Understanding the instrument warning lights in your car can make the difference between an unnecessary and time-consuming trip to the service center and being stranded on the side of the road. Follow our quick guide to some of the most common warning lights and their meanings to ensure you know when to act and when to get professional assistance to keep your car on the road.
Understanding Dashboard Warning Lights
Check Engine Light
All new cars come with an On Board Diagnostics 2 (OBD-II) system which is connected to sensors located throughout the car, engine fuel and emissions system. When your check engine light comes on, it may be an indicator for many different issues. In fact, there are thousands of unique OBD2 codes that can be registered. Hidden under your dashboard is an OBD2 port that accepts a plug for a handheld OBD2 diagnostic. This tool can be used to read the fault code as well as reset the system.
There are two primary types of codes:
- Historical/Inactive: Previously detected and no longer an issue
- Active: Current problem
And several sub-categories:
- B-codes: Relate to the car body
- C-codes: Relate to the car chassis
- P-codes: Relate to the car’s powertrain
NOTE: One of the most common causes of the “Check Engine” light is because the cap on your fuel tank has not been tightened completely and is preventing the fuel system from pressurizing properly. If you’ve checked the cap and it is fastened securely, you’ll need to find someone with a diagnostic tool. Most service centers and repair shops will read the code and give you a diagnosis for little or no cost.
Battery Warning Light
While some vehicles may use a different icon, most will see an image of a battery similar to this one when an electrical issue is identified. It will normally go on when you first start your vehicle, but you only need to be concerned if it stays on once your car has started. If it does, it means your vehicle’s electrical charging system isn’t working correctly. This may indicate a problem with your alternator which helps keep your battery charged. If you see this light, check the connectors to your battery. If they are on correctly, head to a service center before the current charge in the battery is used up.
Brake Warning Light
The brake warning light indicates a problem with your braking system and can indicate one of a number of problems. It may be on because you have the parking brake engaged or that the fluid in you master cylinder is low and needs to be replenished. As with many of these warning lights, it’s important to heed them immediately and have the issue be identified and corrected before more problems and dangers arise.
ABS Brake Warning Light
If your system indicates an issue with your ABS system, get it checked out as soon as possible. It may be something as easy to correct as dirt or debris on one of the sensors or it may indicate a system failure requiring a replacement of the entire ABS unit. If the light blinks or flashes, you need to address the issue immediately. A steady light will require your attention but may not be an issue that is as urgent.
Coolant/Temperature Warning Light
This is normally the coolant level warning light and indicates when the level of coolant in your vehicle is insufficient or the temperature has gotten too high for the engine. NOTE: Do not open the radiator cap while the engine is hot. The coolant system is pressurized and opening the cap could force boiling hot coolant to release. When your engine is cool, add coolant or distilled water to your system to bring the level up. Don’t use normal tap water. The minerals in the water can be deposited inside the radiator as the water boils off and can cause it to fail.
Oil Warning Light
This is another important indicator in your vehicle. An oil warning light typically indicates a drop in your oil pressure which is a serious issue for your vehicle. Continuing to operate your car while the oil warning light is on can kill your engine. The issue may be a failed oil pump or a blocked filter or low oil levels. Regardless, you need to get it checked right away before you do irreparable damage to the engine.