"System too lean" is a common cause for the dreaded check engine light. This trouble code indicates the presence of too much air in the combustion chamber, leading to a lean condition. Since all internal combustion engines rely on an exact ratio of fuel to air, any imbalance can result in various drivability and reliability issues.
While these error codes are widespread, you may be surprised at how difficult it can be to determine the underlying cause. You may even find experienced mechanics scratching their heads over the true root of the trouble. What makes these codes so tricky to track down? Keep reading to find out!
Symptom vs. Failure Codes
Your car's check engine light triggers when the computer detects a fault and stores an error code. These error codes can indicate a wide range of problems, but they don't always point to the immediate source of trouble. While some codes will point directly to a failing component (such as a bad oxygen sensor), others only alert you that something has gone wrong.
Unfortunately, lean codes fall into this latter category of symptom codes. When one of these codes triggers your check engine light, it simply indicates that one or both engine banks are running lean. In many cases, you may already be noticing driveability symptoms such as a rough idle or stalling by the time this light illuminates.
The Trouble With Lean Codes
Ultimately, it's challenging to diagnose lean codes because they can have many possible underlying causes. Vacuum leaks are one common scenario since these small leaks allow unmetered air to enter the combustion chamber. However, small leaks may not produce any other symptoms, making them hard to track down without specialized equipment such as smoke testers.
Of course, lean codes don't always mean that excess air is entering your engine. Too much air in the exhaust stream (and thus a lean condition) may also mean too little fuel. Bad fuel pumps, clogged fuel filters, or several other fuel system problems can potentially produce lean codes. Your lean code may even be caused by a faulty sensor incorrectly detecting the amount of air present in your exhaust!
Resolving Lean Codes
Since they have so many potential underlying causes, resolving a check engine light caused by a lean code is rarely a job for amateurs. If you don't have experience diagnosing automotive problems, then this is best left to the professionals. A qualified auto shop will have the expertise and tools necessary to get to the bottom of the problem and resolve that check engine light once and for all.
Contact a local auto service to learn more about check engine light repair.