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The dreaded check engine light. What does it mean, and how much will it cost to fix? Will your engine blow up before you get to the mechanic? Will you need to buy a new car? Should you just ignore the check engine light? That darn dashboard warning causes so much stress. But did you know you can find out what the check engine light means for free? We all want relief, and we all like free stuff. As the saying goes, “If it’s free, it’s for me.”

What does a check engine light mean?

An illuminated Check Engine Light (CEL) on a Volkswagen Passat dashboard
A check engine light | Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The check engine light is tied to OBD-II, or onboard diagnostics version 2. Since 1996, every car sold in the United States must have onboard diagnostics. With OBD-II, a technician can plug in a small computer to give them a code number. From there, they can look up the code to diagnose what could be causing the warning light to come on. 

With so many electronics in new vehicles, these codes help service technicians identify the issue from seemingly endless possibilities. If the car’s owner wants to know the code, they must purchase a code reader because a mechanic won’t tell them.

How can you find out what the check engine light means?

Check Engine
The check engine light could signal severe problems | STR/NurPhoto/Getty

Code readers typically aren’t wallet busters, costing anywhere from $30 to over $400. But how often would you use one? And wouldn’t your money be better spent on the inevitable car repair bills? Also, if you don’t need to spend, spend, spend, isn’t there a better way?

There is. Did you know many auto parts stores will tell you what the code means? Retailers like Advanced Auto Parts, AutoZone, and O’Reilly offer free code readings. Many mom-and-pop parts stores will do it too. Check with them first to see if they provide the service and whether it’s free. 

Can auto parts stores do more than give you codes?

Has your check engine light come on simply because your gas cap wasn’t tight enough? Other benign reasons can lead to straightforward fixes. And not only will parts stores tell you the code, but they’ll also suggest how you can tackle the problem yourself. 

So especially for the DIY enthusiasts out there, you can find out what the code means and how to fix the problem in one simple stop. Plus, you can get what you need to resolve the issue at the same store. So the next time you see your car’s check engine light on, don’t sweat. Just head to your nearest auto parts shop.


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