Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Life With a Perpetual “Check Engine” Light

By Cam Mather

When you drive older vehicles the “Check Engine” dashboard warning light becomes part of your reality. There have been occasions with certain warning lights that I’ve resorted to using electrical tape. Black electrical tape placed over top of a warning light makes it miraculously disappear!

That only works for some things though. About a year ago the “Check Engine” light was coming on intermittently in our 2005 Honda Civic. One day it came on when I had the car at the dealership for a free “30 Point Inspection.” The service guy said the error code indicated we had a bad oxygen sensor. I said I’d give some thought to getting it fixed, but he said, “Well you can keep driving it, but it could destroy the catalytic converter which will cost you $2,000 to replace.” Ouch! That sounded scary! Was this a real possibility or just something the service people are trained to say to keep idiots like me from leaving the dealership without spending a whole lotta money? It seemed a bit extreme but I knew that Michelle would expect me to get it fixed and the dealership is a 45 minute drive from my home, so it seemed wise to have it done right then and there.

The sensor part was about $250 and then they dinged me for an hours’ labor even though the car was done in 15 minutes. What a racket! A couple of weeks later the light came on again. It kept coming on sporadically until one day I was near Steve Marshall’s shop, so I stopped in to ask him to check it. His computer readout indicated that the problem was an oxygen sensor. I told him that I’d just had it replaced, but he told me that there are two. So I had him order the part for me and I took it in to get it installed. He got it up on the hoist and said to me, “Oh, the one the computer says I need to replace is brand new.” Thanks Honda dealer. Nice job. Luckily Steve was able to return the unwanted part.

For the last year the Check Engine light has been going on and off every couple of weeks. Then it was time to get the car in for its “eTest.” In the Province of Ontario you need to have your car’s emissions tested every two years before you can get a new sticker for your license plate. But they don’t really test to see your overall impact on the planet; they just compare your vehicle to others of the same make and model. So if you have a poorly performing Honda Fit compared to other Fits, which get insanely great fuel economy and therefore have a relatively small carbon footprint, you could fail the test. If your Hummer, on the hand, was pumping out just as much CO2 as all the other insanely inefficient Hummers, you’re fine, move to the front of the line. And this is why we now get August weather in March.

Before I took the car in for my e-test I decided to change the air filter. I hadn’t done it in a while. I had opted out of the regular dealer service years ago, which I think is a huge rip-off. Thanks, but I can lubricate my own door hinges if they squeak, and I don’t charge $85/hour to do it.

I got 9 of the 10 bolts off but one was really rusted on. I was about to drill it out, but then I thought I’d take it over to my neighbor Ken and see if he had some cool trick to dislodge it. He always does. So once we got the cover off and removed the old air filter, there it was. A mouse nest. Yup, right under the air filter there was more crap and corruption than you could imagine. No question the filter was dirty but I don’t think much air was getting through at all. How a mouse managed to carry all of this nest building material through 2 and half feet of winding hoses and chambers should surprise me, but unfortunately it doesn’t.

One of the downsides of country life is mice. They will get into everything and do incredible damage. In this case they didn’t chew anything, they just plugged stuff up. This provided Ken with an excellent opportunity to use his air compressor to blow all the crap out.

So I installed the new filter and low and behold we passed the eTest. Oh, and the check engine light hasn’t come on since.

Which all brings me to the movie “Contact” where Mathew McConaughey brings up the concept of Occam’s Razor to Jody Foster. This principle suggests that when selecting among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation is probably the most likely. Following this, if you have an oxygen sensor apparently saying your engine is not functioning optimally, maybe you should make sure the air filter is clean and unobstructed before spending $400 to replace the sensor. And it’s important that since it is your car you should rely on your own instincts rather than the dealer’s. They don’t make money selling cars anymore; they only make money on service. So they’re kind of biased.

I often use Occam’s Razor in my life. Years ago when I lived in the city and was constantly stressed and sat at my computer 14 hours a day trying to pay off my mortgage so I could move to the country I went to a chiropractor when my back got really sore. I had previously been getting massages, but I was finding that visits to Tanya (the “Love Goddess,” as I liked to call her) were painful, because she got in between all my ribs and really dug into my muscles. I felt better later, but man, she was brutal. I felt like I’d played in a rugby tournament after ½ hour of her poking and prodding.

So my chiropractor suggested that I could just use tennis balls. Huh? He told me to put two tennis balls on the carpet on either side of my spine and lay on top of them. I gradually release my weight onto them and then slowly roll around on the balls. And low and behold they get into all the spaces and muscle groups that Tanya used to get. I have a muscle group in my lower back which is sore right now, and I find a few minutes of rolling on the tennis balls before I do my stretching makes a huge difference.

No professionals in white jackets. No MRIs. No insurance claims forms. Just two tennis balls.


Apparently there’s something to this “the simplest explanation is the most likely to offer the best results” theory. I’m hoping to apply it more often, especially when someone wants to charge me $400 to change my oxygen sensors when all I really needed to do was clean out the mouse nest!



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