Most everyone has a car or drives one and the newer the car, the more idiot lights they have all over the place. They used to be called “idiot lights” meaning an idiot can understand what it is telling you but today there are so many, it makes you feel like an idiot because you can’t read them.
Every car needs to come with a booklet off all these new things that have been added, removed or changed. I got in a brand new car the other day and wasn’t for sure I could drive it and I am a mechanic. So I hope I can help with my “Dashboard Warning Lights Explained” definitions to help you better understand what your car might be telling you.
Now I have in the “How To” section of my site a chart with images and definitions of these warning lights on your dashboard, Click Here for quick access. I wanted to go over a few of the indicator lights and acronyms that are a little more important and crucial to keeping your car from heavy damage and costly repairs. I just wanted to explain some of these in better terms that might help you know when and how to react to a warning light coming on.
ABS: This stands for “Anti-Lock Braking System. In the beginning not every car had an ABS but today the majority of them do. What this system does is allows the computer to keep your brakes from locking any or all of the wheels up. There are sensors on each wheel that tells the computer it is turning. So if you are applying the brakes and the tire tries to stop turning let’s say on a slick spot on the road, the computer will back the pressure off that wheel to keep it free to turn so you have traction control on the road.
Brake Light Indicator: Now do not get this indicator confused with an “ABS” indicator light even though they are both tied to your braking system they are different systems. The “Brake” warning indicator light on your dash is to let you know that you have lost brake fluid pressure or you are low on brake fluid or that your emergency brake is on.
So if the emergency or parking brake isn’t on and you have a good solid brake pedal, check your brake fluid level in the master cylinder. Usually you will have an indicator all on its own for the “Parking Brake”, read my chart to familiarize yourself with the difference in them.
Charging System: This can be a few different type of warning lights that can read – “BATT”, “ALT” or “CHG”. BATT stands for Battery, ALT stands for Alternator and CHG stands for Charging. If any of these light up, this is tell you that the voltage in the system is dropping below a default point, usually around 11.5VDC. Newer cars can detect when the alternator isn’t putting out a voltage so any of this means you need to get a charging system check done as soon as possible.
Check Engine Light: This light freaks people out which it’s good to be alarmed but also know that just because this light comes on doesn’t mean your car is tore up or is doomed to die. If the Check Engine Light comes on, looks at your other gauges if you have them such as the temp gauge, the oil gauge or the voltage gauge. If these are in the norm, then you may have something else not as drastic going on.
The Check Engine Light coming on could mean that the fuel cap is loose or off. Often times it mean that your emissions are out of normal parameters, what can cause that is like an O2-sensor, catalytic converter or muffler getting clogged or that governing that controls emission vapors isn’t working properly. All of which will not harm the car, just means it needs attention.
However if you hear a noise you have never heard before or notice the car not running right like a loss of power, then you want to get this checked right away. Just do not assume because the light came on that you are going to be looking for a new replacement engine.
Service Engine Soon Indicator: This warning usually means that your computer is keeping up with mileage or time and is set to be a maintenance reminder. However some makes and models use this indicator to be the Check Engine Light, you will need to refer to your owner’s manual or dealer to ensure which it is.
You can test your warning lights by not starting the car but turn the key to the run position or with your foot off the brake, press the start button and look at all the warning lights lit up to see if you have both the “Service” and “Check Engine” warning lights. If you have only the “Service Engine Soon” light, then this will be your “Check Engine” warning light.
Some cars have sensors that monitor fluid levels so if your light is on, check your oil level, check your transmission fluid level and check you antifreeze level both in the radiator and the overflow reservoir. Also the more expensive cars actually can tell you when the air filter is getting too dirty, so check that is well.
Temperature Indicator: Not all cars come with a temperature gauge so you may have to rely on an indicator light. This warning is to let you know that your engine is overheating or at least that the temperature is gotten above the set limit for your vehicle.
You will usually see your “Check Engine” indicator come on when the “Temp” indicator lights up. The reason for this is because the temperature sensor has sent a signal to the computer letting it know that the engine is running hot. Sometimes you may have to have the “Check Engine” light reset after the cooling issue is resolved.
Low Coolant Indicator: As mentioned above, some cars come with sensors to monitor fluid levels, so if you are getting this light, check your coolant level both at the radiator cap and the overflow tank. Always check your coolant levels when the car is cold as a hot car will blow hot coolant all over you.
Low Oil Level Indicator: Again as from above, if this light is on, with the car off and it has set for at least a minute on level ground, check your oil level with the engine dipstick. Usually being a quart low will not set off the indicator but if this is your situation, still top off your oil level and see if light still is on. If so, you may have a bad sensor.
Low Oil Pressure Indicator: If this light comes on, shut your engine off immediately. If you try to drive with this light on, you will blow your engine up. If this light is on, this means your engine has lost oil pressure. This can be due to no oil in the engine, the oil pump went out or even possibly something wrong with the oil filter.
I have seen people try to drive to a repair shop when this light is on trying to save a tow fee and then end up with not only a tow fee but the cost of a new engine. I know people that think that an oil pressure gauge tells you when the oil is getting low by thinking that if the gauge isn’t reading as high as normal this means it is a little low on oil.
This is FALSE, if your gauge normally reads half way, that is where it will run if you only had a half a quart left in your engine. If that gauge starts dropping, this means you are running out of oil and fixing to grenade the motor. Best maintenance practice is to check your oil at least every two weeks unless your car is known to drink oil. Then you will want to check it at least once a week.
So these are the more crucial dashboard warning lights explained. Click on the banner above to see a full complete list of all indicator lights and definitions. Lights and gauges are really important to have in any vehicle but never turn off your commonsense senses.
Always listen to your car, if you are hearing grinding, squealing, squeaking, growling, rumbling, hissing or knocking, you will want to check these out as soon as you can. If you are hearing knocking, stop the vehicle and check the oil.
Always pay attention to smells as well. Coolant leaks or coolant steam from overheating will smell a bit sweet. Burning brakes smell like a hint of wood burning. Most everyone knows what gasoline smells like and if you are smelling it and no one else is around you, again stop the vehicle and start looking for leaks.
Sometimes a car will have a problem and the gauges or indicator lights will not warn you. So play it safe and always kind of do a check as you are driving. Pay attention to smells, noises or how the car feels. Occasionally glance at your dashboard and the indicator lights.