Computers are great most of the time, but when they don’t work, they’re a pain in the jacksie. Hooking up the scan tool only to be greeted with no communication is frustrating!!!
OBD scanners fail to connect for three common reasons:
- Faulty OBD plug/socket
- Scanner not compatible
- CAN network fault
In this post, you’ll learn about each of the common reasons an OBD scan tool won’t connect to a vehicle. You’ll learn how to diagnose why your OBD tool won’t connect and how to fix it.
When writing this post, I assumed your scan tool powers up when you plug it into your vehicle’s OBD port, but it just won’t connect.
If, however, your scan tool won’t even power up when you hook it up, then check out this post, “OBD scanner won’t turn on” it covers the simple fix in detail. A blown fuse is often the cause of a scan tool that simply won’t power up.
1 Faulty OBD Plug or Socket
This may seem simplistic, and you are correct, but it’s worth exploring for two reasons. Number one, it only takes a few moments, and number two, while not being the most common cause of a scan tool that won’t communicate, it is by far one of the easiest fixes.
So what’s the problem with the OBD plug/socket?
I’m a mechanic, and while we’re known for our MacGyver-type skills, we may not be generally prized for our finesse. That’s not to say we disrespect kit or customers’ vehicles, but working on a workshop floor is all about speed.
In a long-winded way, I’m saying your vehicle’s OBD connector, also known as the DLC (Datalink connector), may be damaged from possibly years of OBD scanning and, dare I say it, “Front probing.”
Reaching into a vehicle, blindly fitting, or pulling the scanner cable is a normal everyday occurrence. This type of repeated activity will eventually cause scan tool pin wear or damage and spreading of the vehicle’s female OBD socket terminals.
How to check the scan tool plug?
Examine your scan tool plug and check the pins. There are 16 pins. (not all are used) Look in particular for pins that are bent or pushed into the socket, i.e., a lot shorter than the others.
Check for corrosion or debris in the plug. Check the cable itself for damage, and check the plug at the scanner too. Finding a problem with the plug or cable is easy to fix. Most good scanners will have a detachable and, therefore, replaceable OBD cable. Just go ahead and buy a new cable. They’re not expensive.
Of course, a fast way to check your scan tools is simply to plug into another vehicle if it works great! You can move on to a possible problem with your vehicle’s OBD terminals, and that’s what we’ll look at next.
How to check the OBD socket (DLC)?
Checking your vehicle’s socket is a little more work but not much. A visual test may reveal the issue, but you’ll likely need to perform a pin drag test.
Your vehicle’s DLC terminals are known as female terminals. Wear and tear and front probing cause the terminal legs to lose tension. This causes resistance and often is the root cause of scan tool communication issues.
For this test, we’ll do what I said was rarely a good idea. Well, front probe the pins and compare tension.
A visual test comes first. Examine the DLC terminals closely. They should look similar. Note: not every DLC slot will contain a terminal. Pay particular attention to terminals 6 and 14. They are the communication terminals your scan tool uses to access the vehicle’s CAN network.
Next, we’ll pin-drag test the terminals. We’ll place a fine metal tool between the pins and feel the resistance when we remove it. This isn’t a measurable result. We’re using our ability to feel the difference in tension from one terminal to another.
In a workshop. We have very precise tools for this job, but you can still nail this test by improvising a fine paper clip or such. Do not place objects like a multimeter probe into the terminals. That will damage them.
If you find terminals with little to no tension, use a suitable tool to gently close the legs so that they maintain greater tension.
2 Scanner Not Compatible
The scanner you are using may simply not be compatible with your vehicle.
Of course, if you have used this same scanner previously and it worked, then this whole section doesn’t apply to you. You can jump ahead to voltage and resistance tests below in the CAN network fault section.
If however the scanner is new or new to you, go ahead and check your scanner’s capability. Check that it contains the latest software. Many tools offer free software upgrades. Try logging on to your scan tool makers website. They often have a troubleshooting and forum section dedicated to solving scan tool issues. Common scan tool problems will be front and center.
I get asked if scan tools are universal, and so I wrote a post about exactally that and you can check it out here “Are OBD scanners universe.”
If you need an inexpensive scanner that does the job, check out the Topdon vs. Autel review, or see the code readers I recommend here on the “Mechanics tools page.” Or check out the Code reader Amazon link below.Amazon OBD Code Reader
3 CAN Network Fault
As you know, modern vehicle electrical systems increasingly employ control modules to manage system functions. Your vehicle will employ several. Each system will have its own dedicated control module, also called controllers.
Vehicle computers are known by several names and acronyms, and to make things even more exciting, manufacturers use their own names. But don’t let any of this confuse you; they all just control modules. Some of the common controller names include – Control modules, Controllers, Computers, CU, CM, Modules, and Microprocessors.
To identify individual controllers, manufacturers generally use acronyms like PCM (Powertrain control module), ECM (Engine Control Module), TCM (Transmission control module), BCM (Electronic brake control module), or EBM (Electronic brake module), or BCM (Body control module), IPCM (Instrument panel control module) you get the idea.
What does a controller do?
I’m not going deep into the weeds here, I realize you simply want your OBD to connect, but a little background info is useful for later when we’ll be running some tests.
As said, vehicles employ lots of controllers. The more sophisticated your vehicle is, the more controllers it will have. All modern vehicles, for example, will have an ABS brake system. This is a sophisticated system that only a computer can manage.
Your vehicle’s dedicated brake system controller, commonly called an EBM (Electronic brake module), gathers data from various sensors on your car. Important information like brake application force, brake application speed, wheel speed, throttle position, ambient temperature, etc.
The information is processed by the EBM, and action is taken according to its software parameters.
Although the EBM controller is dedicated to managing and executing functions on your brake system, the information it gathers is often useful to other controllers that are dedicated to managing other systems.
Controllers, therefore, share information. They don’t work in isolation. They are part of a network of information.
Controllers Share Data:
The PCM (Powertrain controller – manages engine and transmission) uses basic data like vehicle speed to perform timely fueling or gear change decisions. As the BCM already gathers speed data, it shares it with the PCM.
But the BCM may also share information about ABS activation. The PCM may use this information to cut power to the engine when the vehicle is skidding.
Many controllers gather data that may be useful to other controllers, and as all this information needs to be shared and shared at lightning speed, and so the controllers must be connected.
Controllers are connected via multiplexers which facilitate communication and the sharing of information. Modern vehicles typically use a few different types of communication systems depending on how important the message is. The most common system type is CAN (Controller Area Network).
Most systems use conventional wiring. Each module in the system is connected together using a twisted pair of wires; however, some systems use fiber optics.
How do they communicate?
CAN networks, as you know, connect all the controllers together using a twisted pair of wires known as the CAN lines. They are twisted because that helps reduce interference from other wiring circuits.
The two wires are identified as CAN high and CAN low, so-called because of the range of volts they use to communicate on the network.
The CAN high uses a voltage range of 2.5 to 3.5 volts, and the second wire, known as CAN low, uses a 1.5 to 2.5 voltage range.
Every controller on the system is recognized and monitored by all the other controllers on the system. It’s eyes on eyes. Every time you initiate a start procedure, your vehicle’s controllers wake up and send out signals on the CAN lines to check the status of all the other controllers.
They, in turn, signal back so that all the controllers talk to each other. It’s known as the handshake. Each controller has a set time to communicate. This is important. If all controllers talk at once, messages are lost.
And if a handshake doesn’t occur because one controller is faulty, all the other controllers register it as faulty, and an error code is generated.
The fault could also, of course, be a wiring issue between the suspected faulty controller and the network.
Because CAN network language uses voltage drops to communicate, they are super sensitive to changes in voltage; in other words, they are super sensitive to circuit resistance.
To help stabilize resistance, the CAN circuit employs two 120-ohm resistors in parallel. This using Ohm’s law makes the measurable resistance of 60 ohms. That’s important to know for later when we’ll be testing circuit resistance.
The resistors are commonly controlled module integrated but may also be embedded in the circuit.
Common communication issues:
Communication circuit wiring chafing and breaks are common but not as common as controller failure. Controllers usually fail in two ways:
- They fail to work and stop communication completely – the other controllers register the controller as faulty.
- They contaminate the CAN network with constant erratic voltage. The other controllers and scan tools can’t understand this constant gibberish and simply don’t get a chance to shake hands with the other healthy controllers, as the CAN lines are always busy.
It’s not uncommon for one controller to become corrupt and pull down the whole network. This causes a no-start issue. Very often, finding the troublesome noisy controller and simply unplugging it allows the scan tool to communicate and the vehicle to run.
Common reasons control modules fail:
By far, the two most common causes of control module failure, in my experience, are old age and moisture. Moisture caused by water leaks is a common cause of failure.
Many controllers that are fitted under the hood are pretty durable and can withstand moisture, but controllers fitted inside the cabin aren’t built to withstand moisture since they aren’t expected to get wet.
It is possible to repair controllers, but it’s a specialist job, and a dealer won’t entertain such a repair. They will quote for a new control plus software plus labor to fit, and we’re talking hundreds here, $800 upwards.
Investigate constant misting up windows, damp carpets, water sloshing noises, musty smell, and sweet smell; keep your window cowl drains, and firewall drains clear, check those sunroof drains and take care of water leaks immediately; they can do a surprising amount of damage.
How to check the CAN System
Controllers are expensive and complex units. Calling one failed without doing the proper test can be costly. Many a good tech has been caught out by jumping the gun and calling a perfectly good controller faulty, only to find the problem is still present with a shiny new spendy one installed.
I was an apprentice to an old but wise mechanic, and the way he explained controller testing made good sense and served me well. I’m passing it on. Controllers are like black boxes. We don’t know what’s going on inside them, and we don’t really care.
What we do care about is verifying the following:
- Good voltage supply
- Good ground path
- Good inputs
Once we have checked the voltage, ground, and inputs, it’s easy to condemn a failing or faulty controller.
The following tests aren’t complicated, and most of the checks are easy to do. This content is owned by moc.sotuaytsur. Some may be more challenging than others, not because of complexity but because some controllers may be difficult to access.
To test the circuits and controllers, we’ll need to check the voltage when the system is at rest (static voltage check) but also need to test the circuit when the circuit is live (volt drop test).
In addition, we’ll check the resistance of the CAN network. We’ll cover all these tests below, but before we do, we’ll need the proper tools to make these tests.
Tools we’ll need:
Because CAN networks use changes in voltage to communicate, they are super sensitive to resistance which, of course, changes voltage.
CAN networks communicate in a predictable square wave pattern? However, they do it at lightning speed. Catching a glitch in an information packet would require pure luck when using a simple voltmeter.
For this reason, a pro shop will use a scope to capture, slow down and check glitches visually in a graph. Having a scope does make capturing intermittent issues easier.
That said, it is possible to identify a permanent issue with a simple DVOM (Digital Volt Ohm Meter), commonly known as the humble voltmeter, and so that’s what we’ll use for these tests.
A wiring diagram will be needed for some of these tests as to how the CAN network is wired will predict some of the readings we should expect.
Tools we’ll need:
- Wiring diagram
- Scope would be nice
Check out the “Auto electrical repair tools page,” where I list all the repair tools I use. Or check out the Amazon auto repair tools link below.Amazon Auto Electrical Repair Tools
Check CAN Voltage
This is a simple voltage check using a voltmeter and fine probes. Remember, back probing terminals are advised unless you have fine non-invasive probes. Here’s a pinout of your vehicle’s DLC you can use to follow along.
As said at the beginning of this post, I’ve assumed you have power in the scan tool, but it isn’t communicating. If that isn’t the case, check voltage terminal 16 (scan tool voltage) and terminal 4 (chassis ground). Check terminal 16 and terminal 5 (signal ground) also. A blown fuse is often the cause of a scan tool that won’t power up.
A strong battery is critical. Low voltages may distort your results. A battery with min 12.5 volts should be maintained.
Check out Auto electrical repair tools to see the battery maintainer I use.
Check voltage at CAN High
Vehicle ignition should be turned on (Pos II). Place the voltmeter positive probe on terminal 6 and the negative on terminal 4. Use the min-max voltmeter function to capture the max voltages and min voltages. The readings between 2.5 and 3.5 volts indicate normal.
Check voltage at CAN Low
Vehicle ignition should be turned on (Pos II). Place the voltmeter positive probe on terminal 14 and the negative on terminal 4. Use the min-max voltmeter function to capture the max voltages and min voltages. The readings between 1.5 and 2.5 volts indicate normal.
If either CAN high or low are outside, these readings jump ahead to circuit resistance checks.
Ground-side CAN voltage drop test
Vehicle ignition should be turned on (Pos II). With the voltmeter set to volts. Place the negative probe on terminal 4 and the positive probe on the chassis ground and note the reading Repeat this for pin 5.
Both tests should read less than .2 volts. More than this means there’s excessive resistance in the circuit. The ground should be inspected first.
Check CAN Resistance
With the battery disconnected and the voltmeter set to Ohms. Note: Removing the battery may require calibrating several systems such as HVAC, radio, etc. In many cases, this may require a bidirectional scan tool.
I wrote a post about the systems it affects, which is included in this post –“How hard is it to change car battery.”
With the battery disconnected (ground terminal). Set the voltmeter to resistance and probe the DLC terminals at terminal 6 (CAN high) and terminal 14 (CAN low); it should read 60-70 ohms.
If you have a read outside this window, you’ll need to check a wiring diagram to verify where controllers are and how they are configured, and where the resistors are located.
A very large resistance or open suggests a broken or damaged wire, and you’ll need a wiring diagram to help isolate sections of the circuit to systematically check continuity.
If, on the other hand, resistance is lower or higher than expected but not open, then a faulty controller is a likely suspect. See checking the Controller diagram below.
Resistance test using wiring diagram
Depending on how your CAN network is wired. A process of elimination is often fruitful. Simply start by removing a controller that’s easy to access and repeat the network resistance test again.
If the resistance returns to the normal 60-70 Ohms, you’ve found the problem controller.
Most controllers are wired in series, with sub-controllers (Side streets off the main street); knowing which module is on main street and which is a side street is crucial to efficient resistance testing.
Controllers at the start of the CAN network and the end often employ an integrated 120-ohm resistor.
Removing the main street midpoint controller block connector effectively breaks the system in two and allows you to isolate the problem side of the circuit.
With the system in two halves, each end will contain a 120 Ohm (Ω) resistor, and since they are not connected and no longer in parallel, they will measure 120 Ohms or close to it.
Now, measuring resistance not at the DLC but instead at “CAN In” and “CAN Out” (at the disconnected controller’s block connector) will identify which side of the circuit is at issue. See the diagram above.
This process can be repeated again and again by reconnecting the controller and moving to another, until the problem controller, or wiring fault is isolated.
This, of course, is only possible if you have a good working wiring diagram. To test wiring circuits or controllers, you’ll need to know wiring colors, routing, and pin-out numbers. Finding and fixing problems is straightforward once you have the power of knowledge.
Making repairs to the CAN network
If you find a faulty controller, replacing it will require a trip to the dealer, as the new controller will need to be coded to all the other controllers on the system. (Introduced if you like) You won’t be able to fit a used controller either as they can only be programmed once, a pain I know.
Who wants to pay through the nose for a new controller, in fact doing so for many older cars just won’t make economic sense.
As an alternative, consider shipping just your controller to a specialist control module repair centers, they will test and repair your controller without removing it’s software, and so once repair and returned in the mail it’s a plug and play type deal. All by the way for a fraction of the cost of a new main dealer fitted unit.
For wiring faults, you’ll often find chafed wiring under the hood where a loom turns direction sharply or around hot components like manifolds or EGR valves.
Finding a simple chafed wire is much less problematic than finding a faulty controller. Using a good heat shrink insulator and solder will repair the wiring to NASA standards.
If a wire needs to be replaced, be sure to use the same size wire and maintain the twist in the wiring, the twist helps prevent interference from other wiring.
Other electrical post you may find helpful
- About the Author
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.