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Diagnosing car trouble without the mechanic

By Bill Gephardt | Posted - Apr 10th, 2013 @ 7:52am


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SALT LAKE CITY — Every year, cars seem to get more high-tech. These days, it takes a computer to figure out what's wrong when the "check engine" light goes on.

A check engine light could mean the engine needs an overhaul. Or it could mean something as simple as a loose gas cap.

Car owners can use a simple, affordable device called a pocket scan to tell what is wrong, even if they know very little about engine mechanics.

Diana Boley has dealt with the check engine light off and on for close to a year. Previously, it's cost her $75 to have a mechanic tell her what's wrong. This time, we gave her a trouble code reader, an Actron CP 9125, to test out. It's designed to give her van a diagnosis without having to go to the mechanic first.

We also asked mechanic Ethan Garrido of Hillside Tire and Auto Repair in Sandy to help out.

Here's how the reader works:

  • Plug it into the car's data link connector - usually just under the dashboard on the driver's side. Nearly every car made since 1996 has the same hook up to its computer.
  • Turn the car's ignition to the "ON" position.
  • The device should automatically link to the car's computer and start spitting out trouble codes.

For Boley, the first code was a P0304. Is it something simple or a warning of catastrophic engine trouble ahead?


Many auto shops charge $60 or $70 to check a car's computer for trouble codes - one time. So, having your own card reader becomes more worthwhile each time your check engine light goes on.

"It's a cylinder four misfire," Garrido said, "and that's pretty universal throughout any vehicle manufacturer."

"What does misfire in cylinder four mean? I have no idea," Boley said.

The instruction manual won't spell it out for you. In most cases, you can take the code to the auto parts store where you bought the reader and they'll tell you. Or you can contact the maker of the code reader. Most of them tend to have a website, or actual live phone representatives than can help decode the diagnosis.

We connected with a representative on the phone within a half-minute of calling. The diagnosis: Boley's van either has a bad spark plug or wire for cylinder number four, or a bad fuel injector.

After Garrido showed us how the reader worked, Diana tried it herself. She got the code. While you may not know what the code means, it will point you in the right direction.

Many auto shops charge $60 or $70 to check a car's computer for trouble codes - one time. So, having your own card reader becomes more worthwhile each time your check engine light goes on.

"If I had one of these, I would totally use it over and over again. We did have an experience one time where our gas cap wasn't on the car. It got lost. We paid $75 to find out we needed a new gas cap," Boley said.

We bought the code reader for $59. Online, they can be purchased for as little as $30. More elaborate and expensive models are also available.

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Bill Gephardt

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