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$40 for 3 Minutes Worth of Time

As we were driving down to North Carolina this weekend the check engine signal burned brightly from our dashboard. I opened the car’s manual, searched for the description of the warning and read the details to my husband. In essence, the manual said any number of things could make the light go on and the best course of action was to drive to the closet Toyota dealer for a diagnostic test.

Well there aren’t any Toyota dealers down here and we knew a mechanic could perform the same test, so we continued to make our way down south and stopped by a local shop this morning.

A very friendly mechanic popped into the driver’s seat of our car, pulled out a small screen, hooked up a wire or two, turned the key, clicked on some buttons and then reported that he could not find anything wrong with our vehicle. He informed us, (just as the manual said), that a lose gas cap can cause the warning light to go on and with that he stepped out of the car and collected $40.

That’s right in roughly three minutes the mechanic collected $40 and told us that there was nothing wrong with our vehicle. Not a bad gig for him, but there are a million other things I would have rather done with that money.

I was so shocked by how quickly the diagnosis was made that I wondered what it would cost for me to buy one of the devices he used to troubleshoot the problem. According to Consumer Reports

If you want to diagnose the malfunction yourself, you can buy a scan tool at most auto parts stores. Prices range from about $40 to several hundred, depending on the model and the features. The tools come with instructions on how to hook them up and decipher the codes. But unless you have a good knowledge of automotive diagnostics, you’re probably better off taking the vehicle to a professional. Some automotive parts stores will read and interpret the code for you without charge.

Next time around I’ll try an auto parts store before going to the mechanic. If they won’t do it for free I would consider buying the device and trying to diagnose the problem myself. (Anyone ever bought or tried one of these?)

I’ll also try to tighten the gas gap. According to the same article from Consumer Reports a simple tightening might resolve the issue, although it may take several trips before the light resets.

I’m not sure that the light in my 1999 Toyota Camry would’ve reset without a mechanic, but it would’ve been nice to try this fix before spending $40.

I will say that I am happy we didn’t just keep driving with the light on. I’d hate to have a problem that strands us on the side of the road with an eight month old in hot summer heat. We will make a 280+ mile trip home next weekend and it was worth it to spend $40 for simple peace of mind.

My Frugal Miser

Saturday 30th of June 2012

That friendly mechanic was smiling all the way to the bank. I drive a Toyota and the most common reason the light comes on is to remind me when it is time for an oil change. Google your car and "turn off check engine light" and you'll find instructions on getting the light to turn off (usually by pushing a sequence of buttons inside your car). In my experience the check engine light is almost never an indication of an urgent issue.

One Frugal Girl

Sunday 1st of July 2012

It wasn't an oil related issue. My husband changes it regularly. Thanks for the tip about resetting the light though. I had no idea we could reset it ourselves.

Jenny

Thursday 28th of June 2012

I'm not sure how much I'd trust these machines. My old Nissan Sentra had the check engine light on ever since I bought it (told it had been on for years with no problem). When I brought it to a shop for something else, the mechanic hooked it up to his machine and it said there was a problem with the fuel injection system. And there sure was, the fact that my car was carbourated, and built a few years too early to have a fuel injection system.

One Frugal Girl

Thursday 28th of June 2012

I read your comment to my husband and he laughed out loud. I'm not a big fan of mechanics or doctors. I think a lot of their work involves guessing.

John J

Thursday 28th of June 2012

I actually purchasaed one of these "code pullers." It was on clearance for $97, and it does diagnose every kind of engine problem. I keep it in my garage and use it when I have the "need to know." Actually, if you bring your car to the shop and tell them the code you pulled, they tend to watch what they do, because they think that you know your way around a car's engine compartment. And I do!

One Frugal Girl

Thursday 28th of June 2012

I guess it's a good way to A) determine what's wrong with the car and B) keep your mechanic honest. I hadn't thought about the second point. Very interesting!

Kasey

Thursday 28th of June 2012

I believe unplugging your car battery and waiting a few seconds and then plugging it back up will reset the light. this also means you lose your preset radio stations but it's saves you $40.

One Frugal Girl

Thursday 28th of June 2012

Hmmm. I'd have to look up how to unplug the car battery. Is that tough to do?

Justin @ The Family Finances

Thursday 28th of June 2012

I always go to our local Auto Zone store and have them chech the code, since they do it for free.

One Frugal Girl

Thursday 28th of June 2012

I so wish I had known about this before we took the car to the mechanic!