Honda “Check Engine” Light: What Could Be the Problem?
Your “Check Engine” light comes on when your car’s onboard computer (or PCM, Powertrain Control Module) records some kind of problem. This onboard computer runs your car so that it has optimum fuel economy and low emissions. The PCM creates a code indicating what part or system is malfuntioning (electrical system, oxygen sensors, and so on). Your tech can get the code from the vehicle and look up its meaning.
In the meantime, you’re probably wondering: what are the possibilities? Is there something going on in your car or in your life that triggered this “check engine” situation? Where should a mechanic start looking to find the problem?
Ten Questions to Ask if Your "Check Engine” Light Comes On:
1. Has your car been in the shop for service recently?
2. Have you fueled your car recently?
3. Did you possibly overfill your fuel tank?
4. Have you installed any new electronic devices recently?
5. Did your “check engine” light come on after driving through a deep puddle?
6. Do you have excessive humidity in your car caused by a water leak?
7. Do you live in a rural area where there are lots of critters?
8. Are other warning lights illuminated on the dash?
9. Did your car sit for a long period of time without anyone driving it?
10. Were you the last one to drive your car?
And Two Bonus Questions:
1. Is the car running normally?
2. Is the "check engine" light flashing?
What Light Are We Talking About?
Don’t confuse your "check engine" light with your maintenance reminder (a light that goes on automatically to remind you it’s time for a routine service). If you’re not sure, check the index in your owner’s manual, under “warning lights.”
Should You Panic? Ask Your Two Bonus Questions First
Bonus question 1. Is the car running normally? If your car is running normally, and you have no problem driving it, the problem is not so severe that you need to panic. Of course you should not ignore the light; it is warning you of some problem with the emissions system. When the light is on, your car runs on default parameters, not optimized to reduce emissions and increase mileage, and so you won’t get the gas mileage the car is designed to get. Just call your mechanic or dealer to make an appointment within a reasonable amount of time.
Bonus question 2. Is the "check engine" light flashing? If it's flashing, it means you have a serious problem and you really should not be driving your car. It's flashing because it's saying “STOP!!! Hey Look At Me!!!” It’s saying your catalytic converter is being damaged. It’s probably a good idea to call a tow truck at this point; you don’t want to add to the cost of any repairs that are going to be needed.
Now a Closer Look At Each of the Ten Questions
1. Has your car been serviced recently? If your car has been in the shop recently for service, it’s quite possible the technician has caused your "check engine" light problem. Sometimes a technician will forget to reinstall a connector to a sensor, or not snap the connector back together completely. Or he or she may knock a connector loose while doing a minor service.
On older Hondas, the oxygen sensor is directly below the oil filter, so a technician removing the oil filter for a routine oil change might spill oil onto the oxygen sensor. It’s just possible, though not common, that a technician wiping oil off the sensor damaged it somehow.
2. Have you fueled your car recently? If you didn’t tighten the fuel cap enough (or forgot to put it on altogether!), this could cause your "check engine" light to come on. All Honda fuel caps have a ratcheting device built into the cap to achieve a good seal and keep you from over-tightening the cap. When tightening your fuel cap, be sure to turn it enough to hear at least three clicks; that ensures the proper torque was applied. If your check engine light is on, simply check your fuel cap to make sure it is turned three clicks.
3. Did you possibly overfill your fuel tank? If you’re one of those people who like to top off the fuel tank, you need to break that habit, especially if you own a newer Honda. When the gas pump shuts off automatically, the tank is as full as it needs to be. To keep gasoline fumes out of the atmosphere, modern United States cars are required to trap the fumes and recycle them into the engine to be burned. Overfilling the tank can spill fuel into into tiny vacuum lines and filters, which in turn can clog emission devices (like the "evap canister" being replaced in the three do-it-yourself videos at the end of this article). Soaking these devices in gasoline will cause the "check engine" light to come on. Replacing the damaged parts could be costly, but the time spent diagnosing the problem could be even costlier.
4. Have you installed any new electronic devices lately, or had them installed by a professional? Everyone likes all the new gadgets available for cars these days, like back-up cameras, thunder-booming stereos, remote car starters, high-intensity-discharge headlights, and rear entertainment systems, to name a few. It’s just possible that the person installing your device may have blown a fuse, or worse, may have tapped into the wrong wire and caused that dang "check engine" light to come on again.
Check to see that all electronics in the vehicle are working properly (e.g. dash light, 12-volt power supply, interior lights). If everything is working properly, I would either test all the fuses (using a test light or a voltage meter is the fastest way to do that) or return the vehicle to the person who did the work.
5. Did your "check engine" light come on after driving through a deep puddle? This isn’t common but it does happen. After driving for a while on the highway, your exhaust can get extremely hot; if you then happen to drive through a deep puddle, it is possible for water to cool the oxygen sensor too quickly and crack the material inside the sensor. The oxygen sensor is located under the vehicle, usually in or near the catalytic converter where the temperature can exceed 600 degrees. If this sounds like your scenario, take your car to the dealer or your local mechanic.
6. Do you have excessive humidity in your car caused by a water leak? Water on the front or back carpet in your car will often be coming from the front of the car somewhere; water flows towards the back because of acceleration, and because the floor is tapered towards the rear of the vehicle. If the water is only visible on the rear carpet, the leak may be in the rear of the vehicle.
The most common cause of a water leak is the windshield; sometimes a newly replaced windshield will leak.
If a leaky windshield drips water on an ECU (Engine Control Unit) fuse box or any other control unit, this willl cause a ECU failure and your “check engine” light will come on. Water is very damaging to all electronic devices (just drop your smart phone in water and see what happens).
7. Do you live in a rural area where there are lots of critters? Critters can cause all sorts of problems in cars, from horrible smells to chewed wires. If you live or work in an area where mice, rats, chipmunks. or squirrels can get into your car, they can wreak havoc on your cars’ electrical systems. Given the chance, critters will build nests and store food for the winter, and for some reason they like to chew wires. In fact, some car manufacturers assemble wire harnesses wrapped with mouse-deterrent tape, no kidding. It’s not completely effective but it’s a start. If a critter chews the right wires in your vehicle, it will cause the “check engine” light to come on, and an expensive bill! Replacing a wire harness is daunting and time-consuming.
Signs of critters in your vehicle are:
- bad odors
- acorns and nuts (or dry dog food) stored in the engine compartment or glove box
- chewed carpeting
- loud noises when the heating or air conditioning fans come on. Critters are notorious for building nests inside blower motor assemblies, causing all kinds of problems.
8. Are other warning lights illuminated on the dash? In some cases, a failure in another part or system can cause your "check engine" light to come on. Multiple warning lights illuminated on the dash don't necessarily mean multiple problems, so don't panic. The lights could all be caused by a single problem: For example, if your alternator is not charging, or if it’s over-charging, it could cause low or high voltage in the system, which would cause many lights to come on.
9. Did your car sit for a long time without anyone driving it? Cars that sit for a long period of time are susceptible to a plethora of problems. Critters move in, batteries go dead, tires go flat, brake rotors become rusted and cause a pulsation when applying the brakes, pulleys rust and cause belts to squeak, and the list goes on. If you car sat for a while, your "check engine" light could come on because a sensor or solenoid is stuck, or for other reasons. Have it checked out by an honest mechanic; they are out there, you just have to find them.
10. Were you the last one to drive your car? If you were not the last one to drive your car and the "check engine" light is on, you need to start asking questions. Sometimes family members or friends who borrow your car spill soda or coffee on the console without telling you. On some Hondas, the ECM/PCM (engine control unit/powertrain control unit) is located below the center of the console, and sugary drinks can destroy this expensive control unit.
Write Down the Code
If you have a buddy, friend, uncle, or cuz that can check the code because they have a scan tool, make sure you write down the code, because if you decide to erase it, you’ll want to know what it was when the light comes back on (and if it’s an issue other than a loose gas cap, the problem will usually come back). It’s good practice for you, and good information to give your mechanic.
Buying a Scan Tool to Interpret "Check Engine" Codes
If you want to try and diagnose the problem yourself, you will need to figure out with the diagnostic code is telling you. Here is a guide to understanding the codes.
You will also need a scan tool. If you decide to buy on, choose one that will last for years. Vehicles are only getting more sophisticated each year, so plan for the future. The OBD2 system covers 1996 and later cars (the OBD1 system that covers older ones may be included, depending on the device). I recommend looking for these four time- and money-saving features:
- A display that includes a description of the cause of the warning light, as well as the code. This saves you time from having to look up the description that goes with the numerical code in a book or on the computer.
- LED display for state emissions readiness check and drive cycle verification. This feature will let you know if it will pass an emissions test.
- Battery backup that will keep the code in the device after you disconnect the scan tool, so you can review it and analyze it away from the car (even if you forgot to write down the code)
- A USB cable to update the information in your scan tool from your own computer. If you can't update the scan tool, it will be obsolete in three years.
The Innova 3040 scan tool has the features above and more, and should last for years.
DIY Repairs to Fix Evap-Canister-Related "Check Engine" Codes
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Questions & Answers
After driving for about 20 miles on the freeway, the check engine light on my 2010 Honda Accord started flashing. When I stopped the car, I felt the car shake and rumble, but it operated fine while driving. I looked up the symbol in the manual, and it says something might be wrong with the emissions Is this possibly it? Should I take my car to the local mechanic I use or to Honda? What do you think might be wrong and what are the possible costs to fix it?
The engine light came on and showed the check emission system message. I went to AutoZone to check the code. It showed P0420. They said it’s the Catalytic Converter and Exhaust Flange Gasket. I just had my emissions inspection about two weeks ago, and it passed. I filled up with gas yesterday. Is there anything that would cause this that would correct itself? I’m a single mom and want to check anything I can before I spend the money to take it to the shop.
I "topped off" my gas tank and my engine light has been flashing along with the non-flashing, triangular VSA warning for five days and approximately 45 miles. My car runs fine, no unusual noises, etc., though I do not get the usual ECO light for economy fuel use. If this was caused by overfilling the gas tank, will the problem vanish on its own? If not, how do I find a mechanic familiar with the computerized warning system?