The instrument clusters of a car "lights up like a Christmas tree" whenever we turn on the ignition. These lights, each illuminating an icon, serve as a quick status check for various important parts of the vehicle. But, if any of the warning lights stay on 10-20 seconds after you turn on the engine, there's something wrong with that part and you have a problem in your hands.
But what does each icon mean? Here is a quick guide to some of the most common instrument cluster warning iconography and what to do when they come on.
Check engine light
As the name suggests, this light means there's something wrong with your engine. Most modern cars come with a plethora of sensors that monitor the engine to make sure it runs optimally. If any of them detects an anomaly, it turns on the light to want the user.
However, note that this light covers both ends of the extreme. It can be anything from loose wiring to something serious such as intake manifold leak or loss of compression. Converting your car to run on CNG will also sometimes cause this light to turn on, as most of them are not built to run on the said type of fuel.
In any case, we recommend you take the car to a reputable mechanic shop for an inspection.
ABS warning light
Anti lock-braking systems, shortened to ABS, are a critical component of a car's braking system. It stops the brakes from locking up during high-speed braking, keeping you in control and stopping you from sliding off the road. If this light comes on during driving, it means something has gone wrong with the system.
ABS is an extremely important vehicle safety feature, so we recommend you take the car to a shop as soon as possible.
Airbag warning light
Airbags are large deflated air pillows hidden inside various parts of a vehicle's cabin. In the event of a crash, they inflate almost instantly to cushion the occupants from the force of the impact. To achieve this, they rely on a sophisticated series of sensors and other systems to detect a crash. When one of the systems fails or encounters a malfunction, the warning light turns on.
Airbags have time and time again allowed crash victims to walk away unharmed from an otherwise fatal crash. If the warning light turns on, go to a shop immediately.
Check engine oil light
Engine oil or lubricants are used to prolong the life of your engine. They help the moving parts of the engine stay cool and prevent them from rubbing against each other.
Engine oil loses its effectiveness over time and requires to be changed after a certain period of use. The general rule of thumb is to change the oil every 10,000 to 15,000 km or two years. If the engine detects the oil is losing its effectiveness (which it measures by oil pressure) it will warn its user by turning on the warning light.
Topping up or changing the engine oil will cause this light to go away. However, if the light comes on too frequently, your engine may be burning oil and you should have it checked out.
Engine temperature warning light
Most modern engines are liquid-cooled. Meaning the engine block is wrapped in a water jacket that uses liquid coolant to syphon away the built-up combustion heat. Much like the engine oil, the coolant needs to be topped up every once in a while or else the motor will heat up to damaging levels. In such a situation, the engine's inbuilt thermostat lights up the warning light.
In such a scenario, it is recommended that you turn off your engine and let it naturally cool down for at least half to a full hour. Then top up the radiator with the recommended coolant, information which should be in the vehicle owner's manual. If the problem persists, take it to a shop to find out what's causing the issue.
All cars use a battery to run and manage its various electrical systems. The car's engine keeps the battery charged when it's running, but without it, the battery can only power the electrical systems for a limited amount of time.
When you turn off the engine but don't turn off the electricals, the warning light comes on as a reminder that you are on borrowed time. Most car batteries run out of charge in 20 minutes, after which the car becomes effectively dead, leaving you having to jump-start the engine with an external battery.
If the lights stay on while the engine is running however, it indicates that for some reason the engine is not charging the battery. In such cases, take the car to the shop to figure out what went wrong.
Brake system warning light
Whenever the parking brake is pulled up, this comes on as a gentle reminder. This helpful indicator can stop you from embarrassing yourself when pulling away from a parking spot or putting excessive wear on your transmission through forgetful driving.
If the light stays on after the parking brake is disengaged however, it means there is something wrong with the brakes and they are not working properly.
If that happens, do not drive the car until you have a mechanic look at the issue. Driving a car with faulty brakes is an extremely dangerous and crazy notion, as it endangers both you and everyone else on the road.
Tire pressure warning light
Formally a luxury car feature, more and more new cars are now offering tire pressure monitoring sensors as a standard option. These sensors monitor the air pressure inside each tire, making sure they are within operating parameters.
When the air in the tires gets dangerously low, the light turns on, letting the owner know he needs to inspect the tires and put air into them.
Check washer fluid light
In some cars, this icon shows up when the cleaning agent in the washer fluid tank gets too low. Simply top up the reservoir or choose to ignore it if you don't use the jets.
Turns on with the fog lights. Meant to be a gentle reminder than an actual warning. Useful if you are absent-minded.
Seat belt reminder
Self-explanatory. Turns on when the belts are not buckled in. Useful reminders if you have kids and/or value safety over comfort.