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Before I figured out how to work on cars, onboard computer systems scared me. I’ve had no formal training, after all, so the idea of a car’s complex electricals and countless sensors made DIY work daunting.
Or so I thought. My preconceived notions changed when I bought my M5. Knowing it would be a handful to maintain, one of the first tools I made sure to pick up was an OBDII reader. It made diagnosing problems and solving warning lights way easier than I expected. Now I’ll never travel in an OBD-equipped car without a proper scanner again.
OBDII ports are standard on all cars from the 1996 model year on in the U.S. This allows anyone with a reader to plug in and read any trouble codes the car may be throwing. Even the cheapest, simplest OBDII scanners will read out codes from the car, allowing the user to look up what the code means and how to fix it. Being able to diagnose things like airbag warnings or check engine lights takes just seconds. Compared to older cars, where you simply have to guess based on symptoms, it’s wildly convenient. I’ve spent hours enough attempting to diagnose misfires on cheap shitboxes from the Eighties to know OBDII ports are, on the whole, a good thing to have.
Spend enough money on the right code reader and it can do more than just display numbers on a screen. Most code readers should also be able to clear codes, meaning you can erase whatever trouble code the car has logged to trigger the warning light in question. My M5, for example, would throw an emissions-related code every now and then. So I’d clear the code, which then wouldn’t come back for weeks or even months. I probably could’ve replaced an O2 sensor to actually fix the problem, but why bother when I could just plug my code reader in for a few seconds instead?
The scanner you buy should depend on which cars you plan to use it on most often. Some code readers are designed to work best with certain brands or even certain cars. I had to purchase a specific code reader from eBay just to clear the airbag light on my M5 after a sensor in the passenger seat broke. My original reader wouldn’t recognize anything other than engine malfunctions. Keep this all in mind if you plan to work on anything specific.
Code readers come in all shapes and sizes. As noted earlier, even cheap ones will get the job done if all you plan to do is read and clear trouble codes. Perfectly usable, though very simple, scanners like this one on Amazon can be had for a tad under $20.
Nicer versions like this Foxwell unit have full color screens and more buttons for easier navigation. If you’d rather go wireless, you can get something like this Actron U-Scan reader, which connects to your smartphone via bluetooth; It’s the one I use.
Super-complex OBDII scanners with features like TPMS and park distance sensor recalibration can cost over four figures. They’re super-cool and fun to play with, but we wouldn’t recommend picking up one of those unless you’re actually opening up a mechanic’s shop.
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