How To Use An OBD2 Scanner – Diagnose Your Car Properly

Nobody likes taking their car to an auto shop. It takes up a load of your valuable time and can be a drain on your hard-earned cash. If you often find yourself carting your vehicle off to the garage for simple repairs, then using an OBD2 scanner might be the solution you’ve been searching for.

An OBD2 scanner helps you quickly diagnose issues with your transmission, airbag system, engine, and more. Learning how to use OBD2 scanner tools to read trouble codes or turn off the check engine light after a repair is the easiest way to save yourself a trip to the auto repair shop.

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What Is an OBD2 Scanner, and What Does It Do?

OBD stands for “On-Board Diagnostics” and is a computer system built into your vehicle to monitor its performance. An OBD2 scanner is a handheld diagnostics tool that is compatible with all vehicle models manufactured and sold in the USA after 1996.

You can use an OBD2 scan tool (sometimes referred to as an OBD-II scanner) to reveal important vehicle information, such as the car’s VIN number, engine performance stats, and fuel efficiency. Using an OBD scanner will also allow you to read a vehicle’s trouble codes, which are displayed by the computer when issues are detected within the car’s systems.

By plugging an OBD-II scan tool directly into your vehicle, you can catch these error codes early on without visiting a mechanic. You can then decide whether to attempt the repair yourself or take it to a professional shop. Your diagnostics tool will be able to recognize a variety of vehicle issues, including:

  • Check engine light trouble codes
  • Seatbelt and airbag malfunctions
  • Transmission issues
  • Emission control issues
  • Low tire pressures
  • Intake air temperature
  • Engine misfires and problems
  • Fuel injection failures
  • Manufacturer-specific errors

How To Use an OBD2 Scanner on Your Car

Learning how to use an OBD2 scanner is pretty straightforward, even though they are powerful devices. By spending some time getting to grips with a scan tool, you could save yourself money in the long run, so it is definitely worth your effort. This is especially true if you have an older vehicle that’s prone to issues

Connecting an OBD2 scanner to a car

Our step-by-step guide will teach you everything you need to know about using an OBD2 scanner on your vehicle. All you need to get started is a good OBD2 scan tool and a data link connector (the cable used to connect the scanner’s diagnostic system to your car).

Plug the OBD2 Scanner into Your Vehicle

When you start using an OBD scanner, the first step is to plug the device into your vehicle with the diagnostic link connector (DLC). To do this, you’ll need to use the OBD2 port on your car. The location of the OBD2 port varies, but it’s usually found somewhere under the driver’s side of the dashboard. After you’ve found the port:

  • Plug one end of the DLC into your scan tool
  • Plug the other end of the DLC into the OBD2 port
  • Turn on your car to power up the scan tool

Some scan tools may ask you to enter your vehicle’s VIN before you can start running diagnostics. The VIN is typically marked on the driver’s side door and can also be found on the car’s registration certificate.

Reading the DTC Codes When Using an OBD Scanner

Many vehicle owners don’t even realize that their car can produce DTC codes (diagnostic trouble codes), but knowing how to use a code reader and understanding what those codes mean can save you tons of time and money at the mechanic. Once you’ve mastered your OBD2 scanner use, you’ll be able to pull your vehicle’s error codes in a matter of seconds.

Some advanced OBD2 systems will even give you a brief description of what the error codes mean. Alternatively, a quick Google search will reveal what a particular DTC is referring to. Here are some of the most common generic codes that your OBD2 code reader can detect:

  • Engine misfire (Codes: P0300-P0305)
  • Coolant thermostat (Code: P0128)
  • Fuel system pressure too low (Code: P008A)
  • Lost communication with steering column control module (Code: U0212)
  • Transmission Control System Malfunction (Code: P0700)
  • Injector Circuit Malfunction (Code: P0200)
  • Fuel Injection System Too Lean (Code: P0171)

By using the OBD2 scanner to discover the issue with your vehicle, you can avoid a costly trip to the automotive mechanic and attempt the repair yourself if it’s not too complicated. Once you’ve finished troubleshooting, you can then use your scanner to clear the OBDII codes from the control module.

Types of OBD2 Scanners on the Market

There are a few different types of OBD2 scanners you can buy. They all perform the same basic functions, but some code readers will have additional features that improve the functionality and user experience. Here are the main types of OBD2 scanners that you should know about:

  • Basic OBD2 scanners: these tools can read basic codes and reset warning lights, but they don’t have many extra features.
  • Bluetooth OBD2 scanners:  they let you ditch your DLC cable and connect to your car’s OBD2 port with a Bluetooth adapter. Great for walking around the vehicle while using an OBD scanner to perform thorough diagnostics.
  • DIY OBD2 scanners: these scanners are designed with the DIY enthusiasts in mind – the perfect companion for your next restoration or vintage build.
  • Professional OBD2 scanners: these tools are packed with all the features that a professional mechanic might need. Aside from the standard functions, you can also use this OBD2 scanner to control vehicle functions (bi-directional), perform ECU coding and even reprogramme car keys. The ultimate diagnostic device.

Within each of these categories, there are products available at various price points. Every scan tool has its own benefits, so it’s important to do some research before you buy one. You can find out more about diagnostic tools and discover the best OBD2 scanner for you right here.

A man using an OBD scanner

Regardless of the type of OBD2 code reader you choose, one feature that you can always expect to have is “live data.” Live data is an extremely useful tool that provides vehicle statistics and feedback in real-time. This means you can perform vehicle functions, such as pressing the throttle, and directly observe how this affects all the systems in the car.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an OBD1 scanner?

OBD1 is the computer system that was used in vehicles manufactured before 1996. Since 1996, all light truck and car models built and sold in the USA require an OBD2 system by law. Therefore, if you want to diagnose problems with a pre-1996 vehicle, you’ll need a special OBD1 compliant scan tool.
Read about the differences between OBD1 and OBD2 scanners here.

What is the average cost of an OBD2 scanner?

The price for an OBD2 scanner can range anywhere from $50 all the way up to $4000. However, most car owners and DIY enthusiasts can expect to pay under $100 for a quality at-home OBD2 scan tool.

Will an OBD2 scanner fix my car?

No, an OBD2 scanner is exclusively a diagnostic tool used to read codes. This means it can detect and recognize problems, but it won’t be able to fix them. Nevertheless, you can at least clear pending codes and turn off the check engine light and warning lights following a repair by using your OBD2 scanner.

How to use an OBD2 scanner to improve my vehicle’s performance?

You can find some aftermarket OBD2 chips programmed to boost the efficiency of your vehicle’s engine and its power delivery. Some of them will work alongside the default system for better results, while others will override your car’s stock performance monitor. Still, the OBD2 scanner use is primarily aimed at diagnostics, not improving performance, and that’s what it will provide without buying any extra accessories.

Are the OBD2 scanners self-powered?

It depends on a particular model. Some devices are self-powered, and others will need to use the energy from your car’s battery to work. To find out if you should power the car before using your OBD scanner, you need to check the owner’s manual. Usually, you’ll have to turn the vehicle’s power on but keep the engine off to use an OBD2 scanner.

What should I take into consideration before I buy an OBD2 scanner?

First, it’s recommended to purchase a device with the latest technology for the most accurate and detailed problem detection. What’s more, you can use such an OBD2 scanner also with your future vehicles. 
Apart from that, we advise you to choose a user-friendly device. In this way, you won’t have to spend a lot of time learning how to use your OBD2 scanner, as an intuitive interface will allow you to navigate and read the codes without much difficulty.
You can also check the size – if you want to use a handheld OBD2 scanner, make sure it will be easy for you to hold.
You can read our reviews to check which OBD scanners are most recommended for particular cars.

A person holding an OBD scanner cable

Learn More About OBD2 Scanners & Your Car with OBD Station 

Hopefully, you now know how to use an OBD2 scanner and understand why diagnosing error codes from your vehicle is so important. Not only will this keep your car in good health, but it will also save you spending time and money at the auto repair shop.

Here at OBD Station, it’s our mission to help every driver take care of their vehicle and prevent big repair bills from stacking up. You can find a range of useful repair tips, guidelines on how to use a car scanner, reviews of the best OBD2 scanners, and general diagnostic advice right here on our website.