New Tools for Do-It-Yourself Car Diagnosis

Photo (cc) by Mike Babcock

How can you tell if your mechanic is playing it straight or taking you for a ride?

Most of us can’t, because we aren’t car experts. A 2007 survey by GLG Research suggested 70 percent of consumers don’t even change their own oil. And if the “check engine” light comes on? Forget it.

But there are new hand-held diagnostic devices that can help back up or challenge what your mechanic says, at least if the reason for your trip to the shop is because your check engine light comes on. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson gives one called CarMD a try. Check it out, and then read on for more.

As you saw, the tool was right on the problem, but wrong on the fix. According to the mechanic, Stacy’s check engine light came on due to a failure of an air pump that’s part of his car’s emission control system: exactly what CarMD said. The fix it suggested, however – replacing both the pump and pump relay at a cost of more than $1,000 – was probably wrong.

“It’s highly unlikely you’ll need those expensive parts – it could be something as simple as a loose wire,” the mechanic said. “There’s no way this simple scanner can possibly know what’s wrong in detail.”

In short, like WebMD for health issues, CarMD might be helpful with identifying symptoms, but you shouldn’t rely on it to tell you exactly what’s wrong or how much it will cost to fix. You’ll still need to talk to, and rely on, a professional.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You buy or borrow the tool. If you purchase CarMD straight through its website, it’s $120 plus shipping. They also have a return policy that promises a refund (minus shipping) if the product doesn’t save you three times its value in a year, but it’s not valid if you buy it from a third party or reseller like Amazon, eBay, or your local warehouse store – all of which may be cheaper. If you have more than one car, no problem: The same device can be used for multiple cars. Also keep in mind that some auto parts stores offer free diagnostic service, so it may not be necessary to buy it at all.
  2. Plug the device in. When the check engine light comes on, you plug the CarMD into your OBD (on-board diagnostic) port, which may be in any of several locations depending on your make and model, including beneath the steering wheel and under the passenger-side dashboard. If you can’t find it, CarMD’s site can help. Every car made since 1996 should have one.
  3. Take it to your computer. Once the tool has downloaded information from your car’s computer, plug it into your computer using the included USB cable. It’ll take you online to check any error codes your car reported against CarMD’s database and try to guess the issue. Then it will estimate the cost of parts and labor to fix the problem.

CarCheckup is a similar tool that can also be used to graph road trips and track business mileage or driving habits for $150. CarChip provides those functions for $100. These tools may also be useful for checking out used cars before you buy.

While checking diagnostics is simple enough, there is no replacement for a trained and trustworthy mechanic. But if you insist on skirting the auto shop for a little while longer, you might try Car Talk. They help diagnose car noises, offer do-it-yourself instructions for simple auto repairs, offer tons of information, and have both a forum and a well-known radio show on NPR where you can ask for help, not to mention a searchable list of user-reviewed mechanics. Edmunds.com is another good place for car and maintenance advice.

You may also want to browse around our site and find out Do Gas Saving Devices Work?, The 4 Best Ways to Improve Mileage, or 7 Ways to Save on Car Insurance.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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