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Check Engine light really off?
January 24, 2011 8:04 AM   Subscribe

The check engine light in my car is cycling on and off (on for a week, off for a week). Two questions: 1. If I take the car in for an emissions/smog test when the check engine light is off, will it pass. 2. If it fails, and it is early enough in the month, will I be able to drive the car until the end of the month when the sticker expires, or will it be "red-tagged" as soon as it fails?

Car is a 2001 Honda Accord with 163,000 miles on it, and I live in Pennsylvania. I would like to get another 6 months - 1 year out of the car, but the car also has a slightly wonky transmission, so I would rather not pay to replace the catalytic converter right now (since the transmission may go not long later).

When the light first came on (mid-December), there were three codes, one indicating that the cat was bad, one for the emissions canister and one for a bad transmission pressure switch. (I can get the exact codes if it would help for this question).

One more followon question - according to the Pennsylvania DEP site, if you spend $150 on things to resolve the check engine light, you can get a 1 year waiver on the emissions testing. In practice, is the waiver a difficult thing to get, or can you just spend $150 on something and automatically get the waiver?
posted by dforemsky to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know specifics about PA and their emissions tests, but I imagine most states are the same.

I recently went through a similar issue, but I managed to get tested with the check engine light off and passed. I had an oxygen sensor code going off and on. I went one day while it was off and passed without a question. Unlike a catalytic converter, my oxygen sensor was a cheap repair that I did when I finally had time to do it.

Here in Oregon, if you fail you are allowed to continue driving until your tags are due. You are not red-tagged immediately. You receive paperwork for failing, and need to take it to a shop that does DEQ repairs. A similar rule applies here where you spend X dollars and if you still fail, you get waived. My roommate did just that with his late 1970's Suburban (failed the test where they actually hook it to his exhaust, the second test was within a couple percent of passing). They gave him the waiver no questions asked.

Your $150 will have to go towards actual emissions related repairs. Don't expect to spend $150 on other repairs, as the shop will be required to sign off on it, and most shops don't want to tempt fate with the state.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 8:25 AM on January 24, 2011


My California experience with just the same problem was that I got the smog certificate.

Unfortunately I'd assumed that the data would automatically go to DMV, so missed my 30-day opportunity to get the car registration renewed, which would have been given if I'd only taken the damn paperwork in, but was not renewed because I didn't. So I had to get the new catalytic converter.

I don't know about PA.
posted by anadem at 8:29 AM on January 24, 2011


I just dealt with this problem. My Toyota Matrix's check engine light was on when I took it in to get an inspection sticker, and they failed it. I think it was because the gas cap was missing. I replaced the gas cap, and a couple of days later the light went off. I took it back to the shop and they passed it.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:59 AM on January 24, 2011


I was going to ask if the on off timing had any relationship to filling up your gas tank. That can give you all kinds of codes that don't say you have a small debt/crack or just failed to put the cap on just right.
posted by saradarlin at 9:30 AM on January 24, 2011


I hate PA for having to do this and registration every year -- it seems like 3 minutes passes and it's time to worry about having the car be legal again.

Not sure if this is useful, but: My 2001 Sienna has failed PA inspection for the past 4? 5? years over the check engine light. We get it fixed, it passes -- two weeks later the light comes back on. Every year. This is from different shops. This last time, I told the guy that this happens every time and he should just lie. But he's too ethical. So he replaced the computer five times and finally it passed and . . . 3 days later the check engine light came back on. I know my sienna has an issue with the computer, but I'm starting to wonder if PA's inspection machine have their own issue. /whine

But what IS useful is that, if you fail inspection, you have 30 days in PA to get it fixed and re-inspected. So you can get it inspected and drive off without getting any work done -- and you shouldn't have to pay for the second inspection if you get it done at the same shop as the first. You might still get a ticket in the meantime, but you can use the failed inspection form to get out of the ticket.

Good luck.
posted by MeiraV at 9:37 AM on January 24, 2011


IIRC, a counter begins every time your Check Engine light resets. If the inspector plugs in an OBD-II reader, your car might not give the "All Clear" indicator unless it's been driven 75-100 miles since the last time the CEL was on.
posted by schmod at 10:28 AM on January 24, 2011


Another experience: My brother (in Maryland) disconnected and reconnected his battery right before the test to clear out the check engine light for 10 minutes. He still failed, apparently they plug an ODB reader directly into the car and read the code from the engine even if the check engine light is off.

It makes sense: people could just pull out the bulb for the check engine light.
posted by exhilaration at 11:36 AM on January 24, 2011


One thing that tends to flip my check engine light on is if I haven't secured my gas cap completely. You might want to check that.. Maybe every other fillup you're slacking on the cap just a bit by accident?
posted by Glendale at 11:38 AM on January 24, 2011


I have a routine for this because my van's engine light is always on for some undeterminable small leak. I have a cheap ODB reader that can clear the codes (other friends borrow this all the time) but you can also go to Advance Auto Parts (or at least mine does this) and borrow one.

I believe it's a misconception that you have to drive 75 miles before you can take the emissions test because I have a 15 minute route that takes my car up to 65, back down to 35, idle in traffic or at stop lights, and then drive at 40 for several minutes. It seems to be all about driving at a variety of speeds that create the "cycle" you need to complete before getting tested.

After all this I pray my light doesn't go back on as I get to the test. It hasn't the last 3 times but it has also gone on again within 1-2 days after.
posted by thorny at 12:32 PM on January 24, 2011


Practically speaking, a waiver is kind of hard to come by. First of all, not every shop is authorized to issue waivers. Most techs are certified emissions inspectors while waivers can only be issued by more highly certified emissions repair technicians. There's no requirement become that highly certified nor is there any incentive to do so besides being able to charge whatever fee you want to issue a waiver once the $150 repair criteria is met.
So, here's how the waiver process works.

Find a shop that is certified to issue a waiver.

Run your car through emissions testing and fail.

Spend $150 towards the repair of one of the malfunctions of the car. The repairs have to be specifically related, too. If you have a bad cat, for instance, you can't just spend $150 on tires and qualify for a waiver.

Keep all of your receipts and inspection reports. The emissions machine will print out a VIR (vehicle inspection report) after the test. You are required to receive a copy.
If you've informed them of your intention to pursue a waiver, at this point they'll probably charge you something extra to issue the waiver.

Be prepared to do this next year, too.

Most shops try not to issue too many waivers. Mostly, it's for cars with problems that can't be fixed or are extremely hard to fix. Some vehicles come from the factory with problematic computers that don't play nice with the emissions testing equipment or a mediocre mechanic might eventually get tired of playing guessing games with a customers money. Honestly, if you came to me with a check engine light on for P0420, I certainly wouldn't issue you a waiver because a new converter is too expensive. However, if after replacing the converter we found out that the manufacturer had a run of bad computers that always made that problem, I'd issue you a waiver due to the fact that the car can't really be fixed. Waivers don't exist because you can't afford to fix your car. They're really for unfixable cars. And the State audits each station yearly and they'll ask a whole lot of questions if I issue what they think are too many waivers.

So good luck! Feel free to send a message if you have any more questions.
posted by Jon-o at 4:12 AM on January 25, 2011


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