You’re a mile from home when the dreaded check engine light comes on. I know as a female my first reaction is that my engine is going to blow up any minute now. After about ten minutes of panic, twenty-five phone calls, and a series of text messages to my boyfriend to be on standby, he finally calmed me down enough to ask whether I had just gotten gas. “Just gotten gas? What on EARTH does my gas have to do with anything?” I impatiently yell into the phone. When he finally convinced me to check my gas cap, and I realize it was simply lose, it makes no sense to me. But then again, the light went off and the world is back to normal….which made me curious, where does this dreaded check engine light from in the first place?

Having worked for a car dealership for years, I decided to do my research, and found that I wasn’t the only one frustrated by this annoying, yet scary little light. It’s the most terrifying light your car has, and the most frustrating. It comes on unexpectedly with no reason, no warning, and no explanation as to what is going on. But there are a few things  you can do to ensure you’re more educated, and less panicked, the next time it happens. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned:

If you car is smoking or stalls completely while this light comes on, then, and only then, should you panic. You should also pull over, turn the car off, and immediately call your service center for a diagnostic. If the car is not smoking, and hasn’t stalled, then go onto "PLAN B".  

Plan B include the easy fixes. The first is yep, you guessed it, the gas cap. Believe it or not your gas cap is important. It stops fuel vapors from leaking out, which causes a reduction in gas mileage and increases emissions. No want ones your car ruining the ozone for the next five to ten, so they hooked the sensor up to make sure your cap is nice and tight. If it’s loose or cracked, vapors will leak out, and presto, there goes your engine light. I suggest pulling over and first checking to see if its tight, if it is, take it off, and screw it back on tightly. Drive a couple of miles and see if the light goes off. If it doesn’t, then check for cracks. If you see some, a new cap is under $5 dollars at any auto store. Remember, if the car is jerking, shaking, or smoking, it’s probably not the gas cap.

Plan C includes the spark plugs and wires. In cars built before 2000, the spark plugs should be replaced every 25-30,000 miles. In newer cars, they last about 100,000. But that doesn’t mean if you car has 83,000 miles on it that they couldn’t have gone bad. Depending on how you treat your car, where it’s stored, and how you drive, they either last longer or go bad sooner. When the plugs are failing, spark plugs misfires, and you’ll feel a little jolt in your cars acceleration. If this is happening, and the check engine light comes on, get them replaced right away. They’re cheap, easy to install yourself, and will make a world of difference is it’s the issue. Simply google “how to install spark plugs” or you can click here. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself, call your service center and make an appointment. As long as you get it fixed within a day or two, your car should be okay to drive.

Plan D. If Plans B and C didn’t work, or you’re noticing stalling or other issues, here’s my list of what to prepare for. The most common reasons for the check engine light that include more serious issues are the oxygen sensor, the catalytic converter, and the mass airflow sensor. The oxygen sensor monitors the unburned oxygen from the exhaust. Over time, it gets covered in oil ash and needs replacing. You’ll usually notice a decrease in gas mileage when its gone bad, and a quick trip to the service center will let the mechanic know if its needs replacing. They can hook your car up to a computer which tells them immediately what sensors are malfunctioning.  If it’s not that, it could be the mass airflow sensor, or MAF. You could drive for weeks and never notice anything until the car starts stalling. To prevent this, have the air filter replaced yearly. Last but not least is the most serious, the catalytic converter. If you’re keeping up with maintenance, it should never fail, but if it does, you’ll hardly be able to keep the car running. You’ll notice when you push the gas, nothing happens, and your gas mileage will be so horrible, you’ll be working all week just for gas. Not replacing the oxygen sensor, or spark plugs, can also cause hurt your catalytic converter, so keep up your maintenance!

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more reasons why the engine light could be on, but it would take a week to cover them all. These, however, are the most common, and will give you the best place to start. The most important thing to remember is your car will treat you as good as you treat it. Get your maintenance done regularly, don’t put things off, and you should be okay. But if that dreaded little light does happen to pop up, just remember….check your gas cap!