This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often, which is why I celebrate it when it does. Usually my car repairs end up being much more than I want, which is often roughly double what I will have a week from the time the failure occurs. However this repair is about as good as the flood episode, when I somehow managed to save a car from flood damage and a $5,000 engine replacement with nothing but a set of spark plugs, a half roll of paper towels, some starter fluid, and lots of net research and elbow grease.
A little background: My Hyundai Elantra is battered, dented, from 2006, but quite faithful. One thing it likes to do however, is have the check engine light come on right around the time I need to go through emissions so I can renew my registration.
This time was no different. With concerns about expensive gasket, valve or seal replacements dancing through my head, I went to the local auto parts store and had them read my trouble code.
Much to my relief I found that the trouble code was indicating a faulty sensor. It was a hundred dollar part, which isn’t bad but then I needed to have someone replace it, which brought the cost of the repair to around ninety dollars more than what was in budget. Especially with those registration fees coming up, too.
So what’s a penny pinching driver to do? Net research. I fuzzily remembered that this sort of error could also be caused by a dirty sensor. Lo and behold, I found out that it was indeed true, that the Mass Air Flow Sensor could easily be dirty and it just took a can of special cleaner to fix. And sometimes a special tool to get the thing off, depending on the car.
Okay, so I was willing to find out where this thing was. I did more research. It turned out that the sensor was right up top next to my air filter, which I had successfully changed, and I would only need a screw driver for the hose clamps holding the sensor in place. Yet more research revealed that the fancy cleaner could be swapped for simple isopropyl alcohol, administered by a clean spray bottle. Total cost of some 91% alcohol and a spray bottle at my grocery store? Less than five dollars, and I bought the PRETTY spray bottle.
With a hopeful heart I set about my repair. The only difficulty was in getting the electrical lead unclipped, but luckily my intrepid partner knows more about clips than I do and she got it undone. A few minutes of spraying and an hour of air drying later, I had my little sensor back in place.
Now, if I was right, the check engine light should go off on its own. I researched further, into something called the “drive cycle” for my car, which should allow the vehicle to do all the standard tests to figure out if the engine is healthy or not, and (hopefully) let the check engine light come off. It sounded more like figuring out the psychology and motivations of the car than anything! I had no luck on the long drive to work, even though I kept the car at steady RPMs between 2000 and 2400 for more than 10 minutes, idled for a minute, and did some but not all of the other parts of the drive cycle. I wasn’t expecting much as I had found out that having a full tank of gas wouldn’t allow some of the tests to happen, because those need a certain amount of space in the tank to even run.
On the way back home I decided to buy a trouble code checker, since I’d found out that one was said to be available at a local big box store for about fifteen dollars. It wasn’t until I traipsed through that entire store and found a code checker (for three times the price so I didn’t buy it) and got back to my car, started her up and drove out of the parking lot, that the check engine light finally went off on its own.
That evening I had the emissions test done with not a single problem. I was floored but also elated. I, the not so mechanical person, had actually managed to get the light to go off, not by some cheat or trick but by actually getting to the root cause. As a bonus, my idle was smoother and I’m pretty sure my gas mileage is slightly better.
So that is how I won, for a change, and managed to get a $150 repair (at the least) down to less than $5.
The moral of the story is to always research. No matter what the repair is or the problem is, there is usually information online to help you, and at the very least, knowing more about the problem will prevent you from being taken for a ride.