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Scan Tool Guides

Scan Tool Buyer's Guide

Summary

  • Also called an “onboard diagnostic (OBD) scan tool” or a “car scanner,” a scan tool is an electronic device that can interface with the control modules in your vehicle.
  • You can distinguish between scan tools based on their capabilities. A unit will either classify as a code reader or an actual scan tool. Then there’s the tuner scan tool, a specialized type for use by performance tuners.
  • A scan tool is a significant investment, but it will pay for itself once you need it. The tool will see use in DIY car diagnosis and repair and customizing vehicle performance.
  • A scan tool can go for prices ranging from several dozen dollars to hundreds of dollars for the most capable scanners.
  • Consider what you expect to use the scan tool for, its ease of use, and its compatibility with your vehicle.

Modern vehicles achieve their efficient performance by automating vital car systems like the engine, fuel, transmission, and exhaust systems. The vehicle control modules in charge of the various components in these systems make sure everything runs at the right time and pace, and the computers work with each other.

When a control module detects a problem in a part or system that falls under its purview, it will log a diagnostic trouble code (DTC) so that whoever examines the malfunctioning vehicle will know what went wrong. Drivers, mechanics, and technicians can access a module’s logs by plugging a scan tool into the access port.

What is a scan tool?

Also called an “onboard diagnostic (OBD) scan tool” or a “car scanner,” a scan tool is an electronic device that can interface with the control modules in your vehicle. Depending on the particular type, the tool lets you troubleshoot the many features and systems of your vehicle.

The OBD scan tool plugs into the OBD-II access port, also called the data link connector or diagnostic link connector, and usually found near the steering wheel and below the dashboard. If you cannot find the port there, review the owner’s manual or repair manual for your vehicle. 

What does a car scan tool do?

Once plugged into the access port, the car scan tool can access the control modules. Depending on its capabilities, the tool you choose can serve you in several ways.

All scan tools can read diagnostic trouble codes logged in a control module. These codes generally follow the OBD-II codes set by the Society of Automotive Engineers, but vehicle manufacturers may set different codes for some vehicles. They give you a better idea of the problem afflicting your vehicle.

More advanced OBD-II scan tools can show live data streams and possess bi-directional controls. Live data streaming lets you measure the performance of the vehicle’s systems in real-time, while the bi-direction control feature lets you alter the behavior of the controllers and the parts they manage.

Some scan tools even possess the functionality to change the parameters of a control module’s programming. By modifying the settings of the engine or fuel system, you can adjust a vehicle’s performance, such as reducing its emissions or generating more horsepower.

As a safety measure, scan tools cannot replace the module’s entire programming unless you also have a pass-through device that effectively unlocks the module.

What are the car scanner types?

You can distinguish between scan tools based on their capabilities. A unit will either classify as a code reader or an actual scan tool. Then there’s the tuner scan tool, a specialized type for use by performance tuners.

The code reader is the simplest type. It reads diagnostic trouble codes logged by the control module and shows it to you.

A full-fledged scan tool offers more options in finding out what went wrong with the vehicle. In exchange for costing more than code readers.

Finally, a tuner scan tool helps customizers adjust the way their vehicle’s engine performs. It lets the user fiddle with the preset programs governing the engine’s operations, such as the time the spark plugs activate to ignite the fuel and the amount of fuel injected into the engine’s cylinders.

Why do you need a scan tool?

A scan tool is a significant investment, but it will pay for itself once you need it. The following are common reasons for getting the tool.

DIY car diagnosis and repair

Most car owners buy scan tools to help them find out what went wrong with their vehicles. You can save money by diagnosing your car and determining the trouble codes logged in the module before bringing it to the auto repair shop.

If you possess enough DIY car repair knowledge, you can fix your car based on the trouble codes set by the modules, checking the symptoms of the issue, and further testing of the faulty parts or system.

With the associated software and equipment like a pass-through device, you can even perform flash reprogramming of the control modules. New car dealerships use this technique to eliminate any issues regarding the car’s handling and emissions. Flash reprogramming doesn’t work on mechanical problems, though, so you may still have to get your hands dirty by replacing the broken part.

Customizing your vehicle’s performance

Many car owners “tune” their vehicles for better engine performance and increased horsepower. They change the programming of the engine control module to adjust factors like spark timing, fuel enrichment, and boost pressure that affects the engine.

Tuning makes it possible for the customized car to take full advantage of aftermarket performance parts installed on its engine. It also increases the efficiency of a performance chip.

To tune the control module, tuners use a special aftermarket scan tool and the software. This tuner scan tool helps customizers tweak the standard settings to their preference, load pre-programmed tunes available online that deliver a specific performance level, or restore the original tune once they return their vehicle to its original configuration.

How much does a scan tool cost?

A scan tool can go for prices ranging from several dozen dollars to hundreds of dollars for the most capable scanners. The cost depends on the manufacture, the type and its capabilities, and any other parts that come with the car scan tool.

Selecting the best scan tool

You want to get the most bang for your buck while avoiding breaking the bank. Here are some helpful things to keep in mind when looking for a scan tool.

Expected role

If you just want to know what went wrong with your vehicle before you call a tow service, you can make do with a simple code reader. Car owners who perform DIY work should get more capable bi-directional scan tools, while tuning enthusiasts must shell out for a tuner scan tool.

Ease of use

A user-friendly scan tool relieves much of the stress of diagnosing and repairing car problems. Features like a large LCD display that shows important information, an intuitive menu, and a partner app for your mobile or computer make it easier to figure out what went wrong in your car.

Compatibility

Scan tools only work on OBD-II-compatible vehicles built in 1996 or later, and some models won’t work on all vehicles. Make sure the tool you’re eyeing can communicate with your ride’s control modules.

Car Scan Tool and Why You Need It

If you feel sick and you think there is something wrong with your bodily functions, you go to the doctor. The doctor doesn't tell you right away the real cause of the problem. He needs to use several tools and conduct series of tests before he pinpoints the culprit why you feel bad. What if your car seems to be a little under the weather? Of course, it can't speak. It can't tell you why it keeps on overheating, or stalling, or why the headlights are not working. The question now is, how can you know where the problem lies?

Your car, just like your own body, is made of complex parts and systems. Just like your doctor, there is a tool that you can use to detect the broken or damaged parts of your car. This is the scan tool. You just have to plug the scan tool into your car's system then it shows you codes that represent the area or part that is not working well.

There are several types of automotive scan tools and each type focuses in a specific area. It is important to find the specific problem so you can correct it ASAP. The right scan tool can help you locate the real problem in a matter of minutes. Here are the different types of scan tool and their specific use:

OBDLink 2.0

OBD stand for On-board diagnostics. Once you plug this scan tool in your car, it runs tests on the whole system and determines if all of the parts are functioning well. The codes and other data are all recorded in the device in case you need a reference. Once you're done reading all the information, you are free to reset the tool. This scanner can also verify how fuel efficient your car is. The OBDLink 2.0 is suitable for car models from 1996 to present.

Actron 9410

This type works almost the same with the OBD type. It checks the errors in your car and alerts you if such error can cause further damage in your engine. This scan tool has a simpler interface so it's perfect for beginners and non-car experts.

AutoTap Express DIY

This type is a combination of small device and computer software that you can install in your notebook or laptop. The software is compatible with Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Vista. This tool detects problems in your vehicle especially in the ignition and combustion systems.

There will come a time when your car will experience some problems so as early as now, equip yourself with the right tool. With the right scan tool, you can solve your car's problem right away.

Car Health Assessment: Connecting a Scan Tool to Your Vehicle

Maintaining your car's excellent working condition requires evaluating its problems as soon as it pops up. Having modern vehicles equipped with computer chips and systems greatly helps in detecting what is wrong in your car. Interpreting these detections is now dependent on an on-board computer system. In order to be prepared for all possible situations, owning a scan tool is essential.

Just follow these few steps in plugging the scan tool to your car:

Difficulty level: Easy

Things you'll need:

  • Owner's manual
  • Scan tool kit

Step 1: Find a level surface to park your car. Shut down the engine and let it cool for a while. Then, take out the carpet under the glove compartment by pulling it back until you notice a panel. To remove the panel door, pull on the handle of the panel cautiously.

Step 2: Refer to your car's manual to locate the vehicle's Diagnostic Link Connector or DLC. It's usually found under the dash on the driver's side. However, some cars have it in other locations such as under the steering wheel, under the driver's foot well, behind the ash tray, under the passenger seat, and over the passenger door.

Step 3: Raise the kick panel towards you and you will see the connector. Now that you've found the DLC, plug the scan tool connector to the port. If plugged in correctly, you will hear a click sound upon attachment. This means that the scan tool is connected and is ready for use.

Step 4: Read the manufacturer's instruction manual and follow the steps on how to use the specific scan tool.

Using a scan tool in examining your vehicle's health is a good start in preventing major damages. However, taking care of your car doesn't end with knowing what part must be repaired or replaced. It is important that you consult a technician to guide you in managing your vehicle.

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