If you have ever wanted to learn more about working on your car or how your vehicle operates, but are scared about breaking something important, then this article is for you.
Cars are very complicated machines, and learning about them can be a little intimidating at first, especially because most people don't start learning until there is a problem and they want to figure out how to fix it. This is unfortunate because, at least in the past, diagnosing problems was a very difficult skill to master, and one of the last hurdles that most professional mechanics eventually cross. There was a little that the "every man" mechanic could do, at least until now.
Understanding the OBD Port
Nowadays, pretty much everything in your car is run with electronics and computers. Some people like this and enjoy how much technology is implemented in vehicles. Others like it "the old way" back when these were simpler machines. But like it or not, computers now control just about everything in your car.
Although this can sometimes lead to more problems (more moving parts = more things to go wrong) it can also make it much easier to find solutions. The computers you will find in modern cars will trigger fault codes and all sorts of other information.
Unfortunately, this information can't just be accessed through the dashboard. Well, actually it could, but car manufacturers and engineers want to make sure you go back to the dealership when you have an issue, so they won't allow this. Luckily, there are ways for anyone to access this information. Enter: the OBDII port.
The OBDII port is usually located under the dashboard, but you can check your owner's manual if you aren't sure. On most vehicles it is found near the hood release. All you need to do is plug an OBDII reader into the port, and you can access the same sort of information normally limited to professional mechanics.
Some places, generally auto parts stores like Autozone, will offer to read fault codes for free if you have a check engine light. Most people are aware of this, though a few still aren't. Never pay to have a mechanic do an OBDII scan. But these generic scans are besides the point, we are talking about going next-level, and accessing far more information than just a generic fault code. And we're talking about doing this ourselves.
What To Buy
If you have a smartphone, specifically an Android, then I recommend picking up a Bluetooth OBD adapter. Then, go download the Torque Pro application. The Bluetooth adapter will usually cost about $15, and the Torque app will cost $5. Both are well worth the price.
With Torque, you can do all sorts of different things. You can monitor your engine RPMs, check fault codes (not just for the check engine light, but for ABS, Airbag, etc.), watch speeds, fluid levels, and keep an eye on your temperature. You can even figure out if you are going to pass the local state's annual emissions test! All of this is much more information than anyone at the local auto parts store can offer you.
The real advantage though, is that the app can continue to monitor these things as you go for a drive. If you have ever experienced a check engine light that comes on intermittently while driving, it can be very frustrating. You see it flicker at times, but when you plug in your code reader at the store, the light is off and returns no information. With the ability to monitor, you'll be able to catch it in the act and help determine the source of your problem.
If you don't have a smartphone, and still want to be able to access information through the OBD port, then don't despair. There are plenty of scan tool devices that can give you the same sort of information, however, they are usually going to cost you quite a bit more. Generally to get a device that is even close to the caliber of something a small independent shop may carry will cost around $200. If you want something that is better than everything else on the market, you'll have to shell out around $10,000! Prices can get very expensive quickly, so determine what it is you need.
Furthermore, research if there are certain types of scan tools for your vehicle. For instance, if you have a Volkswagen or Audi, there is a well-known tool called VAG-COM, which offers a free version, or a paid one. This tool will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about any modern Volkswagen or Audi, and is what most German car repair shops have on hand. For some other manufacturers, there are similar options like this.
Despite all of the huge advancements that OBD information provides in terms of helping shade tree mechanics diagnose problems, things still aren't perfect. A single code can often have dozens of different explanations, and can sometimes be triggered by something that is completely unrelated to the fault error itself.
What I'm trying to get across here is that these codes aren't perfect. Do not think that because you got a certain code you should immediately go out and start buying parts. If you are a DIY type of person, the code provides a great starting point for your problem. Google it in association with your specific vehicle, ask around on model specific forums, and avoid buying expensive parts until you know for certain what is wrong.
For those who are not DIYers, I still recommend taking the above advice to help determine your problem. This way you can provide the information to your mechanic and help reduce "determining problem" labor costs. Or, if you do not completely trust your mechanic, you can go in armed with the knowledge that you know a lot about the issue and its approximate repair costs. For many people who have an innate fear of being ripped off or taken for a ride on something they don't know a lot about, this will let the OBD scanner pay for itself the first time you have an issue. If you haven't figured it out by now, I highly recommend carrying one in your car all the time, it is truly a priceless tool to have.