I have to agree with Elizabeth that the whole taking a phone call in the middle of a meeting is off-putting. Some of my coworkers are notorious about this, often jumping to address a quadrant 4 domestic issue. I do try to ignore any calls until after the meeting’s over. One exception is if my spouse’s cell phone number flashes on the caller ID. As she uses her cell phone fewer than 16 minutes a month, rarely dialing out, when she does, I have to answer the Red Phone.
This happened a few weeks ago:
She: “My ‘check engine’ light is on, what should I do?”
Me: “Did you just fill up with gas?”
Me: “Check the gas cap is on tight. Is your car still running? Not making any weird noises? No red flames belching out from the back?”
She: “Red flames? Yes, it’s still running.”
Me: “Then for now, keep driving it.”
Me: “Usually, if it is the gas cap, it’ll turn itself off after a while. It’s either that or the Flux capacitor needs alignment. Either way, I will look at it this weekend.”
Whew, not an auto accident or the kids blowing up the living room with a homemade volcano!
The ‘check engine’ light is an indicator of “something’s wrong and the car can’t fix itself.” To get more information, the car’s computer will need to be polled for the set of error codes. The computers are thorough enough that emissions checks often just poll the computer rather than doing the exhaust gas monitoring they used to.
A frequent cause for the light staying on is the gas cap not being on tight enough. Tightening the cap and running the car for a while will often cause the light to go out. This is what I was hoping. When it stayed on, my next option was to read the code. I could take it mechanic and do this ($80/hr, 1 hour minimum), or I could buy an ODBII reader ($35). The cheaper option appealed to my wallet and hacker-curiosity.
The reader is pretty simple to use: plug it into the ODBII port, turn the ignition to “ACC” and download the results. After retrieving two error codes and a wealth of randomly useless engine information (taken when the code was triggered), I consulted the Internets. Each Mazda forum had a different interpetation of what to do about the codes – though all agreed it was not the flux capacitor. As is classic on these forums, no one follows up with the “Yes, that was exactly the problem, here’s how I fixed it.”
He’ll kill you three times before
The first remedy was the codes (PO171, PO151) were too generic, reset the computer and keep driving. Ten days later, the check engine light was on with codes PO174 and PO171. The next remedy was to replace the air filter and check its seal. The light came on again two weeks later, this time with PO174 and PO151. But, like every House episode, there was an interesting new symptom: the patient pooped a lung. Er, I mean, the car was misfiring at (warm) idle.
The Internets recommended more, simple stuff: replacing the spark plugs and changing out the fuel filter. The problem is the car isn’t supposed to have a tune-up for 100k miles and it apparently doesn’t have a fuel filter. Out of my league, I made an appointment with a local shop, planning to get some other maintenance done while it was there.
This proved to be a huge mistake.
I presented my laundry list of things I wanted done: fix the misfiring, oil change, flush the radiator, check the hoses and belts, check the brakes, rotate the tires, etc. None of these were hard, I just don’t have the time (or, in the case of the tires, space to do it). The shop was “running behind” and unsure they’d make much of a dent in my list. They’d call me. In the end, they did the same ODBII diagnostics I did plus cleaned the oxygen sensors. The engine was still misfiring, but because there was no explicit code, they couldn’t diagnose it further without spending a lot of time ($$). At least they got the oil and coolant done.
Over the weekend, I had the van out for errands. The engine misfiring seemed to be getting worse with the car feeling like it was going to stall before the light turned green. I made an appointment with the dealer. Now, I should note that the dealer’s been fine, but they’re much further away, requiring some coordination of biking/buses/etc.
On the ride to work, the dealer gave me the Good News, Bad News. The good news was the misfiring was simply a PCV hose. The bad news was there were leaks in the oil pan gasket and the cooling system. In other words, they had to redo the work that the previous shop did.
I had all the work done and the van works great now, but I’m unsure what to do about the previous shop. I feel they owe me something. Any suggestions?