Symptoms Of A Bad ECU And Replacement Cost

Do you suspect that your car is dealing with a bad ECU? Here's the ultimate guide showing you all the symptoms of a bad ECU and the repair cost.

The Electronic Control Unit is your car’s brain. If it goes bad, it’s akin to your vehicle having a stroke.

As a result, it won’t work correctly. In turn, your car will behave unexpectedly, making it difficult to predict and control.

These days, ECUs are made up of hundreds of individual control modules. A few examples of these include the ECM (Engine Control Module), TCM (Transmission), and BCM (Body).

Unfortunately, any one of these hundreds of modules could fail. The most common ones, though, are those mentioned above.

In short, if you notice an unexplained issue with any feature of your car, the respective ECU control module could be at fault.

Before we start: ECU stood for Engine Control Unit in the past. Now, the meaning has been changed to “Electronic” to encompass all the other features. The control module within the ECU responsible for the engine is the ECM.

Many still refer to the ECM as the Engine Control Unit. This, of course, has the same acronym (ECU), making it hard to distinguish the ECM from the Electronic Control Unit in certain texts.

In this guide, the ECU is the car’s overall electronic system. The ECM is the module for engine control.

Related:What Causes ECU Failure?

Table of ContentsShow

Warning Lights Or Display Messages

How To Reset A Check Engine Light

In most modern cars, you’ll get a warning message and dashboard lights. In many cases, these display messages give you far more information than you’d otherwise have.

If any of your ECU control modules go bad, your car might tell you. Of course, it depends on the manufacturer’s system design.

The Check Engine Light could signal that something has gone wrong with the ECM, PCM, or TCM. It might not illuminate if you have a problem with one of the other modules.

Poor Performance (In General)

Poor Performance

The most well-known modules are also the most likely to fail. As mentioned, these are the ECM, TCM, and BCM (engine, transmission, and body electronics).

  • If the ECM fails, you’ll likely notice symptoms like poor fuel economy, weak acceleration, and limp mode. These all occur because the car can’t “see” the exact condition of the engine, and thus everything falls out of balance. Limp mode often activates because the ECU assumes a worst-case (safe) state to get you to a nearby mechanic.
  • TCM failure, unexpectedly, will lead to strange shifting patterns (or none at all). Strange TCM behavior could also be caused by the ECM not communicating correctly.
  • When the BCM goes bad, it’s like your car is haunted. The alarm might sound at random times; wipers run without your instruction; headlights flicker. Who knows? Anything electronic in your car’s “body” area could be affected.

And these are just three of the hundreds of control modules that make up the ECU. Others include:

  • PCM – Powertrain Control Module. The PCM is different from car to car. Broadly speaking, it connects the ECM and TCM for a smooth ride.
  • ACM – Airbag Control Module
  • BMS – Battery Management System
  • SCM – Suspension Control Module
  • (E)BCM – (Electronic) Brake Control Module
  • PDM – Passenger Door Module
  • HSM – Heated Seat Module
  • RSM – Rain Sensor Module

Anything could fail and produce odd symptoms. These would all classify as a bad ECU.

Strange Or Erratic Electrical Symptoms

Limp Mode Car

All ECU problems will, of course, be electrical (at a fundamental level).

Anything could happen if something goes wrong in a circuit board or connection. The slightest unusual thing could be a symptom of a bad ECU.

It’s impossible to give you a comprehensive list of “strange things” that might be happening in your car. It could be absolutely anything – anything at all. However, here are a few well-known examples.

  • Limp mode
  • Low power and other typical misfire symptoms
  • Alarm blaring at random times
  • Central locking isn’t working all the time
  • Doors lock as soon as you press OPEN
  • Strange transmission shifting patterns
  • High emissions
  • Soot buildup
  • “Sensor failure” messages
  • Lights flickering or switching on and off for no reason

Remember, too, that a bad ECU isn’t the only possible underlying cause for any of these.

For instance, problems with the central locking or alarm could stem from your car battery. Limp mode could activate due to a compression loss in a cylinder, and so on.

If you can’t find a root cause, though, a bad ECU control module might explain your symptoms.

The Thing About Bad ECU Symptoms

ECU Inside Car

Here’s the thing you really have to know. It’s almost impossible to diagnose a bad ECU from symptoms alone by reading an online blog (like this).

ECUs in modern cars contain well over 100 separate control modules. Each of these has its own circuits and circuit boards. They’re also programmed individually. Each one connects to the overall ECU network, too!

There’s a lot going on.

Anything could fail in any of these areas. For example, the circuit boards might get moisture on them. But which part of the circuit will fail? It’ll be different every time.

An electrical overload might affect how the ECM and TCM interact. But which solder joints have broken? Which parts of each circuit have overheated or short-circuited? It’s impossible to say.

There are billions (and, statistically speaking, far more) of options for what makes an ECU go bad.

The only way you can tell for sure is by going to an automotive electrician. If something’s wrong in a control module, a good engineer will find it.

Bad ECU Replacement Cost

Cost and Price

The part you’ve probably been dreading. How much does a bad ECU cost to fix?

Well, it depends on the specific module that’s failing.

Nowadays, it’s pretty simple for engineers to replace your control modules. The parts are available for them to purchase. They’ll then need to program it to match your car.

It will cost you around $800 to $1,200, on average. This might not include a diagnosis fee.

The modules themselves come in at an average of around $600. 

You’ll then need to add up to several hours’ worth of labor charges. These costs could end up somewhere between $200 and $400.

Can You Work On Your Own ECU?

What Causes ECU Failure

No.

It shouldn’t even cross your mind.

ECUs are far too complex, and the modules are far too interlinked. You’ll do more harm than good, possibly making yourself liable for any accidents.

It’s perfectly understandable to wince at the high costs mentioned above. It’s a lot of money. Unfortunately, it needs to be done. The longer you leave it, the more severe the damage will get.

If you suspect you have a bad ECU, go straight to an automotive electrician. You could head to your local mechanic, but they’ll probably subcontract the work to a specialized business. It’s cheaper to go straight there in the long run.

Your car will be as good as new if all goes to plan.

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Benjamin Kitchen

Ben is an automotive author from England. With experience in a fast-fit garage, he's an IMI-qualified light vehicle technician. He aims to help drivers worldwide with common automotive problems. You’ll often find him working with his 1.2 Vauxhall Corsa – it may have a tiny engine, but in eight years it's never once let him down!

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