Fault codes and conspiracy

I was hearing about some chap who ran his car on Biodiesel and had a few engine problems, the engine would loose power and display the legendary ‘Check Engine’ light prompting him to take it to a dealer to have the fault codes read. There were many fault codes set, mainly due to various blockages, which lead the dealer to change a number of expensive components that in truth were perfectly ok. His conclusion was that

The check engine light, lack of knowledge can lead to bad interpretation and expense.

manufacturers must design the fault detection system to generate revenue from needless parts sales, this is of course complete cobblers, not least because manufacturers always loose heavily when any part is changed under warranty. But also bear in mind that thousands of us Engineers work developing these systems and on the whole we are not a bunch of psychopathic con artists with a hatred of the driving public! On the contrary, most of us are car enthusiasts and obsessed with doing thing right.

So how did this bloke end up in that situation, and what strange sequence of events led him to his disparaging conclusion?

Well, Biodiesel made to BS 14214 contains a fairly high amount of solvents which can cause issues

in cars that have run on ordinary diesel for some time. Wax and other deposits can build up a bit like those fatty deposits you get inside dishwasher drains, but the solvents in biodiesel clean out the tank and fuel lines causing the debris to float off and block the fuel filter (which is only doing its job). Common practice when deciding to run on biodiesel is to fit a new filter first, run the car for a short time to flush things through and then fit another filter; they generally cost only a few pounds. But on this car that wasn’t done and the fuel flow became restricted so when the demand was high the engine would loose fuel pressure and reduce the power level to compensate, to the driver the car drove normally until accelerating hard to overtake when it would suddenly loose power.

Be careful what you put in the tank, cheap fuel can cause expensive repairs.

A fuel pressure fault would be flagged but international fault code listings are, by their very nature, quite generic which works well for most problems, but in this example the system would only be able to detect that the fuel system pressure had dropped as the demand increased when he was overtaking. As soon as the engine had been restarted the pressure would return.

Once the engine has been restarted a few times the system must assume the fault has been repaired, as there are big penalties for manufacturers if their cars keep flagging false warnings, and so by the time the diagnostics tool was plugged in the codes may have been cleared automatically. So when our chap went to the dealer there would be no trace of the fault code for de-rating, just some ones about fuel pressure which lead to the dealer mistakenly replacing the fuel pump at great expense which obviously would not cure the blocked filter. The customer took the car away and unsurprisingly the same problem occurred, so he took it back to the dealer.

In this case the dealer stated that as well as the generic codes there are manufacturer specific codes that can only be read by the manufacturers own diagnostic equipment, so the system was hiding information and it wasn’t their fault. This is unfortunately what started the conspiracy theory!

Manufactureres spen millions testing engines in all conditions to eradicate faults.

Manufacturer-specific fault codes are there as an extra layer of sophistication and reflect aspects of the engine system design that are unique to that manufacturer and that particular type of engine. They are even more open to misinterpretation which is why car companies are keen to only give them to people who have been properly trained. So yes; there is a separate fault list, but it’s not some secret conspiracy, just a reflection of the very high complexity of modern control systems.

It could well be that the garage personnel had difficulty understanding the diagnostics which is entirely understandable as the systems are hugely complex and every car is different. Not only that, but the technology is changing all the time, so having an understanding of common systems available five years ago is of very little use on cars of today. This complexity is driven by emissions legislation, safety requirements and customer demands whilst reducing costs, it is done out of necessity. Modern engine management is one of the most complex and demanding control systems commercially produced, and yet this feat is hardly recognised, which is a shame.

Its complicated enough without conspiracy theories.

So the moral of the story is two fold; there is a skill to interpreting fault codes and they need to be used in conjunction with traditional fault diagnostic techniques (ie: if there is not enough fuel getting through, check for blockages!), and manufacturers don’t design in faults deliberately, it’s hard enough as it is!

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