Owning This Car Diagnostics Tool Could Save You A Ton Of Money

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It's probably happened to everyone at least once. You're driving along enjoying your favorite tunes when suddenly, your car's "check engine" light comes on, and panic sets in. Do you go straight to a mechanic or dealership, assuming you can even get an appointment on short notice? Is it even safe to continue driving the car?

With an inexpensive OBD2 scanner, which is small enough to keep in your car's glove compartment, you can find out what the problem is in minutes. OBD is short for "On-Board Diagnostic,", a technology that became mandatory in its current form in all cars sold in the United States beginning in 1996.

The scanner plugs directly into your car's OBD access port, typically located under the steering column, and reads the error codes from your car's computer. A scanner can quickly tell you if the check engine light is caused by a minor issue that you can handle yourself or something more serious that'll require professional repair. The problem could be as simple as a dirty air filter or a gas cap that wasn't properly tightened after filling up.

How much should you spend?

OBD2 scan tools can be purchased at local auto parts stores as well as many online stores. Prices start as low as $30 for basic entry-level scanners and can rise to hundreds of dollars for professional-quality units. Some scanners will display information directly via a small screen on the device itself while others have a Bluetooth connection that will display their findings on a smartphone, which obviously requires downloading an app first.

The most rudimentary scanners will display the error codes as just that — codes. Typically these codes will be a five-character alphanumeric designation. Once the offending code has been obtained, you'll need to check a reference manual or search the internet to learn what the code actually means.

The next step up is a scanner that will relay the code's definition in plain English (or other languages) without having to look it up. But the most helpful scanners, which can still be purchased for less than $100, will not only display the trouble codes and definitions but can actually suggest fixes that are sourced from the same database that professional repair shops use.

Even if you have zero tools or the ability to repair your own vehicle, an OBD reader can still save you money by ensuring that a mechanic is providing an accurate, honest diagnosis of the problem and not trying to rip you off. You can also gauge if a problem is serious enough to warrant immediate attention or whether you can afford to wait until your schedule permits to get the issue repaired.

Best of all, once the repair has been completed, you can use the OBD2 scanner to turn off that pesky check engine light and return to carefree motoring.