You’re out in the middle of nowhere and the “Check Engine” light comes on. What should you do? Is this serious? Are you about to break down? Do you need a tow truck? You can find out with a OBD-II Scan Tool.
Even if you aren’t a mechanic and never intend to perform repairs on your van, having the ability to see the nature of a problem is as important as your spare tire. It can mean the difference between waiting for help in the middle of the night and driving on to safety. If you are out there traveling alone, I suggest you read the rest of this post.
What does that Check Engine light mean anyway? Simply stated, the modern check engine light (or MIL, the Malfunction Indicator Light) is there to tell you when something does not pass its self-check. The engine’s computer runs through a series of self-checks and if something doesn’t match the expectations, the light is illuminated. In most cases a constant-on Check Engine light is just an alert that attention is needed. A flashing light indicates a severe malfunction and you should pull over immediately and shut the engine off. However, a constantly illuminated light could lead to a more severe problem, so it’s best not to ignore it.
The Check Engine light indicates that an engine trouble code has been stored to help a mechanic find the problem in your van. It could also show a code for a transmission related problem (not this time, Doug!). This code can be accessed with an OBD-11 code scanner. A table of the codes (for the nerds like me) can be found here.
The “OBD” in OBD-II stands for “On Board Diagnostics” and is a communication protocol and connector standard that theoretically allows any mechanic to diagnose a problem. A standard was first demanded by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1994, as vehicles became more complicated to troubleshoot, and the auto companies made it the standard in 1996. That means that virtually any vehicle manufactured after 1996 and sold in the US follows this protocol. What is available information-wise is something entirely different, but where minivans are concerned, there is pretty good support for detailed diagnostic information. Just remember, the codes are an indication of the symptom and do not necessarily indicate the cause. An evaporative emissions error could mean anything from a loose gas cap to a failed emissions component.
Recently, the dreaded Check Engine light illuminated in the Odyssey Camper. It wasn’t flashing, so I figured it was OK to drive the remaining few miles home. But rather than take the chance of causing damage, I pulled my diagnostic tool out of the glovebox and took a look.
After plugging the scan tool adapter into the OBD-II port, I launched the BlueDriver app and in 15 seconds, had the answer to my problem. The #2 cylinder had misfired at least once. I have a bit of experience working on cars, but that information alone is not extremely useful. There could be a lot of things causing the issue (lean injector, spark plug, coil pack, vacuum leak, etc.). Thankfully, the app points you in the right direction.
By accessing a central database with millions of points of data provided by skilled mechanics, the app can look at the reported causes for each code and lead you to the cause. Looking at this code, the most likely cause is worn spark plugs. This makes sense because they should be changed at 100,000 miles, but mine have been in there since the van was new. 130,000 miles is a LOT of miles for a set of plugs, but I pushed it a bit since I’ve been out on the road a lot since buying the van.
Knowing that the cause of the Check Engine light was not anything that would damage the engine, I elected to clear the codes to see if the error recurred. It did, which means I better pick up some plugs.
If you are not a “car person” skip to the end of this post to see where you can get one of these. I consider it an essential part of the tools you should carry in your van EVEN IF YOU NEVER WORK ON YOUR VEHICLE, YOURSELF. Here’s why: sometimes you can find a mechanic, or someone knowledgeable about car stuff, even if they don’t have all their tools with them. It’s like the movie trope where a guy has a heart attack on a plane and they go looking for a doctor. The doctor doesn’t have his equipment, but he does not how to use a defibrillator. It’s the same if someone stops to help you. They may not have the tools, but if YOU do, they might be able to help.
However, if you ARE a car person, read on.
OK Car People, here is where it get’s interesting. The BlueDriver can log data from many of the engine sensors and then email them to you or your mechanic. Here I’m looking at the O2 sensors for each bank, the timing advance, and monitoring the EGR valve.
The BlueDriver app provides a LOT of information for the money, including this display of the vehicle information. I find it interesting that it even shows the trim level of my Odyssey. I’m not sure what that has to do with the engine since every Odyssey got the same powertrain.
You can buy a cheaper scan tool. There are dozens of these Bluetooth units on the market and I’ve tried at least four of them. This BlueDriver unit is the best I’ve used. I got frustrated with the others because they disconnected often, or didn’t provide a “reset light” function, or the app sucked. None of them did regular updates to the firmware and software and most did not have the database for common problems and solutions, based on the code. So I asked my mechanic, the pro that does the work I don’t want to do, or can’t do. He has a shop scan tool that costs $2000 and said that this is the one he buys for the guys to keep in their toolboxes. It does most of what the expensive shop unit does for 5% of the price. The BlueDriver is not the cheapest and may actually be one of the most expensive scan tools on Amazon. But it has extra features that the El-Cheapo units don’t offer. These features cost money to update and are part of the reason the BlueDriver costs more. So is it worth $99?
Considering that a mechanic will run you about $60 an hour (more at the dealership) being able to guide him/her to the problem can save time and money. Sure they will verify it, but knowing the most likely place to look will save them some time. It could save even MORE time if you record the sensors on the way to the mechanic, giving them more to go on. But, I like the fact that even if you know nothing about how an automobile works, telling the mechanic that your scan tool shows a misfire on cylinder 2 will make him think twice about bullshitting you 😉
The App is free, as it should be, considering you just dropped $99 on the OBD-II adapter.
You can buy the BlueDriver on Amazon. I put it in my “Stuff I Use” kit here and if you use the link, it won’t cost you any extra, but I’ll get some pennies to keep the site running. Thanks!
–Darren at Odyssey Camper