A scan tool is a must for automotive diagnostic work today. When your Check Engine Light is on, you have to access the vehicle's onboard diagnostics with a code reader, scan tool or scanner software to find out what's wrong. A scan tool allows you to read faul codes and other diagnostic information.
The problem with reading manual flash codes is that (1) they are no longer used on most 1996 and newer vehicles (one exception is Nissan), and (2) counting the series of flashes can be confusing. Most flash codes use a combination of long and short flashes to indicate double digit codes, and if the vehicle has more than one code, it may be tricky to tell when one code ends and the next one begins. So the preferred method of reading codes on older vehicles is to use a code reader or scan tool.
On 1996 and newer vehicles with OBD2, there are no manual flash codes. You must have a code reader or scan tool to read the codes.
An important point to keep in mind here is that a fault code by itself does NOT tell you which part needs to be replaced. The code only tells you that a fault has been detected, not what caused it. The code serves as a starting point for further diagnosis. Many people don't understand this and assume an inexpensive code reader is all they need to "diagnose" and repair their vehicle.
Also, don't assume all code readers display all codes. They all display "generic" or "global" OBD2 codes ("P0" codes). But some do not display manufacturer "enhanced codes" ("P1" codes), or if they do, the list of codes may be limited to domestic vehicles (Ford, GM & Chrysler) and not include any enhanced codes for Asian or European vehicles.
Something else to check before you buy is the model years the code reader can access. Most code readers are for 1996 and newer OBD2 vehicles with a standard OBD2 16-pin connector. Most code readers cannot read codes on 1995 and older cars or trucks because the connectors are different. However, vehicle-specific code readers are available for older GM, Ford or Chrysler applications. The same is true for BMW, MINI and some other import applications.
Something else to keep in mind about code readers (and scan tools), is that the list of new DTCs and system data grows with every new model year. Last year's tool may not work on next year's models. Tools get out-of-date VERY quickly, and have to be updated with new software via plug-in memory chips, cartridges or internet downloads from the tool supplier. If you are shopping on ebay for a used code reader or scan tool, make sure it will work on your vehicle, or can be updated to your vehicle.
For advanced diagnostics on today's vehicles, a full feature scan tool is an absolute must. Scan tools for do-it-yourselfers can display sensor values and system data, but DIY scan tools cannot perform various system self-tests such as checking the operation of the fuel pump, cooling fan(s), idle speed control motor or solenoid, EGR solenoid, A/C compressor clutch, fuel injectors, EVAP leak test, EVAP purge controls, etc. This level of diagnostics requires a professional level scan tool (which are EXPENSIVE!) with bidirectional (two-way) communication capability and the proper software for accessing and running these type of tests.
Scan tools have different ranges and capabilities. Entry level "generic" scan tools typically sell for less than $200. They can read and clear codes, display the status of the various OBD II system monitors, and display basic operating data such as loop status (Open or Closed), airflow, coolant temperature, oxygen sensor outputs, throttle position and other sensor readings, and fuel trim values for diagnostic purposes. Most of these tools are fairly versatile and work on all domestic makes (Ford, GM & Chrysler), but may require additional software for Asian and/or European applications.
Entry level scan tools that are sold in auto parts stores are usually designed for do-it-yourselfers, and lack bidirectional communications capability for liability reasons. They may also display only a limited number of "PIDs" (Performance Information Data such as sensor values, switch status and other operational data) compared to a professional level scan tool or factory scan tool.
Click on the following links to view product information from scan tool manufacturers about each of their products:Actron Uscan for Smart Phones (New product June 2013)
The better tools typically have better displays, too. These include larger LCD screens with color graphics. The tool may also have multi-channel scope function that allows data to be displayed as a graph or waveform. This makes is easier to detect certain kinds of problems that may occur too quickly to notice when looking at numerical data. Many scan tools also have a "flight recorder" capability that allows data to be captured while the vehicle is being driven, for later analysis. An add-on 5-gas exhaust gas emission analyzer may also be an option.
Another feature that's available in many professional level scan tools is the ability to flash reprogram PCMs. Flashing a PCM with updated software may be necessary to correct a driveability or emissions issue. Flashing may also be necessary if the PCM is replaced. The other option is to get a J2534-compliant "pass-thru" tool that serves as an interface between the vehicle's PCM and a laptop or desktop PC.
NOTE: Some claims can be misleading. A vendor may say their product or software package covers a long list of makes and models, but it may be only generic OBD II information. They may not even have enhanced codes for the applications listed. Others may provide all the OBD II codes but no additional codes for ABS, air bags or other systems beyond the engine and powertrain. Some may have limited diagnostics and not include all the factory tests or procedures. If you are not sure exactly what is or is not included, ask before you buy.
OEM factory scan tools provide full access to virtually everything, but are very expensive compared to many aftermarket general purpose scan tools (though some of the high end aftermarket tools also cost thousands of dollars depending on their features). An OEM scan tool may cost $5000 up to $12,000 or more!
OEM scan tools include the Tech II for General Motors applications, New Generation Star (NGS) tester for Ford/Lincoln/Mercury, DRB III for Chrysler, and a list of others for the Asian and European makes. Some of these are now obsolete, having been replaced by more advanced PC-based scanner software in dealerships. Even so, for home diagnostic work, you can often find one of these older scan tools reasonably prices on ebay.
Factory scan tools generally provide access to all the diagnostic trouble codes (both "generic OBD II" and "enhanced"), all the on-board self-test procedures, and all of the other on-board electronics beyond engine performance and emissions such as the body control module, ABS module, air bag module, suspension module, climate control module and so on. The OEM scan tool can also be used to "reset" or "initiate" a module if it has been replaced (which is often necessary before the module will function correctly)> Often this involves a special "relearn" procedure that may only be available with the factory scan tool.
The only drawback with OEM scan tools is that most (with some exceptions) are designed to only work on ONE make of vehicle, not all makes and models. Consequently, they are well suited for new car dealer technicians but not general repair shop technicians who usually work on all makes and models.
Most technicians can't afford to own a separate scan tool for each and every vehicle they work on, so most opt for a general purpose scan tool and add software and hardware to expand its capabilities as needed. Some may also buy one or two OEM scan tools if they do a lot of work on a particular make (GM, for example, or an import). And they may also have a basic code reader for making quick code checks.
In recent years, the electrical systems on vehicles on late model vehicles have been using a new onboard communications protocol called CAN or Controller Area Network. CAN started phasing in in the early 2000s, and became standard on all 2008 and newer cars and light trucks. CAN uses a much higher baud rate to allow faster communication between modules. Because of this, CAN vehicles require a scan tool that is CAN-compliant for diagnostics. Most older scan tools cannot be upgraded to read the newer CAN vehicles. So if you are buying a used older scan tool, keep that in mind.. Innova 3140 CAN-compliant scan tool. . .
In addition to dedicated scan tools, you can also buy software that transforms a laptop or desktop PC, PDA, tablet or smart phone into a code reader or scan tool. Some of these offer very basic functions only while others run essentially the same software as an OEM scan tool.
The simplest and cheapest packages that sell for a couple hundred dollars or less essentially give you the ability to plug a laptop, PDA, tablet or smart phone into the diagnostic connector on a 1996 or newer vehicle and use it as a code reader to display and clear generic OBD2 fault codes. The better packages include enhanced codes for specific vehicle applications, and also may include the ability to display various PIDs such as sensor voltages, switch status and so on. The best software also includes graphics for displaying sensor voltages and other data.
Scanner software for a laptop, PC, tablet or smart phone requires either an interface cable that plugs into the OBD2 connector, or a WiFi or Bluethooth connection so your vehicle can communicate with your electronic device. The scan tool software, by itself, is useless without the cable or wireless interface that connects your computer or electronic device to your vehicle. If you are resourceful and want to save a few bucks, there are numerous sources on the Internet where you can buy interface cables separately, or kits or plans to build your own USB OBD cable.
One of the advantages of using a laptop or desktop PC as a scan tool is having a large display (which makes it easier to read and can display more information on a single page). Most laptops have a screen that measures 12 to 17 inches diagonally, while most PC monitors range in size from 16 to 22 inches or larger. If you have an old PC sitting around gathering dust, you can convert it into a large display color scan tool at a minimal cost (typically $250 to $500 or less for the software, including the interface cable).
Another advantage of using a computer as a scanner is that it can easily be updated by downloading the latest software via the internet. This also can be done with most newer scan tools as well (using a PC as an interface with a USB cable). The updates for DIY scan tools are often free, but for professional scan tools there is usually a fee or yearly subscription to pay.
Dedicated scan tools, by comparison, are designed to be scan tools and nothing else. You cannot surf the Internet with them or check your e-mail or Facebook page. They are for diagnosing cars only. Many professional-grade scan tools have additional hardware circuitry and test leads that allow you to use the same tool as a multimeter or digital oscilloscope to measure voltages, resistance and current. This is an extremely useful feature to have and reduces the need for additional test equipment.
Many high end professional scan tools also have the added ability to function as graphing multimeters or digital storage oscilloscopes. Being able to display sensor voltages as waveforms makes it much easier to detect problems that are nearly impossible to diagnose any other way.
If you are looking for a multi-purpose tool that can be used as a scanner, multimeter and scope, choose one that can display more than one waveform at a time. Many professional scan tools can simultaneously graph and display up to four different PIDs.
When a scope is hooked up to a sensor or circuit, it shows what is actually going on inside that device or circuit. Voltage is displayed as a time-based waveform. Once you know how to read waveforms, you can tell good ones from bad ones. You also can compare waveforms against scan tool data to see if the numbers agree (which is a great way to identify internal PCM faults).
A scope also allows you to perform and verify "action-reaction" tests. You can use one channel to monitor the action or input, and a second, third or fourth channel to watch the results. For example, you might want to watch the throttle position sensor, fuel injector waveform, crank sensor signal and ignition pattern when blipping the throttle to catch an intermittent misfire condition.
Using a scope does require a working knowledge of scope basics as well as the limitations of the scope you are using. Like scan tools, different scopes have different capabilities, so study and compare before you buy.
For an up-to-date report compiled by the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) on which scan tools are required for which vehicle applications, Click Here .
If you would like to read one shop's experience with scan tools and why they own what they own, Click Here
To find out more about Aftermarket scan tool limitations, and the problems scan tool companies have getting current service information from the vehicle manufacturers, Read This NASTF Report (January 2011).
According to a recent (2011) user survey of 400 technicians by iATN (International Automotive Technicians Network), the most popular scan tool form factors are as follows:
61% prefer a hand-held scan tool
28% prefer a laptop with scanner software
11% prefer a tablet with scanner software
Those who prefer a traditional hand held scan tool say the units are much faster and easier to use than a laptop or tablet. However, many of the newest professional level scan tools are using Windows-based scanner software in a custom hand held form (Snap-On Modis, Verus, Verdict, etc.). We will probably see more development of Windows scanner software for tablets and custom apps for iPhones and other smart phones as time goes on.
Information on translating and converting Mode 06 hex code for Ford and GM can be found on the International Automotive Technicians Network website (www.iatn.com). Go to the "Technical Resources" menu, then look in the Ford and Toyota sections. The Mode 06 information is in a downloadable PowerPoint presentation by Paul Baltusis of Ford Motor Company, called "An Introduction to Vehicle Networks, Scan Tools and Multiplexing."
When you buy a scan tool, don't expect to become a diagnostic expert overnight. All scan tools have a learning curve, and it takes some time to figure out what the tool will do (and what it cannot do), which PIDS and other sensor data you should be looking at when troubleshooting different kinds of faults, and what the information means.
Scan Tool Companion is a handy reference program that can help you make the most of your scan tool. The program runs from a CD on a laptop or Desktop Windows PC, and tells you which PIDs and data you need to look at by symptom, by code or by system. It also includes background reference information on engine sensors, OBD2 monitors, OBD2 emissions testing, and the operation of the engine management system. This is a "must have" reference program for any scan tool user.
Something else to keep in mind is that a scan tool by itself can't fix anything. It takes a brain to operate and use the information provided by the tool. You need to be knowledgeable about OBD2, engine management systems and sensor diagnosis. You also need access to current service information, technical service bulletins and electrical wiring diagrams. If you do not know how a sensor or circuit functions, what causes a code to set, or how a particular sensor or circuit is wired, how are you going to fix the fault?
You also can't rely on codes alone to identify all problems. Many problems never set a code. Some codes can be misleading because of the combination of circumstances that caused them to be set. Other codes may be false codes that never can be eliminated by normal repair procedures. You may have to reflash the computer to fix the problem.
The best advice here is to always check for TSBs, whether you find any codes or not. In many instances, there will be a TSB that covers the problem and will save you hours of frustration.
In conclusion, the more time and research you put into choosing a scan tool, the better satisfied you will be. Check with your equipment suppliers or the sources listed below for specific product models, features and prices. Spend some time on the Internet researching the various alternatives. Do your homework and you will find the tool (or tools) that are right for you.