Archive for Monday, February 4, 2002

t good enough

February 4, 2002


I picked it up on the second ring.

"Dad, we're still in town and the 'Check Engine' light came on again," Katy's voice said.

This was getting annoying. Earlier in the morning, she had asked if I could check her Ford Explorer because the "Check Engine" light had come on the night before.

I had already popped the hood and checked the oil, radiator, hoses, belts and battery cables. I'd done a test drive. Everything seemed in order.

But I didn't want her taking the chance that something would go wrong on her weekend trip to visit a friend at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo.

So, like the chief engineer at NASA's Mission Control in Houston, I had to make the call scrub the mission.

"Why don't you see if someone else can drive," I told her.

When she hung up, I realized my Saturday plans were now canceled until I could uncover the problem.

Car trek

"It could be anything," my brother Bob told me. Bob, who spent more than 10 years as an auto technician, advised me over the phone to check the air filter and radiator for anything obvious.

Otherwise, I probably wouldn't be able to fix it myself and would have to take it into an auto shop, where they would hook the engine's computer into a diagnostic computer. The engine would blink out a code to them to let them know what the problem is.

"It's a good thing for the technicians," Bob told me. "But unless it's obvious, the average person can't figure it out."

After skinning my knuckles getting the air cleaner cover off to discover a perfectly white air filter, I took it for a test drive. The "Check Engine" light came on after three blocks.

Why can't it just tell me what to fix? I thought, wondering if the mechanism that turns the light on itself could be faulty.

"Better go to a garage," my brother told me.


"It could be anything in the world," the guy at the service department said over the phone.

The "Check Engine" light was triggered by a "failed sensor," which meant one of the components that control the fuel, air flow or emissions systems was faulty, he said.

Since the early 1980s, car manufacturers have been putting computers into cars to control fuel delivery, idle speed, spark timing and emission devices.

I'd have to wait until Monday before they could look at it. And it would cost me $75 for them to hook it up to their diagnostic computer and scan through all the electrical and computer components. Parts and labor for fixing the problem would be added to that.

Hacking the system

I wondered if there was anything I could buy to connect my car to my home computer. After a little searching on the Internet, I found a site called

It promised: "For the first time, you can access the same information as the dealership mechanics. Use your AutoTap scan tool and your PC to monitor real-time data from virtually every sensor on your car, as well as read and clear Diagnostic Trouble Codes."

I smiled as I read through the details.

The cost for this little device, which could check out all makes and models from 1996 forward, was under $300. And the company making it, B & B Electronics, promised to offer software upgrades each year.

The further I read, the more I realized how such a device really ought to be among my garage tools.

Even if I wasn't going to do the job myself, I could ensure that the garage mechanics didn't charge me for something I didn't need not that they would ever do that.

I also found several other devices on the Internet that would tap into the engine's computer. All cost at least $200. I checked under the couch cushions. Nope, no loose $100 bills.

So, I wondered if my nearby auto parts store had anything similar to the AutoTap Pro but cheaper.

Cracking the codes

"It could be anything, but it might be the EGR valve," the auto parts counter guy said.

We talked briefly about the "Check Engine" light and I asked him if he had anything that could read the Ford's computer codes.

He turned around to a display behind him and pulled out a small black device with prongs.

When I got the $35 "Actron Code Scanner" home, I started reading the manual and quickly schooled myself on how it worked.

I was a little disappointed it didn't have an LCD screen to read the codes but instead relied on a flashing red light to spell out the code.

For example, "flash, pause, flash, flash, pause, flash" meant Code 121; "flash, flash, pause, flash, flash, pause, flash" meant Code 221; and "destello, destello, pausa, destello, pausa, destello, destello, destello" meant el codigo 213 if you were reading the directions in Spanish.

I hooked the black device to Katy's Explorer and did the test. It flashed numbers, which I looked up in the code directory that came with the scanner. Something was wrong with the EGR valve, whatever that was.

"Take it to a garage," my brother advised again.

Low-tech solution

"What is that, a stun gun?" Matt asked when he saw me proudly holding my code scanner.

My son had come over to raid the refrigerator. While he ate and watched the basketball game, I read up on the Exhaust Gas Recirculation valve to see if I could fix it myself. It looked buried beneath a lot of hoses, wires and brackets.

"Hey, do you think you could help me fix my car before I have to go to work?" Matt asked.

"It could be anything," I thought.

We went outside and he showed me the problem the hose between the air filter and fuel injection system was ripped.

I put down the Actron Code Scanner and grabbed the handiest tool in the house.

It's good to know some problems can still be easily handled with duct tape.

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