Written by Doris Donnerman (last updated May 25, 2010)
Lots of newer cars have all sorts of dials, gauges, and lights to impress buyers and provide information to the driver. If you are faced with a car that has all sorts of lights, you may be wondering which ones are the critical ones to watch.
The answer depends on the car, really. All cars come with an owner's manual that explains all the gauges and lights at your disposal. Regardless of the car, however, there are a couple of warning lights you really need to identify and pay attention to.
The first is the oil pressure light. This light should come on for a short time when you first start your car, and then go off. If it stays on longer, or if it glows steadily as you drive, turn off the engine. The light is a warning that you may not have enough oil to lubricate the engine. If your engine isn't getting enough oil for proper lubrication, then you can end up with a very expensive repair bill. (Serious engine damage results from not enough oil, and replacing an engine is about the most expensive repair you can have for any vehicle.)
After stopping the engine, check the oil level and add oil if it's needed. If the oil is at the correct level or the light stays on after you add oil, the problem could be any number of things. For instance, your oil pump might not be operating properly or the sensor for the oil level is malfunctioning. It could also be something simple, like the circuit for the warning light isn't working properly. The only way you can uncover these types of problems is to take the car to an auto repair shop and have it checked. Make sure you have it towed; you don't want to drive and put wear and tear on the engine that may damage it.
Another warning light to pay attention to is the alternator light. If the alternator light goes on while you're driving, the battery is expending more energy than it is receiving. This won't hurt you as you are driving, since you technically don't need the battery to operate a running car. What it does mean is that your battery is discharging, and if it discharges too far you won't have enough battery power to start your car the next time you need it.
If the alternator light comes on, turn off any unnecessary electrical equipment (like your radio, air conditioning, and, if possible, headlights) and drive to a garage. They will be able to tell you if you need a new alternator, a new battery, or a new warning light switch. In the meantime, keep an eye on the temperature gauge. If the car overheats, pull off the road to stop and get professional help.
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