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Desperate money hole - Mystery of "Check Gauges"

I have a 1999 Dodge Ram 2500 Cummins diesel, 162,000 miles. I keep taking it to the mechanic and it fails a week or two after being fixed. I use it to haul hay and horses and it goes up a steep winding grade and down every time I return and leave my house.

Older known problems: small transmission leak and the device that runs the ABS breaks doesn’t work and they don’t make new ones so the break light and ABS light are always on.

To describe what I’m running into, a little history of what I’ve had worked on the last year, especially during the last six months.

  1. The “check gauges” light kept coming on and off. The RPMs waivered around when I drove between 30 and 40 mph. The speedometer would sit at zero and then randomly work again while driving. The same for the oil-ometer. Then it completely died on the interstate and it slowly coasted since the breaks didn’t work once the engine stopped working. Battery still worked.
    Mechanic’s solution: a sensor that the engine uses to communicate between the two sides of the engine stopped working and so it automatically shut the engine off. (No, I don’t know what it is. I have absolutely no clue.) Once installed the engine worked alright, but that “check gauges” came right back on again.

  2. More than a month later the engine started to sound weird, sort of a sound as if the cabin fans were on full blast. It sounded like it was coming from just beyond the dash. Also it had no pull or acceleration. Yup, that “check gauges” wouldn’t give up. I put a fuel additive in the gas tank in case there was gunk buildup in the fuel line. Gave up and I asked for a complete review of the truck to get an entire list of what is wrong.
    Mechanic solution: Several things were wrong. It needed a new oil filter (the current one had “imploded”), the air filter was awful. It needed a new belt and the turbo was stuck in the on position and was sent out to be repaired. Also a new radiator. (To be honest, I drive the truck a few times a week, which I need to do, but I just don’t go far. I’ve driven the truck about 11,500 miles in 4 years so I probably have been behind on upkeep and had wrongly assumed that those things would be cleaned/checked during an oil change.) This seemed to fix it, although as soon as I turned it on when leaving the mechanic the “check gauges” light still made an appearance and I just started to assume it might be because of the ABS problem. The shop said they checked everything and there are no more issues.

  1. About two weeks after getting it back and making one long trip with it, the speedometer started it’s trick again. It is just suck at zero. The “check gauges” light is staying on more frequently rather than just popping up when I start the engine. And now the “air bags” sign is on. At this point I’m at my wit’s and wallet’s end. I’m desperate for this thing to work because I need to use it. My brother can help me a little since I am clueless. I might as well be looking at the portal to Narnia when I peek under the hood. I’m too terrified to drive it down the hill to have it checked in case the engine turns off again and I have virtually no brakes on this steep,windy mountain with no guard rails.

What does this light really mean? Is there a comprehensive list of gauges I can go through to check each on? How do I just make this thing work? I’m willing to research and learn something new if someone has a jumping off point for me.

Thank you

Since you have “no clue” there is really nothing I can tell you that will help you help a mechanic to fix this truck.

I see one of 2 things going on here.

  1. The truck is old, has high miles, and things are failing that need service. Failing in a frequency that is causing a problem with your business. Your mechanic can not predict what will fail next, he’s just tackling each failure as it presents itself.

  2. Your mechanic is not very good and he is just not getting the truck fixed properly with each failure.

It is up to you to decide if the problem is your 21 year old truck with 162K on it or your mechanic. One or the other needs to change.

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What I’m trying to find is some insight on what may be going on so I can find the right mechanic or have my brother who is handy with cars help me. If you have some ideas I can research them and try it out if it isn’t too complicated (like switching out sensors). Does someone know what “check gauges” really means on this vehicle - or I guess what I’m really asking is what someone would do to respond to that light?
For a diesel, while old and I expect there to be some things failing due to age, it is about mid-life since they tend to get 300,000-400,000 miles, especially this make and model.
But thank you for insight that the mechanic may fix what he sees then and something new breaks again quickly thereafter.

On my GM truck, the check gauges means that one or more of the gauges is indicating a value that is out of acceptable range. For example, if the thermostat is failing open, the temperature may not rise as high or as fast as the ECM is programmed to accept. In that case, the temp gauge will go to lowest value and the check gauges diagnostic lamp will be illuminated.

What is going on is a 21 year old truck with 162k miles. Age matters as well as miles. And sensors will fail. If your brother thinks a sensor change is a tough fix, you will not get your truck fixed.

I suspect there’s an electrical fault in the connection of the instrument panel with the wiring, or a ground fault involving the panel. I know nothing about your particular truck. The things you describe seem to focus on the fact that the panel is getting either no usable info or very corrupted info.

Your truck is also suffering from what is known as “deferred maintenance” which means you are neglecting it to death. Either you spend some time and learn how to keep things up properly or just get used to spending a lot of money on any vehicles you ever own.

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Logic in the instrument cluster will illuminate the check gauges light if one of the gauges is out of range, do all of the gauges read normal?

The check gauges light illuminating for a few seconds after start up is a known condition, there is a delay in communication of the oil pressure value between the Cummins computer, the Powertrain Control Module and the instrument cluster, this is not a sign of failure.

Has anyone checked for fault codes in the ABS controler? The rear wheel speed sensor is a common failure, this would also explain the speedometer failure. The rear wheel speed sensor is located in the rear differential housing, easy to replace. It is also possible that the wiring to the sensor has a break in it so you may need to check for resistance in the wiring.

Chrysler or Jeep ABS units for this vintage are no longer available from Chrysler and the supplier is no longer in business This will no effect operation of the brakes, they will operate just like thy did before ABS came out. What is an oil-ometer? Did you mean the odometer? If that or you speedometer is out it is not surprising that your check gauges light comes on. Yes diesel engines can go a lot of miles.Probably more miles than a neglected intermittently drive 1999 Dodge truck. I did not see you mention a fuel filter, that is a critical component on a diesel. If the WIX filters still have a drain plug on the bottom to drain water out , get one of them.