Christie's Car Keys


Warning Lights - What Do They Mean?

Most of us have had a warning light come on in the instrument panel of our car at some time. In fact, the more current models are more "intelligent" than ever, and many come equipped with multiple onboard computers that sense problems or changes in almost every area.  It is important that we pay attention to these warning sensors and what they are trying to tell us.

One of the most common and easily identifiable warnings is the "Check Engine" or "Service Engine Soon" indicator. This message usually comes up for either an emissions or mechanical malfunction. It can be triggered by something as simple as an improperly seated gas cap or more complex like an engine or transmission problem. 

So what do you do when this appears? You will need to take the vehicle to a dealership where they will run a diagnostic procedure that will provide them with code(s) to indicate what needs to be done. What is important is not to ignore it. For example, if a Check Engine warning is related to the emissions system, it could prevent your vehicle from passing state inspection, and the problem will need to be corrected before an inspection can be completed.  Also keep in mind that this warning can come up for a variety of reasons so you could see it more than once. Don't assume it is for the same thing each time.

Many vehicles use symbols that appear in the instrument panel to represent areas that need attention.  If you see one of these symbols, your owner's manual should contain a glossary of what they mean. Some of the more common ones are:

  • Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) - this symbol indicates low tire pressure.  35 psi is a standard tire pressure but you can check what yours should be on the label located inside the driver's side door.
  • Engine Coolant Temperature - indicates that the engine temp is low.  This is not uncommon in cold weather and should resolve after the engine warms up.  But if not, consult your service provider as there may be a thermostat problem.
  • Brake Warning - this is the same light that comes on when you set your emergency brake. However, if it comes on at other times, it could be indicating low brake fluid and you should have your brakes inspected.
  • Battery and Brake light - when both these lights come on simultaneously that could indicate a failing alternator, so your charging system should be inspected as soon as possible.

These are just a few examples of numerous possibilities. The main thing is that if you see one of these warnings, pay attention to them. They'll help you maintain your vehicle and prevent unexpected problems.

Christie Walin is Director of Marketing for Modern Automotive. You can reach her with questions or comments at