Life With a Perpetual “Check Engine” Light

By Cam Mather

When you drive older vehicles the “Check Engine” dashboard warning light becomes part of your reality. There have been occasions with certain warning lights that I’ve resorted to using electrical tape. Black electrical tape placed over top of a warning light makes it miraculously disappear!

That only works for some things though. About a year ago the “Check Engine” light was coming on intermittently in our 2005 Honda Civic. One day it came on when I had the car at the dealership for a free “30 Point Inspection.” The service guy said the error code indicated we had a bad oxygen sensor. I said I’d give some thought to getting it fixed, but he said, “Well you can keep driving it, but it could destroy the catalytic converter which will cost you $2,000 to replace.” Ouch! That sounded scary! Was this a real possibility or just something the service people are trained to say to keep idiots like me from leaving the dealership without spending a whole lotta money? It seemed a bit extreme but I knew that Michelle would expect me to get it fixed and the dealership is a 45 minute drive from my home, so it seemed wise to have it done right then and there.

The sensor part was about $250 and then they dinged me for an hours’ labor even though the car was done in 15 minutes. What a racket! A couple of weeks later the light came on again. It kept coming on sporadically until one day I was near Steve Marshall’s shop, so I stopped in to ask him to check it. His computer readout indicated that the problem was an oxygen sensor. I told him that I’d just had it replaced, but he told me that there are two. So I had him order the part for me and I took it in to get it installed. He got it up on the hoist and said to me, “Oh, the one the computer says I need to replace is brand new.” Thanks Honda dealer. Nice job. Luckily Steve was able to return the unwanted part.

For the last year the Check Engine light has been going on and off every couple of weeks. Then it was time to get the car in for its “eTest.” In the Province of Ontario you need to have your car’s emissions tested every two years before you can get a new sticker for your license plate. But they don’t really test to see your overall impact on the planet; they just compare your vehicle to others of the same make and model. So if you have a poorly performing Honda Fit compared to other Fits, which get insanely great fuel economy and therefore have a relatively small carbon footprint, you could fail the test. If your Hummer, on the hand, was pumping out just as much CO2 as all the other insanely inefficient Hummers, you’re fine, move to the front of the line. And this is why we now get August weather in March.

Before I took the car in for my e-test I decided to change the air filter. I hadn’t done it in a while. I had opted out of the regular dealer service years ago, which I think is a huge rip-off. Thanks, but I can lubricate my own door hinges if they squeak, and I don’t charge $85/hour to do it.

I got 9 of the 10 bolts off but one was really rusted on. I was about to drill it out, but then I thought I’d take it over to my neighbor Ken and see if he had some cool trick to dislodge it. He always does. So once we got the cover off and removed the old air filter, there it was. A mouse nest. Yup, right under the air filter there was more crap and corruption than you could imagine. No question the filter was dirty but I don’t think much air was getting through at all. How a mouse managed to carry all of this nest building material through 2 and half feet of winding hoses and chambers should surprise me, but unfortunately it doesn’t.

One of the downsides of country life is mice. They will get into everything and do incredible damage. In this case they didn’t chew anything, they just plugged stuff up. This provided Ken with an excellent opportunity to use his air compressor to blow all the crap out.

So I installed the new filter and low and behold we passed the eTest. Oh, and the check engine light hasn’t come on since.

Which all brings me to the movie “Contact” where Mathew McConaughey brings up the concept of Occam’s Razor to Jody Foster. This principle suggests that when selecting among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation is probably the most likely. Following this, if you have an oxygen sensor apparently saying your engine is not functioning optimally, maybe you should make sure the air filter is clean and unobstructed before spending $400 to replace the sensor. And it’s important that since it is your car you should rely on your own instincts rather than the dealer’s. They don’t make money selling cars anymore; they only make money on service. So they’re kind of biased.

I often use Occam’s Razor in my life. Years ago when I lived in the city and was constantly stressed and sat at my computer 14 hours a day trying to pay off my mortgage so I could move to the country I went to a chiropractor when my back got really sore. I had previously been getting massages, but I was finding that visits to Tanya (the “Love Goddess,” as I liked to call her) were painful, because she got in between all my ribs and really dug into my muscles. I felt better later, but man, she was brutal. I felt like I’d played in a rugby tournament after ½ hour of her poking and prodding.

So my chiropractor suggested that I could just use tennis balls. Huh? He told me to put two tennis balls on the carpet on either side of my spine and lay on top of them. I gradually release my weight onto them and then slowly roll around on the balls. And low and behold they get into all the spaces and muscle groups that Tanya used to get. I have a muscle group in my lower back which is sore right now, and I find a few minutes of rolling on the tennis balls before I do my stretching makes a huge difference.

No professionals in white jackets. No MRIs. No insurance claims forms. Just two tennis balls.

PLEASE NOTE: I AM NOT A HEALTH PROFESSIONAL AND ANY MEDICAL ADVICE OFFERED HERE IS DONE SO CASUALLY AND SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN AS PROFESSIONAL ENDORSEMENT FOR THE ACTIVITIES MENTIONED HEREIN. THE AUTHOR TAKES NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY DAMAGES INCURRED BY YOUR PERSONAL USE OF HIS AMAZINGLY SIMPLE TENNIS BALL BACK MASSAGE TECHNIQUE.

Apparently there’s something to this “the simplest explanation is the most likely to offer the best results” theory. I’m hoping to apply it more often, especially when someone wants to charge me $400 to change my oxygen sensors when all I really needed to do was clean out the mouse nest!

7 Responses to “Life With a Perpetual “Check Engine” Light”

  • Antoinette:

    So true! So true!! Gerrit and I were reminded of when we were plagued by an awful smell in our vehicle. It took the removal of the dash board to the tune of $500 to vacuum out the mouse and family. The mechanic was so excited to use his new scope for such jobs, he checked every orifice of that vehicle till he found it. Did you know mouse “dust” (dehydrated dead mouse) was poisonous? Well, it is out now, whether it is or not!!

  • Haha Story of my life. Good post:)

  • Neil:

    IMHO, the check engine light should be shaped like a dollar sign rather than an engine block, as it seems a great revenue generator. Mine came on a few weeks ago, I’m pretty sure due to the gas cap not being fully screwed shut. I could not detect anything abnormal in the performance of the vehicle and so ignored it. After starting the vehicle several times it eventually went away… I guess they program it this way for minor things cuz if you haven’t taken it in by, say, the 10th off-and-on cycle I guess you’re not gonna! I gather that many dealerships charge a flat hour labour to plug in a code reader to “diagnose” the problem.

  • Catherine:

    Cam, I’ve been there, done that so please don’t feel bad. One of my grandfather’s favorite sayings was, “there’s nuthin’ like good ole fashion horsesense!” Eventually we catch on. 🙂

  • Cathy:

    PLEASE NOTE: I AM NOT A HEALTH PROFESSIONAL AND ANY MEDICAL ADVICE OFFERED HERE IS DONE SO CASUALLY AND SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN AS PROFESSIONAL ENDORSEMENT FOR THE ACTIVITIES MENTIONED HEREIN. THIS AUTHOR TAKES NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY DAMAGES INCURRED BY YOUR PERSONAL USE OF HER SIMPLE ADVISE:
    k.i.s.s. = Keep it simple, silly!
    You are smarter than “they” want you to believe.
    If it is made with plastic don’t buy it.
    If it is packaged, it is manufactured and processesed and not good for you anyway.
    If you had disconnected the battery cables, the sensors would have reset themselves. (Learned that one the hard way too.)
    Everything manufactured has intentional, built in, obsolescense and added costs.

  • Deeda In Seattle:

    Oh, I know exactly what you mean! We own a 95 Ford Escort Wagon, check engine light is on constantly…my brother-in-law is a very good Mr. Fixit, and he finally said that it was just ‘broken’. I’ll take that, but it freaks me out sometimes to glance down and see it lit up! That Escort seems like it will last forever, and there were a zillion (and still are)on the road, so plenty of used parts! We are saving it for my kids (both teens) to drive, once they finally get their licenses!

  • Jeff:

    Nice post. Very good advice to use your instincts in diagnosing car troubles, and you’re absolutely right about dealerships making more money off of replacing unnecessary parts than selling cars. Unfortunately, most American cars are like this – they are like printers. They sell them for a song, and then nail you on the cartridge replacements. That’s why I love my 96 Toyota Camry. 156,000 miles and no problems whatsoever yet (knock on wood).

    Glad you figured it out.

    Oh, I got it! Turn an infrared camera on your car in the winter, and the little vermin will show up if they’re in there! Maybe too expensive, but nothing like hunting rodents with extreme technology 😀

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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