It's happened to all of us: You're driving to work or running errands when a menacing beep rings from your dashboard and a light suddenly appears.
As if you don't have enough to worry about.
Luckily, a check engine light doesn't always mean you need to high tail it to the nearest mechanic and sacrifice hours of your day. The implementation of On-Board Diagnostics — also known as OBD, OBD II or OBD 2 — into modern vehicles has made it easier for consumers to find out what's going on with their vehicles instantly and without paying expensive fees.
So, wait, what exactly is OBD II?
In layman's terms, most vehicles created after the early 1980s come with an OBD port located beneath the steering column. Once plugged into that port, an OBD monitor or scanner will display a code or message alerting you as to what kind of issues may be going on under the hood.
An OBD II monitor is a handy tool every car owner should add to their toolbox. But before you select the right model for you, here are a few questions you should ask:
What's the difference between OBD and OBD II?
According to WLAP.org, OBD was used on older vehicles to offer basic diagnostics. OBD II is a newer version implemented in the early 1990s that features universal codes and “features better-messaging formats and signaling protocols.”
What can OBD II tell you?
OBD II can alert you to a number of issues affecting the health of your vehicle. Most readers and ports can report issues with transmissions, gas tanks, oxygen sensors, ignitions and more, all by showing a code.
How do I read OBD II codes?
The codes that pop up on OBD II scanners might seem intimidating, but they can be easy to translate. There are a number of online databases that allow you to enter a code you've received and find out what it means.
Newer OBD II port tools make it even simpler by connecting with your smartphone to send real-time alerts and diagnostic reports straight to your email or an application.
Do I have OBD or OBD II in my car?
If you want to know which version of OBD is installed in your vehicle, start by finding out what year it is. Every car built after Jan. 1, 1996 was required to have OBD II installed. If your car was built before that day, you likely have a more basic version of OBD.
How do you know when OBD II is ready?
With any OBD II tool, you'll want to start by gently plugging it into the port on your vehicle, which is typically below the dashboard on the driver's side. You'll want to be careful, as there are delicate pins in the port you don't want to bend.
Next, turn on your vehicle and wait for the scanner to power up. You may be asked to provide information about your vehicle, like the model, make or VIN number.
Select “Scan” and wait for a code to appear. This should only take a few seconds.
Once you've got a code, you can begin troubleshooting any issues.
Other diagnostic tools that rely more on WiFi than a scanner are often even simpler to operate. Most only require users to connect the port with their smartphone, plug it in and go.
Can you drive with an OBD tool plugged in?
Depending on the type of OBD tool you're using, you may or may not be able to keep it plugged in while driving. If you're using a diagnostic scanner, you usually only need to turn the vehicle on. If you're using an OBD health monitor or one that tracks your driving, then it's fine to keep plugged in most of the time. When in doubt, check the owner's manual for your vehicle and for your OBD II tools before driving with anything plugged in.
OBD II is, in simple terms, a way for you to monitor the health of your vehicle. Keeping track with a scanner or port can help you find problems quickly, saving you more money and time.