Throubleshooting Check Engine Light on a Sprinter

It’s inevitable. When you live in a van (especially one that is 11 years old like ours), you will eventually run into engine problems. Troubleshooting the check engine light on a Sprinter is not easy, but we’ve had to do it enough that we wanted to help others out in the future. If your check engine light comes on, it is important to start troubleshooting right away – a check engine light is not something you should ignore.

Van Life Troubles

It seems the past few weeks have been rough on the online Van Life community. Our friends Eamon and Bec have recently had to put a new engine in their Sprinter after breaking down in Mexico. Van.there hit an elk and are awaiting news on whether their van is totaled. SamVanZam limped her van to the shop to have the DEF system serviced. The Nomadic Movement’s wheels literally fell off on the highway. And our Sprinter has broken down twice in the past 3 weeks.

It’s been a rough month, to say the least. The reality of van life is that something will go wrong. Being prepared for it and having some knowledge in your arsenal will help tremendously when something does happen. Because at the end of the day, these vans are our homes, so when they break down, it sucks.

Our Mechanical Experience

Nate and I are fortunate to have had a lot of experience in our youth with engines. Both of us grew up in households where our parents taught us how to use tools, how to troubleshoot, and how to do our own repairs. And not to be taken lightly, we completely rebuilt the engine in my truck when I was 16.

Nate’s Mechanical History

Nate grew up surrounded with building projects, learning at a young age how to weld, frame a house, plumb, and run electrical. Fixing things around the house was a typical weekend chore, and he learned with his dad. When it came to vehicles, he was always expected to basic repairs on his truck by himself. And troubleshooting was a big part of vehicle ownership, especially when his vehicle was nearly as old as he was.

Steph’s Mechanical History

I was not your typical 16 year old girl. My entire life, I had always been interested in tinkering with things. My parents were divorced, and I lived with my mom… who happened to be an aircraft mechanic. I had access to every tool imaginable, and when things broke around the house, I always dove right in with my mom to learn how to fix it. Plumbing? Check. Electrical, no problem. Change a tire? Piece of cake.

Rebuilding an Engine at 16

So when I turned 16 and was faced with a hand-me-down truck that barely ran, there wasn’t a question of what to do. I didn’t have the money to buy a new car. What I had was about $2,000, which I could either spend on a junker car that would last maybe a year (and save up for another one) or I could fix the truck that I did have available to me. It was a no-brainer for me.

I had an amazing family friend that offered to teach me everything I needed to know, along with letting us use his garage and tools. Nate got roped into my engine build too, and was amazingly willing to jump right in. Our 16 year old “date nights” were spent pulling pistons and cleaning oil pans rather than going to dinner and a movie. I think it was those early days working on my engine that set the tone for the rest of our crazy relationship!

By the way, 12 years later and that truck is still running like a champ!

- Troubleshooting Check Engine Light on a Sprinter

Troubleshooting a Check Engine Light on a Sprinter

All of that experience over the years with engines has prepared us pretty well for the surprises that come with living in a van full time. The inevitable check engine light is always a sinking feeling when it appears on the dash. When it does, however, there are a few things to do immediately to start troubleshooting the check engine light.

Pull over in a safe place. If you can get to a parking lot or protected area to stop, that is best. Don’t pull over on the shoulder if your engine is still running and able to get you elsewhere. Of course, if your engine has died, get over to the shoulder and as far off the road as you can, but just do your best.

Listen for Symptoms. When the check engine light comes on, turn off any music or other noise you may have going and listen for any abnormalities. Is the engine stuttering? Do you hear the turbo engaging? Is there anything that sounds or feels out of the ordinary?

Look Under the Hood. As simple as this sounds, many times people forget to just look. Pop the hood and take a peek at the engine. See if anything is abnormal or obviously wrong, i.e. smoke or leaking fluids. If you aren’t familiar with how your engine looks normally, now is a great time to start paying attention and looking under the hood regularly.

Pull Diagnostic Codes. We are strong believers that you should spend the money on a good code scanner to keep in your van at all times. This has been a life saver for us, and just one or two trips to the dealer to pull codes will cover the cost of the scanner. The code scanner that we use for our Sprinter is the iCarsoft Mercedes/Smart MB II. It’s a Sprinter specific code scanner, so it actually reads the codes more specifically than a generic scanner. It also allows you to read real-time data on the engine while you drive and allows you to clear codes. More on that in a bit.

Turn to Google. Type in the codes that you pulled and the type of vehicle you have and see what comes up. Google and YouTube are incredibly helpful when diagnosing issues, because most of the time someone else has had the same problem.

Ask the Community. With how connected we are these days, it’s easy to get access to very knowledgeable folks who are willing and able to help out with problems. From Facebook and YouTube to vehicle community forums, there are loads of places to turn for help. For Sprinters, Sprinter Source holds a wealth of knowledge and has very active members. If you don’t have a Sprinter, check for a vehicle-specific forum for your vehicle.

Start with Simple Fixes. You may look under your hood and Google your codes and come back with everything from electrical issues or sensors to engine failure. It can be overwhelming, like if you’ve ever used WebMD to try to diagnose your cold and it says you’re dying. Don’t jump off the deep end yet. Start with the simpler (and cheaper) fixes first to eliminate those possibilities. I would never recommend jumping into a major repair without making sure all connections and sensors are good first. Our $10 fix for our electrical issue could have turned into a $1,500 complete rewiring had we not tried the simple fix first.

Know Your Limitations. Even after years of experience working on vehicles, there are still times we take our van to the pros to fix it. Whether that be due to lack of knowledge (the wiring harness would require a pro) or lack of tools (replacing our rear axle assembly), we have to know our limitations on making repairs ourselves. But after you’ve gone through all of these steps, you’ll at least have an idea of the issue and know if the mechanic is giving you the run-around.

Troubleshooting a Check Engine Light on a Sprinter

After you’ve gone through all of these steps, you’ll have a better idea of what is going on with your Sprinter. Troubleshooting a check engine light on a Sprinter isn’t as scary as it sounds, but it is something that needs to be addressed immediately. Don’t continue on your road trip with a check engine light, as this can cause serious and permanent damage.

Breakdowns on the road are inevitable. So learning how to troubleshoot check engine lights and other mechanical failures on your van is crucial to van life. This step by step guide walks you through the processes we use to diagnose our Sprinter Van repairs. #vanlife | Roadside repairs | How to troubleshoot a check engine light | Sprinter Van Breakdowns | Sprinter Issues