Karma is still a bitch.

So I get a little joy in my life by finally buying myself that PS3 I’ve been lusting after since it launched and of course this means there must be some minor disaster of some sort of another to balance things out. Today that minor disaster manifested itself in the form of my car’s Service Engine Soon light coming on and stubbornly refusing to go back off again. Better yet it waited until I had gotten to work and was traveling from the office to the tech center campus before it came on so I was firmly committed to the idea that I’d have to work out the day and then worry my head off on the drive home which is a good hour at the best of times and often an hour and a half to two hours on bad days. It was particularly sinister in that I couldn’t discern any change in the behavior of the car or its engine. It didn’t sound any different, wasn’t riding any different, and no obvious precious automotive fluids were spilling onto the ground. It was as though the car itself was suffering from a fit of jealously over my purchase of the PS3 and was determined it was going to get my attention whether I liked it or not.

And get my attention it did. I spent the day going over in my head what the problem could be and it could be anything from a dirty air filter to the near imminent collapse of the entire car into a shuddering heap of useless scrap metal. Should I risk driving home on the freeway or should I take back streets? The back streets would be less stress on the car, but would take much longer than the freeway. Does it seem like it’s running hotter than normal? Is that burning oil or engine coolant I smell? Was that a puff of white smoke sneaking out from under the edges of the car? What the fuck is wrong with my car?? In the end I drove home on the freeway with the radio off so I could listen to every creak and rev of the engine and my senses were on edge to detect the slightest change in how the car was running. It ran the same as it always does all the way home with nary a thing out of the ordinary happening. Well, other than that damned Service Engine Soon light staring me in the face the entire way.

So I’m taking tomorrow off from work so I can get the car into a shop and have someone hook up a diagnostic computer and find out just what the hell it wants from me. Going to have them change the oil while they’re at it as it’s in need of such at this time. Unless they tell me the car is just this side of death in which case I’ll skip the oil change and go straight into panicking over finding a new car soon mode.

23 thoughts on “Karma is still a bitch.

  1. Les,

    All this is assuming your was built in 1996 or later:

    The OBD II MIL (Check Engine Light) is required to be lit under a wide variety of conditions.

    Fortunately most of them have to do with things that will not put you in any imminent danger of the car blowing up or falling apart.  Something as simple as a fouled spark plug, a tiny vacuum leak in the EGR system, or an OBD sensor going bad can trigger the light.

    Rest assured that as long as the car was running smoothly and was not smoking, stalling, etc.  you shouldn’t have anything too majorly wrong.

    Not that the diagnostic and repair will necessarily be cheap but it shouldn’t involve such things as rebuilding engines or transmissions.

    If you’re mechanically inclined, you can go by an AutoZone or Advanced Auto Parts store and they’ll pull the code and tell you what’s up.  You can then determine if you can fix it yourself.

    Hope this helps a bit.  Car troubles suck, especially when you have a lengthy commute.

  2. It sounds like a sensor….You are probably low on radiator fluid, you took a turn which caused the radiator fluid to shift, leaving the sensor exposed. Radiators are first up on the sensor list.

  3. The CE light on my Honda has been on since I got it 6 weeks ago.  It gets 39mpg on the highway.  I am going to have it serviced next week – they say it’s a solenoid that’s a little sticky in the transmission.  Could be the 19-year-old transmission fluid.

  4. VenDexter makes some good points.

    A check engine light could be a lot of things, some simple (like a loose gas cap), some not (some sensor that’s a pain in the ass to get to).  In either case, Autozone will read the codes for free.

    A lot of things fall in-between those extremes, like the last thing that caused a check engine light in my Miata.  Code was for the EGR valve, a $140 part.  Fortunately, it went away after I took out the EGR valve and blasted it with $5 can of throttle body cleaner.  Probably took me about an hour and a half, counting waiting for it to dry off, and I’m not the most mechanically inclined guy.  I pretty much do simple tune up items on my cars (filters, fluid changes, plugs), and that’s about it.

  5. Agree with Moloch, do the cheapest thing first. Once the AutoZone guys find something then go to the next expensive thing.

  6. Thanks for the advice. I took the car up to AutoZone this morning and had them check the code and it turns out the error was: “Camshaft Sensor Out of Range”. Seeing as the car hasn’t felt any different than before the light came on I can only assume it’s an issue with the sensor and not the camshaft and the helpful young man at AZ thought the same. He offered to order the part for me, but I haven’t a clue as how to replace such a sensor.

    As it turns out the young man was having laptop problems and I had mentioned I was a PC Support dude so he offered up a trade: He’ll install the sensor tomorrow when it comes in if I’ll take a look at his laptop. That works for me so I agreed.

    The sensor and the new wiper blades I bought set me back about $50, which is more than manageable.

  7. Don’t you love it when it all comes together like this?

    And, yes, you are correct, it means a bad sensor.  If something were wrong with the camshaft, ugly things would be happening.

    Warning: boring auto mechanics to follow.

    All the sensors attached to the OBD system that help the engine regulate ignition and emissions have voltage ranges associated with them. 

    Depending on the voltage input that the ECU receives, it changes the engine’s operating parameters to keep the engine running optimally (ideally always 18:1 fuel ratio with no unburnt fuel leaving the system). 

    When one of the sensors exceeds this range it flags the ECU to indicate that the sensor is malfunctioning thus lighting the MIL (Check Engine Light).

    In the case of the camshaft sensor, it tells the engine what position the camshaft is in so that it can advance or retard the timing appropriately to help maintain ideal conditions.

    Now that you’ve been bored out of your zombie heads, I’ll stop.

    Again, great to hear that it worked out so well.

  8. Are you crazy? You’re going to have an AZ parts monkey play wanna-be mechanic?

    Autozone is good for buying spare parts getting your battery/alternator/codes checked for free. They are the last people you want installing parts or getting mechanical advice from!

  9. My Check Engine light has been mysteriously going on and off by itself for the better part of two years.  The dealership says the sensor is bad, but it’s so expensive I don’t want to replace it if that’s all it is.

  10. Actually if it’s an OHC engine, replacing the sensor will be pretty straightforward.

    I’ve known several people who worked for AutoZone that were excellent mechanics.  One of them knew a heck of alot about Subaru (which I drive) and wasn’t even an owner of one.

    Plus, I figure if this guy wasn’t competent enough, he wouldn’t have offered the trade in the first place.  I could be wrong though, there’s a first time for everything… wink

  11. Once that light comes on, it’s not going to turn off until you get it serviced. They way the car manufacturers figure it, if there is even an intermittent problem, it could indicate something worse is coming. It’s rather like the hiccup in network connectivity that triggers a NOC’s alarms.

    Of course, it could all be a simple thing like needing a tuneup. I hate idiot lights.

  12. I hate idiot lights

    Damn right!  it would be trivially simple for the auto companies to put in a cheap little LCD display that would tell you exactly what the problem is.

  13. I have a cousin who worked for Autozone, he’s a pretty decent mechanic.  Not the most experienced, but he was always a handy guy in general.  He replaced the transmission in his Suburban, and we replaced the clutch in my Miata.

  14. Damn right!  it would be trivially simple for the auto companies to put in a cheap little LCD display that would tell you exactly what the problem is.

    But then what reason would we have to pay those nice boys at the dealership for the privilege of telling us our cars are suddenly rusting junk heaps?

    Not that you have this problem yet, Les. Cars have a tendency of becoming progressively worse over time, not failing suddenly and spectacularly. Believe me, if your care were going to die the next time you drove it, you would have some indication that it is running differently, and you wouldn’t have to strain for any signs. It’s likely a minor problem or an early warning of something that hasn’t become worrisome yet. I hate idiot lights for the same reason I hate our government’s colorful Terrorism Threat Level chart – they needlessly worry uninformed people out of all proportion.

  15. Cars have a tendency of becoming
    progressively worse over time, not failing suddenly and spectacularly.

    Also cars go through routine wear cycles – they’ll nickel+dime you for a while, then you’re good to go until the next shocks/brakes/tires/water-pump/alternator/cam-belt.

    Hence a 90K mile car that has had all that stuff done in its 80K’s is usually OK.

  16. And don’t forget another favorite trick of the auto manufacturers: setting the system up so the Check Engine Light comes on automatically at a preset odometer readin. All in the name of getting you into the dealer’s service center. Our Honda does this and there is a simple reset method to turn it off. I think you hold the trip-meter button down and then turn on the ignition. If the light comes back on, then you probably do have something wrong.

    Anyhow, glad to hear you got things worked out!

    Also, this is my first comment, but I’ve been enjoying your page for quite a while. Keep it up!

  17. Well here is a question. last summer my car started acting up and i toke it to a shop and they said it was the TDC sensor (camshaft sensor) went to get the part today and the guys at the honda dealer didnt think that was the problem, maybe they wanted more money from me or something. so tell me what yall thing if you have had this problem before. It is a 2001 honda civic ex 1.7L. The car runs great unless its a real hot day and i have been driving for a bit or if im running the Air. The check engine light pops on and the engine starts to backfire really bad and loses all power and i have to stop and shut it off. Then i can restart the engine and it runs again. 5% of the time i may have to let it cool for 5-10 mins and then good to go. the car is not overheating at all, just so yo know lol. do you think it is the camshaft sensor or should i take it to the dealer like they said and spend more money, again to put it on there computer and see what they say. thanks for and advice

  18. Sounds like a distributor wire gone bad. Where the four plugs come into the distributor it is likely wire ( plug ) that protrudes out of the middle.

    And there is no sensor to those wires. If they get hot !!! What you described fits…

  19. Thanks for the info.I did buy the sensor timing belt (needs 1 anyways) plugs and a few other things and i will look at the distributor when i do all the work. thanks again

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