June 30, 2011 Columnists | 'Check engine' light often means writing a big check | The Detroit News
‘Check engine’ light often means writing a big check
Fix averages $348 across Michigan
That bold red light on the car's dash might mean something as insignificant as a loose gas cap or something as serious as the engine is about to seize, and lots of people just don't care.
Roughly 10 percent of the vehicles rolling around America right now have the "check engine" light on
, according to CarMD.com Corp., a company that creates consumer-friendly automotive diagnostic tools.
"And more than 50 percent of those people have ignored the light for more than three months," Kristin Brocoff, a CarMD.com spokeswoman, told me Wednesday.
One reason people may be avoiding their check engine light, or even putting black tape over it (something not recommended by anyone), is because that little red beacon is really saying "check wallet."
CarMD analyzed more than 80,000 repairs involving the little red demon on the dash and today is releasing those results to provide consumers with a better understanding of common repairs and costs. The Fountain Valley, Calif.-based company wants to stress the importance of regularly scheduled maintenance and taking care of small repairs early to avoid catastrophic results.
"The problem with the check engine light is that it can mean so many different things," Brocoff said.
It can mean anything from bad spark plug wires to too much oxygen in the exhaust — meaning the car is not efficiently burning fuel. Often the car may not even be acting funny but could be wasting fuel or be ready to die.
Turning off the "check engine" light costs an average of $356.04 in America.
That average includes all of those warranty fixes dealers provide to new-car owners for not screwing on their gas cap correctly.
Loose gas caps are the No. 1 reason the check engine light comes on in Michigan, and the No. 2 reason around the country.
The average cost for a check engine repair in Michigan is $348.03.
And if you're looking for yet another reason not to live in Arizona, check engine light repairs in the Grand Canyon State cost $421.49, the highest in the nation.
The District of Columbia had the lowest costs, averaging $265.29. My theory is politicians haven't seen an old car since re-election.
There is a hint of good news in all of this data.
Ford Motor Co. and other automakers have started building cars with capless fuel fillers. These ingenious little creations allow you to open the fuel tank door and then stick the fuel pump right through an automatically opening hole. Chrysler Group LLC also has started using a similar system on some of its vehicles.
So far, they work perfectly; so much so that CarMD points out that while loose caps had always been the No. 1 reason nationally for the check engine light going on, ever since systems started monitoring them in 1996, in 2010, loose caps dropped to No. 2.
I called Ford and General Motors Co. to talk to engineers about that catch-all engine light, but no one called back.
Those lights used to monitor only a handful of things.
Now, cars come with more sensors and high-tech doodads than a space shuttle, so that light can literally mean anything. We've all become desensitized to them, praying that if we wait long enough, the light will go off.
Technically, that's true. If something catastrophic happens, the light will go off.
Or you can just tighten the cap and pray.