Are there certain check engine lights (CELs) that are more common in one season versus another? Surprisingly, the answer to this question is yes. A CEL is your vehicle’s way of telling you that something is wrong, and that you should plug in a code reader to find out what particular error code is being triggered. Given that winter offers some of the harshest driving conditions you’ll ever encounter, it’s no surprise that spring often brings a few unwelcome lights on the dash.
Let’s take a look at three of the most common CELs you’re likely to encounter as winter melts into spring.
1. Spark Plugs
One of the least healthy things that your car does during the winter is idle for extended periods. Typically, this happens while you are either warming up your car (using a remote starter, for example) or cleaning the snow off it in your driveway. Idling a car can cause carbon to build up on the spark plugs and inside the cylinder, which can in turn lead to a misfire or an underperforming spark situation. Either of these issues can lead to check engine lights.
2. Oxygen Sensor
Idling a car doesn’t just potentially harm your spark plugs — it can also foul up your vehicle’s oxygen sensor. If idling has led to carbon buildup, it’s possible that too rich of a fuel mixture will be sent down through the exhaust system, unable to be completely combusted due to the spark plug issues.
Eventually, this can affect your oxygen sensor, which is vital to maintaining the correct balance of air and fuel in your motor, by coating it in carbon or soot. This buildup will render the sensor unable to properly measure the exhaust gases flowing by it. The end result is another check engine light.
3. Catalytic Converter / Exhaust System
Your vehicle’s catalytic converter is intended to warm up to a specific temperature so that it can operate properly. Its job is to convert poisonous exhaust gases into less harmful ones before they leave the tailpipe. If asked to operate consistently in very cold weather — and we’re talking fairly extreme conditions, here — over time, this component can wear out. You may also encounter catalytic converter issues due to corrosion brought on by winter road salt, which can affect all aspects of the exhaust system. Finally, a bad oxygen sensor or bad spark plugs (are you sensing a trend here?) can dump enough raw fuel into the exhaust system to damage a catalytic converter relatively quickly.
The check engine lights you see related to a poorly functioning catalytic converter or exhaust might display codes associated with other aspects of the exhaust system (such as the oxygen sensor, for example), as your vehicle’s systems attempt to make sense of unusual readings in the exhaust flow.
It’s always a good idea to have a qualified mechanic help you diagnose any CELs prior to making a repair decision.
Check out all the maintenance parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on check engine lights, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.