Decoding Your Dashboard Indicator Lights

 

We know the feeling: you start your car, or you’re in the middle of a trip, and you notice a bright orange light out of the corner of your eye.  

 

Check Engine! 

Thermometer? 

Exclamation Point?!?

 

We don’t know what all these indicators mean, but that doesn’t stop us from sweating when they show up. It’s amazing how an indicator we don’t know anything about can provoke such anxiety.  

You don’t need to panic, but it is time to seriously consider what is going on with your car. You could have a serious issue, but you need to understand what that issue is first. 

Indicator lights don’t necessarily mean that your car is about to fall apart, but it does indicate that, if you know what the issue is and take some preliminary steps, you can mitigate smaller problems before they become bigger problems. 

To help you better understand your car issues, here are some basic descriptions of the symbols on your dash to help you decode your indicator lights.

 

Maintenance Lights (or, Lights that are Easy to Take Care Of) 

First, let’s cover some of the warnings our cars give us as part of daily operation. These signals typically tell you when you are low on some sort of fluid or need to pay attention to a component of your car that’s easily replaceable.  

Gas Light 

A symbol representing a gas pump lights up. You have low gas. So, get gas! Many of us rarely, if ever, see this symbol if we keep our gas tanks full on a regular basis. Be aware, however, that specific cars have their own rating for how many miles they can get once the gas light goes off. Also, to increase engine longevity and health, always refill once your gas hits a quarter-tank full. 

Battery Light 

A symbol representing a battery, typically with “+” and “-” symbols on it. This is a good sign that the battery is dead… you know, other than the fact that your car won’t start. If you try to start your car and the battery light comes on, chances are you left your headlights on. A simple solution is to jump the battery and try to start the car. If you continually run into the battery light, consider replacing an older battery or having an inspection done on the car’s electrical system. Many reputable mechanics can perform a load charge test to ensure that the problem doesn’t come up again. 

Oil Light 

This light, shaped like an old-fashioned oil can, shows that your oil is low. Dangerously low. Insufficient oil in your engine can cause issues with performance and gas efficiency… and let’s not forget the fact that a car without oil will lock up, requiring expensive repairs. Take your car to your local mechanic or oil change service station. 

Tire Pressure Light 

This looks like a tire with a bulge at the bottom. Tire pressure lights, which are relatively new, help you keep track of proper operating pressure. Air up your tires, following manufacturer guidelines for the proper PSI for each one.  Remember: low tire pressure can result in damage like a bent rim, so it’s best to not drive with the gauge on. 

“Houston, We Have a Problem” Lights

Woman Car Problems

 

While some warnings are easy to solve with a little bit of effort or a visit to the nearest service station, some lights signal something potential more dangerous. Note that many of these lights, while linked to more crucial systems in your engine, can have multiple meanings, some worse than others. Unless you are an expert mechanic yourself, it is best to see a professional if any of these pop up on your dashboard. 

Check Engine 

The dreaded “check engine” light looks just like that—a small image of an engine. This indicator can mean a few things, some of them serious, some of them not-so-serious. Less serious problems can include a loose or missing gas cap or an old air flow sensor that needs replacing (each impacting fuel economy and performance). This can also pop up when you need to replace spark plugs, spark plug wires, or fix the catalytic converter. Some of these issues are more serious than others, so you should always get your engine checked with a professional when this light pops on. Mechanics can check the error codes in the system and determine the exact problem.

Temperature 

This indicator often looks like a thermometer submerged in liquid and pops up when the engine starts to overheat. Overheating typically only starts if your car is low on coolant, or coolant isn’t making its way throughout the engine. Solutions can include a top-off of your antifreeze, replacement radiator hoses, a faulty temperature gauge, or (in extreme cases) a cracked radiator.  

Front, Rear, and/or Passenger-Side Airbags 

This indicates that there has been a malfunction in the mechanisms responsible for deploying or storing the car’s airbags, which can lead to their failure in case of an accident, or dangerous conditions resulting from faulty deployment. Get these fixed with a professional or the car’s manufacturer ASAP. 

Brakes 

This one is more difficult to spot. Brake lights don’t look like brakes… instead, they will often appear as an exclamation point surrounded by a circle or multiple circles. It might signal that your brake fluid needs refilling. It also might signal that one of the brake lines are leaking, and your brakes may not activate when needed. In either case, don’t wait on this—get your brakes checked immediately.  

Anti-Lock Brakes 

Like the brake lights, the ABS system indicator typically looks like the letters “ABS” in the same set of circles as the brake lights. This light indicates that something has failed in the ABS system, which helps prevent your brakes from locking during skids (which is a lifesaver in bad weather). Don’t wait on this one: get it checked out.

 

Staying Ahead of Your Car Problems 

These aren’t the only indicator lights around, but some of the most common. Others, like indicators for windshield wiper fluid, cruise control, or the “door ajar” signals, vary from car to car. Some cars will also have indicators that specify certain problems.

Always make yourself familiar with your car’s fault system by reading your owner’s manual and asking questions of experts and your car’s manufacturer. More importantly, do not ignore a light when it comes up. We may want to avoid the anxiety of a car issue (and the costs that sometimes come with them), but a small problem fixed now will be cheaper, and much less stressful, than a huge problem left untreated for weeks.