The Basics of Check Engine Lights, Part I

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MINT HILL, NC – Check engine lights. That big orange light that everyone is afraid of. But should we be? Check engine lights are a unique tool that has revolutionized how we inspect, maintain, and keep cars running.

The check engine light as we know it today was born in the mid-1990s. These check engine lights are part of the OBDII system. OBDII is short for onboard diagnostics II, but the name itself is a bit misleading. There was never a standardized “OBDI.” Through 1995, each manufacturer determined how a check engine light and its trouble codes would work. Codes weren’t standardized and could change from one brand to another. We refer to the modern incarnation as OBDII simply because it simply replaced something that had previously been semi-unregulated, and because it needed to be differentiated from what had already been in use.

From 1996 to today, all cars sold in the USA have OBDII equipped. It standardizes why a check engine light can come on across-the-board and makes diagnosing vehicles easier. It can come on not just for mechanical malfunctions, but for pollution issues and electrical malfunctions too.

This light commonly either takes the shape of an engine or is the text that says “SERVICE ENGINE SOON.” Wrench, maintenance, ABS, VSC, TPMS, and Traction Control lights, while important, are no check engine lights. Check engine lights are designed to primarily focus on the powertrain and emissions, not suspension, handling, or tires.

Next week, we’ll talk about what the Check Engine Light can… and cannot do.

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