header image of a service engine soon light

If Your Service Engine Soon Light Turns On, Don’t Panic

You’re driving along and something on your instrument cluster catches your eye. You look down and see the dreaded orange glow of your service engine soon light.

This little light often causes the floodgates of worry open in your mind. Thoughts of thousand dollar repair bills roll in. You might even think about the days of inconvenience because your car will be in the shop. You’ll have to bum rides from friends or maybe even rent a car.

Should you stop driving? Do you need to rush home? Or worse, should you pull over and call a tow truck!!??

Probably not. 

Consider the message itself – “Service Engine Soon”.

It doesn’t say “Service Engine Now!”

Take a couple deep breaths and calm down. The service engine soon light is just your car’s way of telling you it needs attention.

Look at it this way… you should be thankful the light came on.

Why?

Think of the alternative. Back in the days before cars had on-board computers to sense problems, your car would just break down!

What do I do when my check engine light comes on?

You need to get your car diagnosed. You can do this by using an OBD (on-board-diagnostics) code reader. The OBD tool will communicate with your car’s computer and tell you what caused your service engine soon light to turn on.

picture of an autel AutoLink AL319 OBD scan tool

Don’t have an OBD code reader? No problem. I’ll tell you how to use one for free.

Where can I get a free OBD scan?

Just about every major auto parts retailer will do a free scan for you. Stores like  Advance Auto Parts, Auto Zone, and O’Reilly can help you out.

I’ve gone to one of these stores myself and it’s generally a quick in-and-out process. An employee comes out, connects the scanner, and tells you what’s up.

They do this because they’re hoping you buy the parts you need for the fix at their store. It’s a pretty reasonable trade-off if you ask me.

Should I take my car to a dealer when the service engine soon light turns on?

No. You shouldn’t.

For this particular service, it will be an inconvenience and expensive.

First of all, you’re likely going to have to make an appointment. So you’ll be without your car for the day.

Second, you’re going to likely be on the hook for at least an hour of labor which can range from $50-$250 depending on the dealer and where you live.

So why is this a problem? I’ll get deeper into this later in the article, but the most common reasons for your service engine soon light to come on is something you may be able to fix yourself.

So putting yourself through the inconvenience and expense of a dealer visit isn’t always necessary.

It’s important to know that I’m not trying to bash dealers. If your car has a big problem, a trip to the dealer might be necessary.

But given that it’s likely your service engine soon turned on because of a minor problem, do yourself a favor and get a free diagnostic scan at an auto parts store before running to a dealer.

What if I use a local mechanic?

Having your local mechanic do scan for you really depends on your relationship with the mechanic.

Some smaller shops may be able to give you a quick scan and tell you what you need.

But larger shops may operate like dealers and make you go through the process of making an appointment and billing you for their time.

At the end of the day, I recommend you try to get the free scan from an auto parts store. As I’ve said, odds are that the problem with your car is minor, and you might even be able to fix it yourself. So let’s talk a bit about the most common reasons why your service engine soon light turned on.

What is wrong with my car when the check engine light goes on?

photo of a gas cap

As we’ve already covered, there’s no way of knowing what’s wrong until you get a scan.

What I can tell you is that the most common problem is your gas cap.

Seriously.

And your gas cap might not even be broken! There’s a good chance you didn’t tighten it enough at your last fill up.

So why does this even happen in the first place?

In a nutshell, your fuel system is pressurized. If your car’s computer senses a leak in the system, your service engine soon light will come on. And you guessed it… a loose gas cap is basically a leak in the system that can be fixed by simply tightening the cap.

If when you get your free scan, the shop employee tells you to buy a new gas cap, try tightening your existing cap first and driving for a couple days.  If that doesn’t work, head back to the shop and buy a new cap.

What if the problem isn’t my gas cap?

If the fault code turns out to be something else, it’s up to you to decide if it’s something you can fix yourself or if  you need to bring your car to a mechanic. Other common faults are things like mass air flow sensors or oxygen sensors…. Which both can be fairly simple to replace. And you can most likely buy the parts at the shop you’re at.

What if my service engine soon light is flashing?

In some cars, the service engine soon light flashing means that the problem is more severe. It means service engine NOW!

If this happens to you, I recommend getting your car into the shop as soon as possible. You most likely don’t need to pull over and get towed… but you should approach the alert with more urgency than if the light is just illuminated. To learn more about a flashing service engine soon light, check out this article.

Conclusion

If your service engine soon light comes on, relax. Just like squeaky brakes, it’s your car’s way of telling you something needs attention… soon. And there’s a good chance the problem is fairly minor. Take advantage of a free OBD scan at your local auto parts store chain. And most importantly, don’t ignore your service engine soon light! Because if you do, it can lead to bigger problems down the road.

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