Car Care: What Do Warning Lights Mean?
The more you know, the better off you’ll be
Modern cars and trucks are pretty smart. If something goes wrong, they can often tell you what the problem is. Vehicle gauges and warning lights can mean a variety of things, however, ranging from minor to very serious and potentially costly, so it’s a good idea to know what your car is trying to tell you. Those gauges and warning lights don’t normally attract much attention – they look or behave the same way every time you drive your car. When a gauge needle goes into the red or a warning light activates, do you know what to do? Here are a few tips.
Gauges and displays vary from vehicle to vehicle, of course, but one of the most essential is nearly universal. Engine coolant temperature is most often a gauge, though in a few models it might be a warning light. The ideal situation is a car that warms up quickly, with the temperature gauge needle staying nicely in the normal range. If your coolant temperature starts rising into the danger zone on the gauge, it means your engine is in danger of overheating and it’s important that you don’t continue driving.
If you notice your coolant temperature is consistently above what’s been normal for your vehicle, even if it is still not in the danger zone, it’s important to find out why. Some vehicles might be able to tolerate a mild overheating without damage, as long as the driver notices and shuts things down in time, others are more sensitive. A common cause for overheating is loss of coolant from a failed hose or radiator. If your coolant level gets low in winter months, you may notice a loss of cabin heat before any other symptoms, as engine coolant is what carries heat to the cabin. Alternately, in some situations, if your vehicle is overheating, turning the cabin heat and fan settings up to full blast can help bring the engine temperature back into the normal range and buy some time to get off the road. In any case, stop, shut the vehicle off and let the engine cool down as soon as it’s safe to do so. If you force an overheating engine to continue operating, severe engine damage is often the result, and you could wind up needing an engine rebuild or replacement. This scenario is expensive; the best way to avoid it is to monitor your gauges periodically and have your vehicle serviced regularly according to factory recommendations.
“Check Engine” warning lights differ from vehicle to vehicle – some come on and stay on, some flash, depending on the nature or severity of the problem – but they generally reflect a problem with the engine or its related components or systems. It’s best to find out the cause of a “Check Engine” warning as soon as possible. Your owner’s manual can help you identify the warning symbol or light displayed, and your dealership service department has the experience and knowledge to answer your questions and diagnose problems.
A voltmeter is another gauge commonly found in a vehicle’s instrument cluster, and it monitors a vehicle’s battery and charging systems. If there’s not a gauge you’ll have a battery warning light, because the electrical system is crucial to the proper operation of your car or truck. If you get a warning about the charging system, it often means your battery is not being charged or is unable to hold a charge. Depending on what the problem is, you may have a little bit of time, especially in the daytime. Using items like the headlamps, windshield wipers, or ventilation system fan will draw power away from the battery more quickly, limiting the amount of time you have to find a place to safely stop. If your charging system is working but the battery is unable to hold a charge, you might not have enough battery power to restart the vehicle if you turn it off, so try to get someplace appropriate if possible before turning off the car.
Sometimes a problem can involve both the cooling and charging systems. If your vehicle’s serpentine belt breaks, for example, all of the accessory systems it runs will stop working. This includes the alternator, which charges the battery, the water pump, which is essential to cooling the engine, and often power steering, too.
Also among the most important lights or gauges to pay attention to is oil pressure. If the warning lamp illuminates, or the gauge shows little to no pressure, stopping the engine as soon as possible should be your priority. Without oil pressure, critical (and expensive) engine components will not receive proper lubrication. The result of ignoring this warning can be catastrophic engine failure.
Safety systems have warning lights, too. If you see the “SRS” lamp, that’s to let you know there’s a fault with your car’s airbag system. It won’t stop you from driving, but you need to be aware that the airbags will not operate in an accident if there is a fault in the system. Proceed directly to your dealer. Likewise, an ABS light indicates a problem with the anti-lock braking system, which could lead to unpredictable emergency stop behavior or braking failure. That’s another one to get checked and repaired immediately.
You don’t have to be an automotive expert to understand what your car is trying to tell you, but knowing how to speak its language sure helps. As always, the factory-trained technicians at your dealer know your vehicle best and have the right tools and expertise to properly diagnose any light that comes on. Stop by today if you need any help.