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What does the engine light mean in a car? Well, nearly every car manufactured within the last three decades has a check engine light. This engine-shaped yellow light is designed to alert you of potential problems. 

But serious engine trouble isn’t the only reason why you might see this light appear after starting your car. For example, a broken gas cap or a faulty sensor might be at fault. That said, ignoring your light is a bad move.

In this guide, we’ll examine how to fix a check engine light and what it might mean when it appears on your dash.

History of the Check Engine Light

Though you might dread the sight of a check engine light, its presence has helped car owners for the better half of the last century. However, this tiny dashboard light has changed quite a lot in that time.

The First Warning Lights

In fact, the first check engine light was called a warning light (also called an idiot light). This light was typically a tiny bulb placed within the dashboard. It would light up when the internal sensor detected mechanical issues.

This idiot light may have been implemented by the Detroit-based Hudson Motor Car Company (which went defunct in 1954). Unfortunately, unlike modern vehicle dashboards, this single warning light wasn’t descriptive.

Instead, it indicated a wide variety of potential issues.

Admittedly, the bright yellow symbol we recognize today can also signal a range of issues. However, diagnosing the specific problem is far easier nowadays.

Standardization and Diagnostic Codes

In 1996, new laws requiring updated vehicle diagnostic systems hit the books. This change was part of a more significant push to regulate and lower vehicle emissions.

From the point forward, consumer vehicles have continually become more complex and computerized.

This change can be a frustrating progression for at-home mechanics. But this presence of diagnostic codes and systems does make it easier to understand why your check engine light has come on!

Check Engine Light Meaning

What does the check engine light mean? When your check engine light comes on, it could mean that you’ve got a loose gas cap. It could also mean that one of your car’s sensors is malfunctioning.

Still, the most common reasons why this light might turn on include:

  • A faulty sensor
  • A busted gas cap
  • A damaged catalytic converter
  • A broken engine

Let’s take a few moments to analyze these potential problems. After all, you may be able to reset the check engine light by simply buying a new gas cap!

A Faulty Sensor

What does it mean when check engine light flashes? The answer may be a blown sensor.

The average car has up to about 100 sensors, and nearly any of these can trigger your dashboard’s check engine light. Even the tiniest malfunction with one of the sensors is enough to get you worrying about your engine.

Fortunately, repairing a faulty sensor is often far more affordable than repairing a damaged engine. Replacing broken sensors sooner is also an excellent way to prevent further damage to your vehicle.

A Busted Gas Cap

Your vehicle’s gas cap keeps fuel fumes contained and pressure within the tank stable. If the lid is broken or busted, your vehicle may signal this issue using the check engine light. Fortunately, fixing this issue is simple.

A Damaged Catalytic Converter

One of the primary reasons why the US government enforced the check engine light is vehicle emission standards. And this warning light can turn itself on when your car’s exhaust system begins to falter.

A catalytic converter takes the toxic fumes produced by your vehicle and makes them slightly less deadly. But when this component begins to fail, your exhaust can start spewing out black clouds of smoke.

If your check engine light has turned on, be sure to check your exhaust area for signs of a faulty catalytic converter.

A Broken Engine

Your check engine light might also indicate a severe problem with your engine. However, it’s crucial to note that a heavily damaged engine also offers other warning signs, such as rough starts or sudden stops.

Ignoring your check engine light for several days, weeks, or months is a surefire way to increase the chance of significant engine damage. That’s why it’s crucial to 

How to Fix a Check Engine Light

Now that you’re familiar with some of the most common reasons a check engine light turns on, we can address the steps you’ll need to take to fix this issue.

Generally, to fix a check engine light, you’ll want to:

  1. Check Your Gas Cap
  2. Check the Vehicle Maintenance Log
  3. Seek Professional Diagnosis and Repairs

Check Your Gas Cap

The most straightforward fix should always be the first thing you try! If your check engine light has suddenly appeared, check your car’s gas cap. A loose or broken cap may be triggering this warning.

If your gas cap is broken, replacing it could cost anywhere between $10 and $40. Your local automotive repair shop should be able to provide you with a near-precise replacement cap within 24 hours.

Check the Vehicle Maintenance Log

One of the best ways to avoid seeing your check engine light is to keep up-to-date with regular maintenance services. Drivers are encouraged to keep records of their services and repairs in their vehicle maintenance log.

When your check engine light comes on, you may want to pull out this log and check when your last oil change was completed. If it’s been more than three months, you may be due for a service.

And if you’re overdue for an oil change, it’s crucial to schedule one right away. Burnt oil can be a death sentence for any engine, which is why it’s vital to stay on top of your regular oil and filter changes.

Seasonal changes can also affect your engine oil. One of the best ways to prepare your car for winter is to schedule a comprehensive engine oil and filter change!

Naturally, you can also choose to perform an oil change at home. However, opting for a professional service is often far more convenient and less likely to result in mistakes.

Seek Professional Diagnosis and Repairs 

Are you on track with your oil changes? If so, seeking professional assistance for a check engine light can help you figure out what’s going wrong with your vehicle.

Professional auto mechanics have tools that aren’t available to the average consumer. One of these is a diagnostic code device that can instantly determine the issue triggering your check engine light.

Fixing the problem could be as simple as replacing a gas cap or replacing a worn-out sensor. Remember, the longer you ignore your light, the more likely your vehicle will suffer significant damage.

So, be sure to schedule a consultation with a full-service auto maintenance team whenever your car’s check engine light appears.

Seek Professional Help Today

Still wondering how to fix the check engine light? After inspecting your gas cap and ensuring you’re up-to-date on oil changes, the best thing to do is seek professional help.

A registered mechanic can read the diagnostic code that’s triggering the check engine light. They can also inspect your engine, ensuring that there aren’t any signs of damage that require immediate repairs.

A quick diagnostic check only takes a few minutes, so be sure to contact us today if your check engine light is on!