When the Check Engine Light Comes On

This post is a departure from my usual topics, but I think what I learned this week will be of value to those with limited knowledge of how a car works. This post could save you a few hundred dollars.

Wednesday evening the Check Engine light came on in my car. I’m the original owner of my 2001 VW Golf TDI and that light has never turned on before. Considering I just spent $1500 in car repairs, a slight panic came over me. Since I was a few blocks from my mechanic, I pulled in and inquired. He said as long as the Check Engine light wasn’t flashing, it wasn’t critical. He also invited me to come back later so he could hook it up to the computer to see what the problem was.

I didn’t like the idea of spending $85 just to learn what my engine was trying to tell me. So I did a little research and learned that cars have something called an OBD-II connector that is usually located under the steering wheel. With a reader you can purchase on Amazon, you can read the codes yourself and even reset the light. Since 1996, the codes that are thrown have been standardized across all car manufacturers, so I don’t need a special reader for my VW. Any OBD-II reader will work.

I stopped in my local auto supply place thinking I was going to buy an auto scanner, but I was fortunate to learn they will loan you one for free. I handed them my drivers license and a credit card and they handed me the scanner. I found the port under my steering wheel, plugged it in, turned the key without starting, waited 20 seconds and the code popped up on the reader. I returned the device and they handed me a printout for my code.

I learned that one of my glow plugs might be having an issue. Having just read Auto Repair For Dummies, I knew that glow plugs are used to generate heat when starting a diesel engine. Having a non-working glowplug might make starting the engine in the winter difficult. Thankfully it is June. No more panic. I now have the luxury of researching this problem more or doing comparison shopping with mechanics. I even found this detailed tutorial on TDI Club outlining how to fix this problem should my car knowledge and confidence grow before winter arrives.

Auto Repair For Dummies
Auto Repair For Dummies by Deanna Sclar

Readers, Laptops, Android Apps

The more I looked into this, the more interested I got. Not only does Amazon sell readers, but eBay sells adapters that allow you to connect your car to your laptop. And I just learned this morning, you can buy a Bluetooth OBD2 adapter to talk to a $5 Android app called Torque Pro. Real time data. :)

I’ll be ordering an OBD2 Bluetooth device this week. The next time the Check Engine comes on, I’ll know what is wrong the moment it happens.

Car Repair Spreadsheet – Why Didn’t I Think of This Earlier?

I recently got nailed with a $1500 car repair bill. The big ticket item was replacing an EGR Valve. Now I know very little about cars and tend to tune out when mechanics start getting technical, so I didn’t recognize that this was the third time that I had to have my EGR Valve replaced in the last 3 years.

Now I keep meticulous records on my beloved VW Golf TDI, which I’ve named Silver Surfer. By meticulous records, I mean that I have this bulging folder with every receipt going all the way back to September 2001 when I bought the car.

Clearly my system failed.

Even knowing nothing about cars, I should have caught that the same part was being replaced 3 times in such a short period. Something else was causing the part to fail. My thick folder of receipts from six different mechanics across two states was too cumbersome to be useful. So today I spent a few hours doing what I should have done years ago. I created a spreadsheet for every service call done to my car. I created it using Google Docs, now called Google Drive, which is free.

Car repair Spreadsheet

After I created my auto spreadsheet, I chatted with my mechanic about Google Drive. Then I shared the sheet with them. Now he can see the what work has been done, when it was done and who did it. That is another diagnostic tool they can use the next time my car needs to be serviced. And because they know I’m tracking every action, they will be less likely to inflate the service requirements.

Even the act of creating this spreadsheet has made me more knowledgeable about cars. I was forced to look up a few items to increase my understanding before entering the data. I can now start intelligently being proactive about the needs of my car and not just blindly trusting the mechanic.

If you drive a car, I highly recommend that you create a quick spreadsheet for your car. You could save thousands. I would have.

If you drive a TDI or know diesel engines and see something that alarms you or have an idea on how I can save money in the future, please leave a comment.

My Car Battery and the Science of Good Luck

Last winter when I was spending a bunch of money on auto repairs, the mechanic advised me to also replace my battery. He gave me an estimate of $200 for a new battery installed. That sounded high, but when you own a diesel you expect everything to be a little higher. I decided to hold off on getting a battery. For the next few weeks I stopped off at different auto places to get quotes on a new battery. Every place I went didn’t have a battery in stock for my car.

My battery was only failing when the temperatures were very low, so I decided not to replace the battery right away. Throughout the spring, summer and early fall my battery ran like a champ. Then recently as the temperatures started dropping, I noticed it was struggling to start. So once again, I started the process of looking for a new battery at a good price.

Before I go through the chain of events of what happened next, let me tell you about the book I was reading during this time period.

The Luck Factor
The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman

The Luck Factor is about the science of luck. The author has done numerous experiments on people that consider themselves lucky and those that consider themselves unlucky. A lot of luck is how we interpret and respond to a situation. “Lucky” and “unlucky” people will respond to similar situations differently, which affects the actions they take or don’t take, which affects the outcome. This was the section I was reading that Saturday morning:

Principle Four: Turn Bad Luck into Good

With that in mind, let me resume the car battery story.

My car battery would likely not last another month, so I went to a Walmart hoping to get a good price on a car battery. Plus they had free installation. A grizzled old Walmart mechanic looked under my hood for a good 30 seconds before asking me “Where is the battery?” and “Did you drive here with a battery?” I’m not kidding. Not a good sign. BAD LUCK. Then his side kick appeared and let me know they didn’t have a battery for my diesel. Now normally that would be BAD LUCK, but given that their mechanic couldn’t even locate where my car battery was, I left with a sign of relief. GOOD LUCK.

Then we had another week of warmer temperatures, so I waited until last Friday to resume my battery quest. I had thwarted the Car Battery Gods for too long. It was time to get a new one. When I went to start my car, it was dead. I had waited one day too long. BAD LUCK. Now I needed a jump. The day before I met one of my neighbors at Trader Joe’s. We had been neighbors for two years, but we never formally introduced ourselves until that day. Saturday morning I was able to get my newly met neighbor to provide me with a jump. GOOD LUCK.

Photo by Mohammed Alnaser

Unfortunately, my car battery was completely dead. It wouldn’t even take a jump. BAD LUCK. Now I would have to pay for a tow. I’d also have to cancel my Espresso Road Trip event to Tacoma scheduled for Sunday. When I cancelled, I got an email from a member volunteering to come over and help me get a new batter and assist with the install. GOOD LUCK.

We got an inexpensive battery at Sams Club that actually fits my car. He was a member. Unlike Costco which is a zoo on weekends, very few people shop at Sams Club in Seattle. There were no lines. GOOD LUCK. He also bought some tools to help with the install. When we got back to my car, I popped my hood and ran into the house to get some scissors to open the tool package.

When I returned to my car, my friend was chatting with a guy that we thought was changing a flat tire nearby. The guy looked at our tools and said they that we had purchased the wrong ones and that we needed metric tools. BAD LUCK. Then I looked into his car, which had tons of tools. I learned he wasn’t fixing a flat tire, he was a mobile mechanic. He had every tool under the sun in his car. I hired him on the spot to install my car battery. GOOD LUCK. He wanted $50. BAD LUCK. I countered with $20. He accepted. GOOD LUCK.

I thought installing a car battery was a simple task. Not for my car. I watched as this guy changed my battery. His hands moved like a surgeon. My friend and I later chatted that we only thought we could change the battery, but after watching him work, we knew finding him was a Godsend. And we only found him, because he parked directly in front of where my car had died the day before. AMAZING LUCK.

In the end, I spend $98 on the battery and $20 on the install. A sweet bargain. At every turn where there appeared to be BAD LUCK. I thought about the lessons from the Luck Factor.

Lucky people see the positive side of their bad luck.

When Walmart didn’t have my battery it was bad luck, until I met the incompetent mechanic that was going to install it. Then it was a blessing.

Lucky people do not dwell on their ill fortune.

Despite numerous setbacks, I kept my eyes focused on solving the problem without focusing on everything that had went wrong. The result was my car was up and running by Saturday afternoon and I was able to attend my Espresso Road Trip event the next day. There are some excellent lessons in the The Luck Factor, which I will cover in a future post.

Getting Hit By a Car

On Saturday evening I was walking across a street in Capitol Hill inside the pedestrian walkway. A large white SUV came up from the side street towards me. It appeared the car was slowing as there was a Stop sign. But it didn’t. By the time I realized the car was going to run the Stop sign, I was already in front of it. I straight-armed the car so it wouldn’t hit my legs and run me over.

White SUV

I was hit by a white SUV. It looked a lot like a Ford Excursion.

At that point the car stopped. I was stunned that I got hit, but I appeared to be OK. For some odd reason I didn’t get upset or even say anything to the driver. Maybe I’m getting too forgiving in my old age. So I just continued walking down the sidewalk. The driver didn’t check on me and kept going.

About an hour later my arm started to get numb and sore. A friend suggested that I might want to go to the Emergency Room to have it checked out. I thought about spending hours in the ER on a Saturday night, paying for X-Rays and getting a script for painkillers, but decided I wasn’t that hurt and my body was fully capable of healing itself.

I went home and applied an ice pack to my arm for 20 minutes. I also knew how helpful the bone broth was towards healing my back injury, so I sipped on a large mug of that magical elixir. Then I slept for 8 hours. When I woke up I was fine, except for a bruise on the base of my hand where I made contact with the SUV.

My friend that suggested the ER to me asked if I would go to the hospital if I were shot. My response to her was: that would depend on where the bullet hit. :)

Silver Surfer Turns 100,000

My VW Golf TDI (the Silver Surfer) celebrated its 100,000 mile birthday last night while driving through Lower Queen Anne. Here is a breakdown of the first 100,000 miles.

StateDaysMilesMiles Per Day
California215880,05637.1
Washington94219,94421.2

No wonder I like Seattle. I’m driving almost half as much as I did in San Diego.

Don’t Cry For Me and My Diesel Engine

About a week before 9/11, I made one of the most fortunate consumer choices of my life. Although I had already decided to buy a silver VW Golf hatchback, I didn’t know if I should get the gasoline or the diesel engine. Having never owned a diesel engine, I was concerned I wouldn’t find a diesel pump and I’d run out of fuel and the engine would lock up. My only experience with diesel vehicles were those panic-filled moments trying to return a rented U-Haul truck when I struggled to find a diesel pump.

2001 VW Golf TDI

The reason one buys diesel over gasoline is diesel engines not only last twice as long, but the fuel economy is much better. Here is a quick comparison of the 2001 VW Golf models:

City MPG

  • Gasoline: 22-24
  • Diesel: 34-42

Highway MPG

  • Gasoline: 28-31
  • Diesel: 45-49

I chose fuel economy over convenience and bought the diesel. Finding diesel stations turned out to be quite easy. Once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere. I even took a road trip from San Diego through the American Southwest with no problem. Going 600+ miles on a tank of fuel is a nice thing.

Well we all know what happened next to the price of fuel. And in the last two years diesel has increased at an even faster rate than gasoline. Diesel is now $5 a gallon here in Seattle. When I tell people I drive a diesel they give me a sad look like my dog just died. Should they be empathetic to me? Let’s run the numbers.

Here are some rough calculations to determine if I made the correct purchase. Below are my assumptions:

  • 90,000 miles driven
  • Average MPG City Gasoline = 23, Diesel = 38 (median number)
  • Average MPG Highway Gasoline = 29.5, Diesel = 47 (median number)
  • Driving ratio = 50% City, 50% Highway
  • Average Gasoline Price 2001-present San Diego/Seattle = $2.80 *
  • Average Diesel Price 2001-present San Diego/Seattle = $3.00 *
  • Current Gasoline Price Seattle = $4.25
  • Current Diesel Price Seattle = $5.00

From 2001 – present:

  • Gasoline Fuel Cost = $9600.00
  • Diesel Fuel Cost = $6352.94

On fuel costs alone, the diesel engine saved me $3247.06 so far. And if I used those savings to buy stock in oil companies that number really explodes. :)

What about now? Here is the cost to drive 100 miles with todays fuel prices.

  • Gasoline Fuel Cost = $16.19
  • Diesel Fuel Cost = $11.76

So even with diesel being priced 75 cents more per gallon, I’m still way ahead on fuel savings. So please don’t cry for me and my diesel engine. I’m crying for you.

* based off my memory of fuel costs averaged together since 2001

Silver Surfer Meets BeetleJuice

In September 2001, I was wise enough to buy a diesel hatchback that got 43-49 MPG. I still own the VW Golf TDI. Diesel engines typically last twice as long as standard engines and are more fuel efficient.

I named my car Silver Surfer. The other car was VW Beetle named BeetleJuice. BeetleJuice is gone, but the Silver Surfer rides on. The car is paid off and I laugh at fuel prices.

VW Golf TDI

Photo Gallery For Silver Surfer Meets BeetleJuice