Fixing the Civic

So I own a 2002 Civic. We bought it used with 130k miles on it. The former owners were the only owners and they took care of it well. We’ve only put about 2k on it since purchasing it >6 months ago. Like most Hondas it seems like this car can run forever.

A while back the ‘check engine’ light went on in the car. I take good care of the car (oil changes regularly, etc.) so I knew it wasn’t something so ‘simple.’ We took it to our trusted mechanic who said it wasn’t anything important and that he cleared the light. My wife wasn’t happy with this answer but I have a lot of faith in this mechanic, he really only wants you to spend money if it’s necessary so I was fine. A few days later the check engine light came back on, which I explained to my wife was expected because he didn’t actually fix the problem, he just cleared the light and after a few days the car detected that the problem wasn’t fixed so it was reporting the light again.

So we’ve been driving it like that for some time. Not ideal I know, because if something ELSE were to go wrong there’s no way for this ‘check engine’ light to tell me that now I have 2, 3 or more problems than whatever caused the light to turn on initially.

In fact let’s take a step back. When OS X or Windows crashes, you expect a little report as to why things went wrong. As cryptic as they were, the Windows blue screen of death (BSOD) did occasionally provide error messages that a computer savvy person could interpret. With Google, many people can easily search their computer errors and sometimes find fixes or at least what the problem is.

If I am helping someone with their computer woes, I do my best to explain why a problem might have two solutions and they should opt for the cheaper bandaid than the more expensive actual fix. If I can pass on that knowledge they can make the decision they feel is best for them. Obviously I’m just reiterating the obvious, that knowledge can empower people to make the best decision for themselves. My mechanic is a nice guy but he thought it would be best if he did not burden us with what exactly was wrong, and to be honest with my busy schedule I didn’t care to ask. I was just glad I didn’t need to spend any money on the issue.

So back to the check engine light. The ‘check engine’ light gives me almost no information, except that there seems to be an error somewhere. Now this was a fine system back in the day when cars were simpler (before the year 2000?). You could argue that the dashboards of cars were not capable of displaying any more information than that. Obviously MANY things could go wrong with something as complex as an internal combustion engine so how could a car dynamically alert you with what the problem(s) is/are? But in the last decade cars have been shipped with 3-5″ screens that were originally for navigation but quickly became a hub for where you can view your currently playing music or text messages. Wouldn’t it be great if a car also displayed what was wrong on that screen? But they don’t!

I love cars but I am not a car person. I can do basics but I cannot do complex problems. Still I am a curious guy and I feel if the car would inform me better about what was wrong I could do some research on my spare time and learn more about it. That is kind of how I got into computers. I would screw up the old 486 my dad bought and, well there was no internet, but there’d be some resource (a technician, or a book) I could use to try and fix the problem I created. And as cars become more and more complex, having such a system would be ideal.

So getting to my point. Actually there is a way to learn what that check engine light means. There has always been a way, but it has been made a million times easier now because of smartphones. I’ll get to this later. Let me continue with my story.

So my story.

Our check engine light has been on but we’ve been driving without issue. Then I got the notice for an emissions test. Of course I knew I would fail if I took the car in this state but in order to get the information I needed I went ahead and took the test. I failed and I was given this report:

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Ah! Finally some feedback. The guy at the emissions test place basically plugged in a device into the OBD port of the car and it spat out the page above. Information which was given to it by the car actually. See OBD means onboard diagnostics, it is an industry standardized way to glean information from a car’s engine.

It seems the problem with my car is P1298 and P1457. So I googled. And I learned. Both were fairly easy repairs, especially the P1298. In fact, a nice guy by the name of Brian made a YouTube video explaining how to fix this problem on a Civic very closely resembling the one we have. There was also a video for P1457 though it was less clear, maybe because the problem was a little more involved to fix. I decided i would fix the P1298 problem myself and maybe save a little money. The P1457 was doable but since it’s more involved I would let a mechanic deal with that.

Before I started, I wanted a way to verify this problem. So here is where the empowerment comes. I bought this little device on Amazon for just under $11.

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It plugs right into your OBD port on your car. It also had bluetooth capabilities allowing you to connect this to your smartphone! So I downloaded Torque, the most reputable app on the Play Store. After connecting and running the app while the device was plugged into my car, it was immediately able to show me the error codes that the check engine light was trying to tell me about: P1298 and P1457, the same two things mentioned in the report I was given.

Great! So the device and app are working, I only spent ~$15 and now I have an amazing and powerful tool in my hands. (I didn’t take a screenshot of the errors because I was stupid and forgot).

I had also ordered the part I needed for the P1298 problem on ebay. Roughly $26. I followed the instructions in the video. It took maybe 15 minutes, and that’s because I spent 5 min learning how to detach one part which was dead simple but for some reason I made it harder on myself.

I turned the car on and ran Torque again. Before the app could finish running the error checks I noticed that the car’s check engine light was no longer on. I had not cleared the errors so .. what did this mean? Well, it turns out by replacing that one part I may have fixed both problems! Perhaps the faultiness of the part I replaced was giving a false positive P1457 error. I will have to drive the car around a bit to make sure it’s actually gone but even if the check engine light fails to turn on I can always verify the fix with my trusty OBD reader.

So $26 for the part and I avoided a ‘costly’ trip to the mechanics. Granted this was made super easy with that YouTube video. But even if you cannot find out how to do the fix yourself (or maybe it’s too complicated for you to do), with $15 you can empower yourself to learn more about what your check engine light means. I highly recommend everyone buy the device and the app. You can arm yourself with knowledge before going to a mechanic’s. I’m fortunate to have a great mechanic but nevertheless it cannot hurt to do some research.

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