Check Engine Light On? You Can Find Out the Code For Free

The dreaded Check Engine light. What can it mean, and how much will it cost? Will my engine blow up before I get to the dealer? Will I need to buy a new car? Should I just ignore it? Lots of questions, with no answers other than that darned light. But did you know that you can find out what the Check Engine light means for free? We all want relief, and we all like free. If it’s free, it’s me.

What does a Check Engine light mean?

Check Engine
Check Engine light | Thom Taylor, MotorBiscuit

The Check Engine light is tied to OBD-II, or On-Board Diagnostics version 2. Since 1996, every car is required to have onboard diagnostics. With OBD-II, a technician can plug in a small computer that will give them a code number. From there, the tech can look up the code to determine generally what the problem is. 

With so much electronics in new vehicles, these codes help techs break through the millions of possibilities for what could be the problem. If the owner of the car wants to know what the code is, they can’t. They need to purchase a code reader. 

How can you find out what the Check Engine light means?

Check Engine
Check Engine problems | STR/NurPhoto/Getty

Though not a wallet buster, usually running anywhere between $30 to over $400, how often will you really use one? And, wouldn’t it be better to put that cost toward what will invariably be car repair bills? Also, if you don’t need to spend, spend, spend, isn’t there a better way?

There is. Did you know that many local automotive parts stores will tell you what the code means? Stores like Advanced Auto Parts, AutoZone, and O’Reilly, all offer free code readings. And many mom-and-pop parts stores will do it too. Check with them first, to see if they do and if it’s free. 

Can auto parts stores do more than give you codes?

Check engine
Check Engine fears | Bryan Chan/The LA Times/Getty

My Car’s Check Engine Light Is On, What Should I Do Next?

Have you ever had the Check Engine light fire off, only to find out it was because your gas cap wasn’t tightened? And there are benign reasons for codes that can be simple fixes. And not only will the parts store tell you what the code is, but they’ll also suggest how you might fix it yourself if you are so inclined. 

So especially for the DIY enthusiasts out there, you can make one trip, and find out not only what the code means, but also how to fix it. And get what you’ll need to fix it, as well. So the next time you see that Check Engine light pop on, don’t sweat. Head to your nearest auto parts emporium and find out whether it’s good news, or not so much.