.M

  • Samantha

    My check engine light has been on for awhile due to a CO2 emission problem. I have not had any problems with my engine except for this morning. My car sat in the driveway for 4 days when I was on vacation, and when I started driving it this morning it sputtered real bad and my check engine light started flashing. It would run normal for awhile on the highway, then start sputtering again around 60 mph. I was hoping I could get some advice on what is going on before I pay an arm and a leg for info that I could find out from other sources. Thanks for your help!

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  • Mike Nunziato

    I bought a used as is 2001 Ford Escape, 6 cyl XLT….CEL just came on for the first time…Mechanic says code reads I might need a catalytic converter for $500.00????Is he jerking me around???Please advise

  • jim barnosky

    I have a 2009 escape. engine light came on at 49750 miles. I suspect it’s a service marketing gimmick. Even though the engine is still under warranty they wanted $80 to look at it? They also tell me that even though I have been to the dealer to have my transmission checked and went through the recall, once I get to 60k miles, they won’t cover anything to do with the transmission. And they pretend like they are not aware that there are problems with the 6 speed automatic on these cars. I’ll have 60k before it’s 2 years old, so if it breaks right after that I will have paid roughly $1000. a month for a cheap car. This is my last ford.

  • beci

    We replaced the starter in our 05 Honda CRV and now there is a yellow light on the dash that looks like a lil engine. When we consulted the manual it says that it is an emissions code that needs to be reset and that it will reset automatically within three days of driving in different conditions, and gave us some scenarios. Is this reliable ? We did have to disconnect the exhaust manifold to get the starter off. The car starts great now. We also had the battery completely out overnight so I assume we will need the code for the radio again anyone got it? Or know where we can get it for free?

  • Frank

    I have a 1998 buick Centry and it has the service engine soon light on,Got the code of p0401 on it.Tryed to reset it but can not.dose anyone know how to reset the service engine light.

  • wazza

    Hi David a good write up and glad to see it up and running. Now what was needed to reset as some of us don’t have or have lost there owners manual


  • Latiesha

    I had my car scanned today and the codes 41,42,43,and 24 came up but they didn’t tell me what they meant… my car won’t go over 30 and I can’t press the gas all the way down or it shuts off.. could it be my fuel pump..?

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  • cheerio

    This article is great. Good advice. I recently came across a site that could also go hand in hand with this article’s advice because it shows the auto parts stores nearest to you that offers free check engine light scan. See for yourself by visiting:
    Hopefully this is helpful to folks wanting to be more informed consumers! :D