The Complete Guide To The Check Engine Light

Car dashboard with warning lights

A check engine light might leave you with a sinking feeling, and a burning hole in your wallet. It could mean there is an expensive problem like a catalytic converter issue, or there might just be a loose part. Regardless of the worry, you should get it looked at. This means any small issues can be taken care of before they cause further damage, or even void your car’s next MOT. Never ignore the check engine light.

The check engine light, also known as the Malfunction Indicator Lamp, is a signal from the engine control unit (ECU) which indicates that there is a fault with the engine system. There are a number of issues that can make the check engine light come on. Exhaust emissions issues, battery issues or other engine related issues can all be causes.

If your check engine light does come up it’s worth getting a diagnostic done to pinpoint the exact underlying problem. Diagnostic inspections usually cost around £40 to £60 depending on where you are in the country. Mechanics will have a plug-in diagnostic tool that will display the issue to them. Some rare cars may require a dealer to read off certain fault codes, they will have specialist equipment for those vehicles.

Remember, a “service required’ light is not to be confused with a “check engine” light, however, these are related. A service light means that you need an oil change or other similar maintenance, bear in mind that if the light is ignored it can easily lead to a check engine light, as your engine will grind to a halt without oil.

The check engine light will usually come up in an orange, yellow or amber colour depending on the manufacturer, and a flashing light usually means there is a more serious issue. A flash when starting the car isn’t an issue, it’s just a check by the ECU to make sure the system is working.

Can I just ignore a check engine warning light?

The light comes on, what do you do? A solid light means you should get the car checked soon, while a blinking light needs immediate treatment.

Remember that the check engine light in all cases means that engine performance is being impacted, hurting your fuel consumption and wallet as you pay for more fuel. Get the car checked by a mechanic. You should get a quote for the amount to fix the issue, and the amount of time before it causes further damage. This will let you budget the problem before it spirals into a more expensive problem.

It’s also essential that you pass your MOT and a faulty engine may mean your car is no longer roadworthy. A check engine light can also cause issues when you take your car for an MOT. After all, the check engine light will sometimes mean there is an emissions problem with your car. The emissions are checked during an MOT so if there is an issue your car will fail its MOT. It’s therefore important to get a check of the engine light and get it fixed so that your car can coast through the MOT without any issues.

Remember, you may not feel immediately something is wrong with the car even if the check engine light is on. Newer cars will alter how the engine works so performance is not severely affected, meaning you may not feel a problem for a long time. However, the issues will be hidden in your fuel efficiency and emission levels. Make sure you never ignore the check engine light and get it looked at before it is too late. The problem can easily be found with a diagnostic tool and will save you money in the long run!

Can I diagnose the check engine light myself?

You could buy your own plug-in diagnostic tool which connects to the car’s onboard diagnostics (OBD) port. These cost anywhere from £15-£40 but some older cars may require expensive specialist tools instead. Some diagnostic tools can even switch the light off, which may be tempting to do but keep in mind that it will not actually make the problem go away. Your light will come on again.

A diagnostic tool will show you all the fault codes on your vehicle, but it does not show you exactly which parts need replacing or what repairs are needed. Fault codes will point to a problem area on a car and not an exact repair. Further investigation is needed to pinpoint the actual underlying issue. This may entail replacing parts to eliminate any potential causes. This is best left to a professional mechanic who can use his expertise and experience to make the right judgment as to what is needed.

What can I do about the check engine warning light?

There are several minor issues that you can solve which may get the light to come off.

1. Check dashboard gauges
These could indicate low oil pressure or overheating and can be fixed once you pull over. You can stop on the hard shoulder on a motorway or just a car park.

2. Tighten your fuel cap
A loose fuel cap can mean your fuel is getting contaminated by dirt, bugs, or water while driving. Contaminated fuel means that fuel is left unburnt in the exhausts, which triggers emissions warnings. It may take several journeys to reset, and there may be a separate light altogether in your car.

3. Lower your speed & reduce your load
An illuminated check engine light could mean serious problems with your car’s engine. Try to reduce its workload by reducing the speed you go at and, if making a further journey from your destination, take off anything that weighs it down significantly, like a box of tools or other significant weight.

What Are The Top Causes For A Check Engine Light?

The check engine light could come from a variety of reasons around the engine, fuel and exhaust systems. A diagnostic tool will tell you which system is at fault, and then you can perform tests to find the exact problem. Here are a few common issues that cause a check:

A battery fault can cause a check engine light

Check the condition of the battery with a voltmeter, it should at least meet the minimum cranking amperage, as stated in your owner’s manual. Over time, the battery may drain, or after a night left on. Additionally, check for any corrosion of the various terminals and any damage to the fuse box.

Fan, alternator or serpentine belt faults can cause a check engine light

The belts do a lot of work to keep the car cool, translate electrical energy and are an integral part of the engine. They are subject to wear and tear over time or can be damaged by loose debris. You should check the condition of the belts and make replacements to improve the quality of your engine performance.

An oxygen sensor fault can cause a check engine light

The oxygen sensor monitors the unburnt oxygen from the exhaust. This also monitors how much fuel is burnt which is directly linked to emissions. The sensors are regularly covered in exhaust fumes which can affect the quality of the sensor. A faulty sensor will mean the ECU adjusts to decrease the efficiency of the engine, meaning a higher MPG. It will eventually lead to catalytic converter problems, which can cost over £2000. Oxygen sensors can be easily replaced, with the DTC telling you which one is faulty.

A faulty fuel cap can cause a check engine light

A loose, cracked, or broken fuel cap will cause contaminants to enter the system or fuel vapours to leak out. These will both have a noticeable impact on emissions, which usually triggers the engine light. To fix it, you should get it tightened, or replaced if it is cracked. A fuel cap shouldn’t cost a lot and all you need is a screwdriver to fix. This should also help you MPG.

A faulty catalytic converter can cause a check engine light

The catalytic converter is part of the exhaust system, working to reduce the amount of harmful exhaust gases. It converts potentially lethal carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. A failing catalytic converter will decrease your fuel efficiency and may put the car into limp mode. It usually fails when driving in purely urban environments, with many stop-starts, which deny the catalytic converter from regenerating. You can fix the catalytic converter by taking a half an hour continuous drive on a motorway, which will activate systems that clean soot from the catalytic converter. If the problem persists then you will need a mechanic to do a forced regeneration or get an expensive replacement.

A faulty mass airflow sensor can cause a check engine light

The mass airflow sensor signals the ECU about the amount of air coming through to the engine, so the right amount of fuel can also be used. A faulty mass airflow sensor may have your car stalling and have a noticeable impact on MPG. It can fail because of a faulty air filter, which you should replace once a year in your annual or scheduled service. You can keep driving with a broken mass airflow sensor but you’ll notice the hole in your wallet. It doesn’t cost a lot to replace an air filter, but if the problem persists then you may have to get a mass airflow sensor replaced, which can easily cost over £200.

Faulty spark plugs can cause a check engine light

The spark plugs provide the spark for every little explosion in your engine. Failing plugs can be noticed by a car ‘hiccupping’ when accelerating. They fail roughly every 30,000 miles and get replaced in our major service.

There is obviously a vast array of reasons, which can leave most people nervous to get a check engine light checked out. You should be responsible for your car and the safety of others on the road. Sometimes it isn’t a long procedure but it’s important you understand what exactly is wrong with your car before it gets worse.

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The Ultimate Guide To Car Fluids

The Ultimate Guide To Car FluidsLike us, cars need to stay hydrated, however, it isn’t just water that they need. Cars have been getting more efficient and reliable, but they still need some maintenance. Fluids play a massive role in keeping your car running smoothly, from the brakes to the engine. Make sure to top them up to keep your vehicle in top shape. There is a number of fluids to check, for example:

  • Engine coolant
  • Engine oil
  • Power steering fluid
  • Brake fluid
  • Transmission fluid
  • Washer fluid

Popping the bonnet and checking the fluids can help to keep your vehicle running well and at a lower risk of breaking down.

Let’s go through the fluids, how to check them, and how to top them up:

Engine Coolant

Coolant keeps your engine cool, which is important for efficiency, emissions, and most importantly to reduce wear and tear within your engine. Protecting the engine from overheating means you won’t be stuck with a nasty repair bill.

You should only have to check this fluid regularly, preferably every month, although this can be sooner because of a leak. You may also want to check the coolant during the summer, where leaks can be exacerbated by the overworked cooling system.

Warning: Never check your coolant while the engine is hot. You risk personal injury.

Under the bonnet, you should see a clear, or opaque container. It should have a min and max reading on the side, with the level of the liquid visible. If below the min line you will need to fill it to the max line, with a mix of water and coolant. If there is no container then you need to open the radiator cap to see if the coolant reaches the top.

Make sure any coolant you use is approved for your vehicle, and when opening the radiator, leave for a minute to release any trapped air bubbles.

To fill up on coolant, you have to unscrew the reservoir, and for most cars pour in a 50:50 mixture of water and coolant. The mixture does differ across car models so make sure to always check your car’s service manual. If you only have water to hand then this will work for a few miles but you should urgently seek out a nearby garage who will top you up with coolant.

Low levels of coolant may mean there is a leak in the system, which you can find by checking around a cool engine to find wet patches.

Engine oil

The parts in your car’s engine rotate and move up and down several times a second. This requires a lot of pumps, cylinders and other moving parts. All these moving parts rub together. Oil helps protect the system from wear and tear, while also making the parts work better, by lubricating joints and friction points.

You should be checking the system once every month or so, since the check is relatively quick. This helps avoid any issues with leaking oil or dirty oil.

Advisory: Run the car for 5 minutes or around the block so oil flows through the system first.
Check your owner’s manual to find the dipstick. Pull the dipstick out and wipe it down with a towel or rag. Reinsert it, then pull it out to check the level of oil in the tank. The dipstick should display a normal range of oil.

If the oil is below the range, then fill the oil tank with an oil designed to work with your vehicle. Make sure not to overfill the system as this will mean more leaks.

Low levels of oil could indicate a leak in the system, but dirty oil may mean components are starting to wear down. The oil should be yellow, or amber. Brown or dark oil may mean you need an oil filter replacement.

Power steering fluid

Turning an older car was a very heavy and exhausting task, as your arm muscles were responsible for a large part of turning the wheels on the ground. Modern cars have power-assisted steering, to make the steering of the car much easier by making it lighter. Power steering makes turning easy at any speed, using hydraulic fluids to make the wheels turn.

Usually, the power steering fluid doesn’t need to be replaced often, but spotting early signs of a leak could save your life. Since the fluid is crucial to the maneuverability of your car, you may slowly notice that turning becomes more difficult at low speeds, and a 3 point turn is more like a workout.

Just at the base of the windscreen, there is a small tank. If you can’t find it or are unsure about what it looks like then consult your owner’s manual. There should be an indicator on the tank, where you can see the minimum and maximum levels of fluid. If this isn’t the case, then you will need to open the cap.

Warning: Before you add the new fluid, clean the area around the opening to avoid contaminating the fluid.
Use the power steering dipstick to check the level of power steering fluid in the tank. Simply, remove the dipstick, wipe it down, reinsert it and then check the level.

Low fluid levels will need to be topped up, but it is essential that you use hydraulic power steering fluid that is specifically suited to your vehicle.

Having only a little power steering fluid left will have a noticeable impact on how easily your car steers. The low levels may indicate a leak somewhere in the system.
Brake fluid
Brake fluid acts as a pressurised step between your foot on the pedal and the brake rotors. This helps you brake more instantly and with less effort.

You shouldn’t have to check the brake fluid at all, but spotting a leak may just save your life from faulty brakes. Over time, brake fluid can become contaminated. Water, for example, will cause the brake lines to rust resulting in the fluid becoming contaminated. The dark fluid is a serious sign that the system needs a mechanic.

You can find the brake fluid reservoir near the back of the engine compartment. In most cars, the container will be opaque, with clear max-min lines.

Warning: Before you add the new fluid, clean the area around the opening to avoid contaminating the fluid.

Open the reservoir, and check that the fluid almost fills the tank. Top it up with the right fluid, consult your owner’s manual if you need some guidance.

Transmission Fluid

Similar to the engine oil and power steering fluid, the transmission fluid lubricates and cools components in your car. The transmission system contains gears, clutches, and valves that must move seamlessly while driving.

Transmission fluid should last the lifetime of the car but may begin to leak due to a knock or crack.

Your vehicle should have another dipstick to check the transmission fluid level. You should remove it from the system, wipe it down, reinsert it then check the level of fluid. Additional checks should be done on the colour, dark, cloudy or gritty fluid requires a mechanical diagnosis by a mechanic.

Top up the transmission fluid by pouring your vehicle specific transmission fluid into the fill tube. Run through the gears to let the new transmission fluid flow through the system. This can be a tricky job, if it not carried out correctly it can damage your transmission, leading to extra repair costs. It is advisable to get help from a professional mechanic to carry out the work if you’re not sure how to do it.

Low transmission fluid can cause rough shifting, odd noises when switching gears, and uncontrolled surges (in case of an automatic transmission).

Windscreen washer fluid

Windscreen wiper fluid might not be vital but it is important to your windscreen. Dirt builds up, and a little British rain doesn’t quite keep the glass clear. Windscreen washer fluid polishes your window to ensure there is greater clarity to your vision.
You may have to check on the amount of this every few months and even more in the summer.

Luckily, it’s the easiest to top up since the washer tank bottle is easy to find and normally doesn’t require a specific type of fluid.
Under the bonnet, there will be an opaque tank, usually labeled “washer” or “windscreen”. Pop the lid open and check the amount of fluid. If you are low simply pour more washer fluid in. You can use soapy water, but this will slightly damage the system, so only use it in emergencies.

Going without washer fluid will mean your windscreen slowly piles on layers of dirt. Windscreen wipers only cover a certain amount of the glass, so eventually you build up “dirt goggles”

Fuel is the most important fluid in cars at the moment although, your other fluids are also vital to your car running well. Make a schedule to check the different fluids around your vehicles, and make sure to stick to any recommended service schedule. If you suspect there is an issue with a system, then get a Clickmechanic diagnostic inspection.

Happy driving

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A Third of UK Drivers Will Wait for up to Two Weeks or More Before Dealing with a Check Engine Light

Our latest survey has found that a third of UK drivers will wait for up to two weeks or more before investigating a check engine light.

When a car’s check engine light comes on, the issue should be diagnosed as soon as possible because it may affect the safety of the driver as well as those nearby. Not to mention, it can develop into a huge bill if left unaddressed. However, this alert is not taken as seriously as it should be by some. According to our research, a total of 29% of UK drivers will not immediately act on a check engine light, but will instead take a risk and ignore the alert until a more convenient time. In fact, 23% will wait for up to two weeks before having the car checked, 2% will wait for longer than this and 4% will completely ignore the light until it starts affecting the performance of the car.

Looking at age, younger drivers are more likely to delay acting on an engine light; 83% of drivers aged over 55 will take immediate action, whereas only 62% of those aged between 18 and 54 will do the same. This is also reflected in those who would completely ignore the light until it begins to affect the car; a worrying 8% of drivers aged between 18 and 34 admit to this, whereas 4% of those aged 35-54 and only 2% of those aged over 55 say the same.

Location wise, with 77%, Cardiff, Sheffield and Leeds all join to take the top spot for having the highest percentage of drivers which will immediately address an engine light. Whereas Norwich ranks as the worst with only 59% of drivers taking prompt action. Belfast, on the other hand, has the highest percentage of drivers ignoring the light completely with a total of 10% of motorists admitting to this.

Andrew Jervis, Co-Founder of ClickMechanic, said: “The check engine light is designed to alert the driver to what could be a serious problem with the engine and, as such, it should always be dealt with immediately. The longer the driver waits to investigate, the more likely the problem will affect the car itself. Whilst this survey indicates that most drivers are aware of this, 1 in 3 will still wait to deal with the issue; even if it is a week later, this will potentially affect everyone’s safety on the road and could substantially increase the cost to repair. If the check engine light crops up in an inconvenient location, you can always organise a check-up for your car using ClickMechanic and have the mechanic come to you.”

How To Protect Your Car From The Heat

The hot summer heatwave is coming! Will your car stand up to the heat? Some common car problems caused by the sunny weather include overheating engines, dry rot in the tyres, peeling paint and a fading interior. Luckily, these are all preventable with a little car care.

How to stop your engine from overheating

A car engine is powered by a series of controlled explosions. This heat is actually useful for other component such as the catalytic converter but it needs to be regulated to avoid damage. There are many parts for coolant to flow and maintain a stable temperature. A failure in this cooling system will cause your engine to overheat and may lead to plenty of other issues.

WARNING: Make sure your engine is cool before working with it. If driving, pull over and wait for 30 mins for it to cool. As a precaution, always use heat protection when handling the engine to avoid burns to your hands.

1. Check your coolant level. Pop open the bonnet and look at the fluid level in the coolant reservoir. Confirm that it is between the Max and Min levels. If your vehicle doesn’t have a reservoir then you will have to open up the radiator and check the coolant level in there. The fluid should be up to the bottom of the filler neck where the cap goes on.

WARNING: Make sure the engine is cool before opening the radiator. It is a pressurised container that will vent hot steam. This can cause severe burns.

2. Top up your engine coolant. When the coolant is lower than MAX, or isn’t full in the radiator, then you should add some coolant. You should use the same coolant, as other kinds may act differently in the engine and cause blockages. A very temporary solution is to use water until you can get to a nearby garage.

3. Check for leaks. Take a flashlight to the underside of your engine to and inspect the area for damp or dripping. The coolant will usually be green, pink or orange so it should stand out under the light. The leak will usually be found near the radiator, the front area of the engine, and the firewall area. If you do find a leak then get a repair immediately. While you can keep topping the coolant up every few miles, this is a hassle and the leak can cause other problems such as contaminating fuel.

4. Keep an eye on the temperature of your engine. Vehicles will usually have a temperature gauge on the dashboard, it may even have a warning system to alert you. If your coolant temperature is approaching dangerous levels then pull over immediately to avoid any further damage to your vehicle. An overheated engine can be very expensive, especially when there is a less costly alternative.

How to stop your tyres being victims of dry rot

Tires are made of rubber, which makes them durable, able to handle thousands of kilos and resist punctures. They survive for through mud and snow but the heat of the sun can quickly deteriorate any tire. The heat dries out the rubber which causes hairline cracks. It can turn small scratches into gauges down to the metal. Here are some ways to protect your tires:

Park in the shade. When possible you should choose a cool spot behind a wall or under a tree. Preventing direct sunlight to your tyres should keep them a lot cooler than it’s surroundings.

Cover the tyres. If your car is going to be parked for several days or there aren’t any tall trees in the area, then you can use tyre covers. Ones in lighter shades will absorb less heat although good luck keeping the whites white when working with tyres. A complete car cover amy also work here, although it can be infeasible with larger vehicles.

Move your car. Actually using them more will mean they are less likely to crack. This is especially true for vehicles, such as motorhomes, which may be parked for weeks at a time.

Use tyre dressing when detailing. Tyre dressing stops the rubber from drying out and cracking. It also gives them a shinier surface for you to show off. Invest in a good quality brand for this, as some may actually cause more damage.

How to keep your paint healthy in the sun

Car paint bears the brunt of the sun’s rays and gets very hot sitting on metal, enough to fry an egg. The colour can be stripped out by the sun’s light and eventually a coat of paint may crack and peel. This is dangerous for the bonnet lid as it can cause rust to infect your car. Here are a few ways to protect your paint job:

Clean and wax your car. Not only will your car be sparkling, you should also be protected against more of the sun’s heat. During the summer, having a wax every 2 months should keep your car sparkling and protected. Use a high quality wax that also protects against UV damage.

Park in the shade. Again, you want to get out of the sun and the heat. Even if you’re only stopping for a few hours, you’ll be a lot more comfortable when you return and your car will be kept a lot healthier. Even if it’s a longer walk, think of it as a challenge, your own heptathlon of dragging the shopping back to the car.

Cover your car. If you don’t have a garage or can’t use an underground parking facility then you should buy a car cover. A car cover will protect your car from the elements, and particularly the sun. This car cover should last you a long time, and prolong the finish of your car. You should be covering your car anytime that you’re gone for over 2 hours and, while this may be inconvenient, your car will show it’s appreciation.

How to protect your interior surfaces from the sun

Interior surfaces, especially vinyl, leather, and plastic, are vulnerable to heat and direct sunlight. You should be treating these surfaces with protective coats or covering them. The materials degrade in different ways but sunwashed surfaces will affect the resale value of many cars. Here are a few tips to help protect your interiors:

Tinted windows. Window tinting protects you from the sun and UV rays. While in the UK you can only fully tint the rear windows, you can still partially tint your front side windows and windscreens. You can apply your own window tint, or get a professional to do it.

Moisturise your leather. Leather dries out in the sun which can cause a lot of those wrinkles to crack. These cracks will eventually develop into into larger holes so it’s important to have a regular schedule for moisturising your car. Re-applying the conditioner should usually happen every month. That should be around a similar time as a quick car wash, so you can do them at the same time. Make sure to get a good leather conditioner which shows a clear difference to the worn out leather beforehand.

Clean the interior. Your big cleaning day once a month should include an interior clean, as well as the exterior. Some cleaners can be more soap based which will dry out surfaces, so you have to buy one that will both clean and condition your surfaces.

Use sun visors. Sun visors will reflect the sun’s rays and the heat back out. Using a sun visor is best when parking in sunlight. Unfold the sun visor in the car and face the metallic side to the outside. Make sure it reaches all the corners and use your sunshields to pin the sun visor in place. On a sunny day you can bake cookies on the dash, as your car climbs 20℃ above the outside temperature in half an hour.

You should be getting all your scheduled services squared off before the summer, as many issues crop up in the heat. Using these tips, you can make sure your car avoids any sun damage to the interior and exterior. If your car is experiencing problems, then get a diagnostic inspection to find out what’s wrong and fix any minor issues.

How Often Should I Change My Car’s Engine Oil?

When should I change my engine oil

Deciding when you should change your engine oil will depend on a number of factors, often it will range between 5,000 miles and 10,000 miles, however it may be more. Keep in mind that the interval for replacing the engine oil that is different for every every car, and will always depend on a couple of factors.

Normally the manufacturer of your car will tell you in the car’s service book how often you should replace the engine oil in your car. Often the advice given will depend on how you drive and how the car is used. Simply put, the old ‘3000 miles’ doesn’t hold up in today’s world of sophisticated engine oils and modern engines.

How Manufacturers Determine When You Should Change Your Engine Oil

Car manufacturers will often base the oil change guidelines on the way the car is driven, recommending when you need to replace the oil based on whether the car is subjected to ‘mild’ or ‘severe’ driving conditions. The factors you’ll need to consider include whether you mainly use your car for short or long distances, whether you do a lot of stop-and-go driving in the city or drive on rough country lanes, and whether you are in a cold or warm climate. Based on that the manufacturer of your car can give a reliable estimation on how often the engine oil needs to be replaced.

The Reasons Why You Should Change Your Engine Oil

Having taking this into account it is also important to remember the actual function engine oil holds in your car. Engine oil keeps your engine lubricated and makes sure all the components keep running smoothly. Over time engine oil deteriorates and will hold more and more metal particles that have worn off the engine components. The particles will contribute to further abrasion of those components in the engine that the oil actually should be lubricating to protect the engine. Keep in mind as well that changing the oil filter regularly can also help to limit wear, as a fresh oil filter will help to filter out all those nasty particles and debris.

It’s important to stick to the manufacturer’s guidelines on changing the engine oil. If, for whatever reason, the engine oil has deteriorated prematurely, or if you’re not sure if oil changes have been carried out as recommended then it would be advisable to get an oil change as soon as possible. That way you can stop engine wear and improve the way the engine runs.

DIY: How to check your Engine Oil Level

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Did you know that most experts reckon you should check your engine oil at least once per month, when was the last time you checked yours? Engine oil is super important as it acts as a lubricant which prevents the different parts of the car damaging each other as they move around the engine.

How to check your engine oil level in 4 simple steps

  1. Turn off the engine – you’ll need to make sure that the engine is cool so you don’t burn yourself. Ensure that it has been off for at least 10 minutes and is cool before you check the oil. You’ll also need to make sure that your car is parked on a level surface.
  2. Locate the dipstick – pop open the bonnet, and look for the dipstick. The dipstick is a long rod which goes deep into your engine to check the oil level, and usually has a brightly coloured handle.
  3. Clean the dipstick – you’ll need to wipe any oil off the dipstick with a clean cloth or rag.
  4. Check the oil level – to do this put the dipstick back into the tube, and ensure the end reaches the bottom, then pull the dipstick back out again. There will be an upper and lower mark on the dipstick, the oil level should be between these two marks. If it’s below or on the lower mark, you’ll want to top up your oil.

Want us to take care of this for you? We’d be happy to help – you can book a minor service which ensures that your engine oil level is okay amongst many other checks