Seeing a warning light come on in your vehicle’s instrument cluster can cause an uneasy feeling. Whether you are just about home from a daily commute or halfway through a cross-country road trip, these indicator lights get your heart racing, and you wonder just how much it will cost to repair whatever caused the light to come on.
However, not all indicator lights are the same. Some are alerting you to temporary conditions of the vehicle that will go away after a few more miles. Others are giving you a head’s up that a service is needed to maintain the best functioning of your car’s engine.
Some fit neither of these categories. These indications must be taken care of immediately to prevent potentially irreparable damage to your vehicle and its power train.
Cautionary Indicator Lights (think “yellow”)
Depending on your particular vehicle, several indicator lights are common across brands and others are not. Regardless, there are some of these lights that, while they show something is wrong or abnormal, are more friendly reminders, suggestions, or things to add to your list of things to do. These include tire pressure, service interval, and traction control system lights. These usually show temporary conditions where driving can continue until a convenient time for a more thorough inspection. Along with walking around the vehicle each time before driving, and doing a short pre-drive check, paying attention to these and taking care of them when you can, may save you money.
Warning Lights (almost always red)
As the color would show, if you see one of these lights, it is almost assuredly a good idea to stop as soon as safely practical. There still is a chance it is just a temporary condition that might resolve itself. The alternatives and what might happen if these are ignored are far worse and much more costly than the inconvenience of stopping and a tow to the nearest mechanic.
In each of these, the best course of action is to stop when you are able and have it checked out. As with every electronic indicator, there is a chance of a malfunction in the indicator itself. Only a check by a mechanic will you know for sure.
Your engine oil not only provides the proper lubrication between parts, some moving at thousands of rotations each minute, but it also provides an essential layer of thermal cooling to the piston and cylinders. Without the proper flow around these critical parts, the metal would heat to the point of possibly fusing once stopped, if not develop catastrophic cracking beforehand.
Whether a red image of an old-fashioned oil can, or red letters reading “OIL”, this light shows the oil is not flowing as it should. This light could mean you’re overdue for an oil change but it could indicate you’re leaking oil which will very soon ruin your engine.
Not unlike your car’s engine, the transmission has many small parts moving rapidly with extremely small tolerances. All the same potential issues apply within the contained until of your transmission. Although the movement of the transmission components themselves is enough to circulate the transmission fluid without added pressure, issues with the supply, or leaks in the system itself, can create high temperature and pose similar risks of part fusion or thermal fatigue.
An engine that gets too hot has the potential to crack and, if extreme, requires complete replacement.
Issues with your engine temperature are usually indicated by a red light of a thermometer in a wavy liquid. This means your engine is overheating and attempts should be made to cool it as soon as possible. There are several reasons this might occur, but the main goal to prevent catastrophic damage to your car’s engine is to remove the heat from the engine area and get the motor turned off as soon as possible. As you look for a safe place to pull off, turn off your air-conditioner (if on) and crank the heat to the passenger compartment. This will help to draw the heat from the engine bay.
Once you pull over and turn off the motor, wait at least 15 minutes, if not more, to open the hood. This will help prevent scalding hot coolant or other fluids from splashing on your hands or face.
A punctured radiator is a likely culprit and not a terrible expensive fix compared to replacing the engine, which is required if it overheats too much or too long. However, there are many other reasons a car might overheat so have a professional check it.