Those dashboard warning lights explained on your car

Ever noticed all the Dashboard Warning Lights on your dash? Do you find yourself scratching your head wondering what they mean? The newer the vehicle, the more idiot lights they have all over the place. They used to be called “idiot lights,” meaning any idiot could understand its meaning. However, now there are so many, it makes you feel like an idiot because you can’t understand them.

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indicator lights

Every car needs to come with a booklet of 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.” These definitions should help you better understand what your car might be telling you.

You will find in the “Information” section of my site, a chart with 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. These are ten warning lights you should never ignore. The below, might help you know how to react to a warning light coming on. Click on any warning light for a description.

dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights
dashboard warning lights

Why You Should React

Even though the above dashboard warning lights have descriptions, I wanted to talk about each one. There is a severity for each one and a reason you should pay close attention  to them. Often, some people will over react to a warning light going off. Others just ignore them and think it is no big deal.

These are my picks based on the costly repairs you may face if you don't act right away. Then there are some that you can be a little lax on until looked at.

ABS

abs light on my dashboard

This stands for “Anti-Lock Braking System. In the beginning not every car had ABS, but today the majority of them do. This system allows the computer to keep your brakes from locking any or all wheels up during a hard brake. There are sensors on each wheel that tells the computer it is turning. If you tried to brake on a slick area on the road. The tire or tires that try to stop turning will be controlled by the computer. Pressure will be backed off that wheel/s, to be free to turn so you have traction control.

There are many cars that run around with the ABS warning light on. Most of the time, this could mean that the ABS just wont work. That your brakes will be like standard and normal. However, the ABS is fairly intricate and can cause sever problems. It could cause the brakes to only apply to one wheel causing your vehicle to pull. There is the chance it will decrease the power assist to the brakes and make it hard to stop.

There are other issues an ABS system can cause. When this light comes on, you need to get it checked out right away. If you can still use the brakes and you don't feel anything seriously wrong. Drive it normally until you can get to a shop. However, if it doesn't feel right or is effecting the steering of the vehicle. Park it and get it towed to a shop.

Brake Light Indicator

what you should do if the brake light comes on

Don't get this indicator confused with an “ABS” warning light. Though they are both tied to your braking system they are different systems. This “Brake” warning indicator is alerting you of a few possible issues. You have lost brake fluid pressure, you are low on brake fluid, or that your emergency brake is on.

If this dashboard warning light comes on, apply the brake to see if you still have one. No brake means you will need to get stopped through gearing down and using the emergency brake. If you still have functioning brakes, pull over and check your brake fluid level. Ensure that your emergency brake isn't on. This will cause this warning light to come on. If the emergency brake isn't the culprit, check the fluid level. While you are checking it, look under the vehicle to ensure you are not leaking brake fluid.

How you should react to this light is based on how the vehicle is behaving. If no brakes, stop the vehicle and get it towed to a shop. After checking the fluid level and it seems OK, look for leaks. If there is a leak, get it towed to a shop. If your brakes seem to be working fine and no leaks. Inspect the emergency brake to ensure it is completely turning off. Sometimes if they are not completely off, it will cause the indicator light to signal. There is a switch on the emergency brake that have been known to fail. Thus, causing the warning light to stay on.

Charging System

what to do whenthe battery light comes on

This dashboard warning light can be indicating a few different type of alerts. Battery, Alternator or Charging System. When this warning light comes on, it's telling you that the voltage is dropping below a default point. Usually the default is around 11.5VDC. You could be losing voltage due to a dying or dead battery. The alternator is no longer producing adequate voltage. Possibly a dirty or lose connection has triggered the light.

The only severity of this warning light is, the vehicle will quit running or will not start back up. This isn't a situation where you need to react irrational. If the light comes on while driving, take it to a parts store or shop. Parts stores can perform a charging system check. Most parts stores can replace your battery if that is what is needed. However, if you are driving a German made car like a Porsche or BMW, take it to a dealer. Parts stores cannot change alternators, this would be a garage repair.

A parts store can determine if you have a bad connection. If you have a bad dying or dead battery and they can see if the alternator is working properly.  You don't want your vehicle to stall while in traffic. Nor do you want to be broke down in the middle of no where. So this needs immediate attention, but not to the severity of brakes failing.

Check Engine Light

what to do if the check engine light comes on

This dashboard warning light freaks people out. It’s good to be alarmed, but know that just because this light came on, you should think the worst. If the Check Engine Light comes on, look at your other warning lights or gauges. Look at the temperature gauge, the oil gauge or the voltage gauge. If these are in the norm, then you may have something else not so drastic going on.

The list of things that can trigger the Check Engine Light is massive. The more mundane are like the fuel cap is loose or off. More often your emissions are out of normal parameters. Emission issues like an O2-sensor, catalytic converter or muffler getting clogged. Things that govern emission controls like an EGR valve or vapor canisters isn’t working properly. All of which will not harm the car immediately, if at all. It just means it needs attention and you should at some point take it to a garage.

However, if you hear a noise you have never heard before. If you notice the vehicle isn't running right or a loss of power. You will want to get this checked right away, possibly stop and have it towed. Do not assume because the light came on that you are going to be looking for a new replacement engine. You can always pull into a parts store and they will read the code for you. View the massive amount of DTC codes and get a definition of what they mean HERE

Service Engine Soon Indicator

what to do if the service engine light comes on

This dashboard warning light usually means that your computer is keeping up with mileage or time interval. This is usually 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.

One way of testing to see if you have both "Check Engine" and "Service Engine Soon," is by the following. Put the key in the run position, do not start. Or press the start button with your foot off the brake. 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. Check your oil and transmission fluid levels. Also check you antifreeze level, both in the radiator and the overflow reservoir. More expensive cars, can actually tell you when the air filter is getting too dirty, so check that is well.

This warning light is more commonly used for the "Change Oil" warning indicator. This is an alert to inform you that is time to change your oil. Sadly this warning light doesn't go off automatically after the oil has been changed. Usually a shop will reset this light for you, however, if you do it yourself, click HERE for the instructions.

Temperature Indicator

what to do if the temperature light comes on

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 often see your “Check Engine” light come on when the “Temp” indicator lights up. The reason for this is, the temperature sensor has sent a signal to the computer. It tells the computer that the engine is running hot. In the process of getting hot or over heating, other sensor get thrown off. All of this will set the "Check Engine" warning light off. Sometimes you may have to have the “Check Engine” light reset after the cooling issue is resolved.

When the "Temp" warning light comes on, pull over and turn the engine off. Continuing the operation of the engine while hot can damage it. Two common damages occur when an engine is continued to run overheating. This can cause a blown head gasket, or the other is a cracked head. Both are very expensive. These items can run from $1500 to $6000 at a garage. Better to pay a $100 tow bill than these kind of expensive repairs.

Low Coolant Indicator

what to do if the low coolant light comes on

Some cars come with sensors to monitor fluid levels. If you are getting this warning light, check your coolant level both at the radiator cap and the overflow tank. Always check your coolant levels when the car is cold. A hot car will blow hot coolant all over you and cause third degree burns.

If you are getting this warning light, keep an eye on your temperature gauge , or warning light. Low coolant means you have lost coolant, which isn't normal. These systems rarely need to have coolant added. However, just because this warning light comes on, you do not have to pull over immediately. You will want to get it check as soon as you can though.

Low Oil Level Indicator

what to do if the low oil level light comes on

Some engines have a sensor in the oil pan that will alert the drive when the oil is low. If your warning light just went off, you are in no danger of blowing the engine up. However, you do not want to continue driving and ignoring this warning. Most of these sensors are set to alert you when you are between a quart to two quarts low. This really depends on how much oil capacity your engine has. 

When you get this warning, you don't have to pull over immediately. Although you want to check your oil as soon as you can, that day. Ensure the car has sat for at least 5 minutes on level ground when you check your oil. If the light remain on after topping off your oil level, you may have a bad sensor.

Low Oil Pressure Indicator

what to do if the low oil pressure light comes on

When this warning light comes on, shut your engine off immediately!!! If you try to drive with this light on, you will blow your engine up. This is alerting you that your engine has lost oil pressure. Meaning the moving internal parts are no longer being lubricated.

This warning can be due to several things, which all need to be checked thoroughly. There can be no oil in the engine. The oil pump has quit working. Something could have went wrong with the oil filter. This also could be a malfunctioning sensor. Again, turn the vehicle off immediately, and have it towed to a garage for analysis.  

I have seen people try to drive to a repair shop when this light is on trying to save a tow fee. This usually results in the cost of a new engine. I know people that think that an oil pressure gauge tells you when the oil is getting low. Their misconception is, 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 always until it is too late. When that gauge starts dropping, this means you are running out of oil and fixing to grenade the motor. Here is the best practice for good maintenance. 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. Oil warning lights or low reading gauges, means shut that engine off immediately.

Low Fuel Warning Light

low fuel indicator light

This indicator has one function, and that is to warn drivers of low fuel level. The distance you can drive with low fuel will vary between different vehicles. Typically there will be one to two gallons left in the tank when this warning light comes on. So if your vehicle get 20 miles to the gallon and you have 2 gallons left. You can figure you have just under 40 miles left to drive. The fuel pump will not suck every last drop out of the tank.

This isn't as crucial as running out of oil. However, you don't want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere. You want to pay attention to when this warning light comes on. As mentioned, you may have 30 to 60 miles left before running out of gas. If the terrain you are driving in is a lot of hills, this may shorten the miles you can travel. Also, it isn't good on the fuel pump or fuel injectors to run the fuel completely out.  

dashboard indicator light definitions

Final Thoughts

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 sense.

Always listen to your vehicle. If you are hearing grinding, squealing, squeaking, growling, rumbling, hissing or knocking, you need to check it immediately. Hearing a knocking? Stop the vehicle and check the oil!!

Always pay attention to smells as well. Coolant leaks or steam from overheating, will smell a bit sweet. Burning brakes smell like a hint of wood burning. Most everyone knows what gasoline smells like. If you are smelling it pull over and stop the vehicle, and start looking for leaks.

Sometimes a car will have a problem the dashboard warning lights will not warn you about. So play it safe, always do a dashboard warning light check as you are driving. Pay attention to smells, noises or how the car feels. Occasionally glance at your mirrors and surrounding to ensure there is no smoke coming from your vehicle.

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