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How to identify car fluids and dashboard warning lights

Added January 7, 2021
Gauges on a dashboard of a car

You may not be an expert at car maintenance, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t in tune with what’s happening under the hood. Since you drive your car more than anyone else, you’ve likely gotten used to its quirks. But when should you be concerned and take your car into the shop for a professional opinion? 

We’re here to help break down two important steps in understanding your car and keeping it running smoothly: identifying a leak, and determining what the lights on your dashboard mean. 

Your car drips fluid. Is it from rain or snow, simple condensation, or is it a leak? And if it’s a leak, where is it coming from?

Your car requires quite a few different fluids in order to run properly. Being able to identify those fluids and what they do is an important step in taking care of your car.

  • Transmission fluid: This is usually a reddish-brown color. In its pure form, it’s actually dark brown or black, but manufacturers typically add dye so it’s easier to identify a transmission fluid leak. If you notice this type of fluid leak, address it quickly—take your vehicle to the shop to have a mechanic identify the source of the leak.
  • Engine oil: This can range in color from black to brown. Typically these leaks will pop up directly under where your engine is located within your vehicle (usually under the hood). If you notice this kind of leak, take your car to your mechanic before it becomes a bigger problem.
  • Brake fluid: Brake fluid ranges in color from light yellow to brown—if your fluid has been refilled recently, it’ll likely be yellow, whereas older fluid turns brown. If you notice this leak, it can be indicative of a serious issue. Check your brake fluid reservoir for any cracks, and get your car to a mechanic as soon as possible.
  • Battery fluid: This type of fluid lasts a long time and the color can indicate whether it’s time to change it:
    • Blue/green: The fluid is relatively new
    • White: The fluid is getting old, and it’s likely time to refresh it
  • Power steering fluid: This fluid looks a lot like transmission fluid in color and consistency, so it can be hard to differentiate between them. If power steering fluid is leaking, it’ll most likely be located under the driver’s side of your vehicle, toward the front. Check for any cracks where this fluid may be getting out—if you notice any leaks, or even if it’s simply running low, take your car in to a mechanic.
  • Windshield wiper fluid: This one is fairly easy to identify because of its bright blue color and common leak location near the front tires. If you find that you’re refilling your wiper fluid more than a few times a year, you may have a leak you need to have fixed.
  • Coolant: Various types of coolant can be used in your car, and they come in a range of colors, including pink, orange, blue, yellow, and green. If you suspect a coolant leak, get it fixed quickly, because coolant helps keep your engine from overheating—this is especially important to help keep your car running during the summer months.
  • Water: Water is usually nothing to worry about. Often it just means you’ve been running your air conditioning and some condensation has built up.

What do the indicator lights and symbols on your dashboard mean?

You’re driving down the road when all of a sudden, a symbol lights up your dashboard. What’s your next step? Recognizing and understanding these indicators will help you respond appropriately.

  • Exclamation point: This symbol usually means the air in one of your tires is running a little low. Pull out your tire pressure gauge and check your tires, then head to your nearest gas station. Most have free air pumps available so you can fill up your tires without reaching for your wallet. Also, if you don’t have a tire pressure gauge, you might consider buying one—it’s one of many handy tools to consider keeping in your car at all times.
  • Engine light: This light, also known as the check engine light, can mean a variety of things. Stop by your nearest auto body shop; they should be able to diagnose the issue fairly quickly. Then you’ll know what you’re dealing with and make the proper repairs.
  • Oil can: This typically only indicates one thing: the oil level in your car is running low. That means it’s time to take it into your nearest auto shop for an oil change, or fill it up yourself.
  • Battery: If you see this symbol, your car battery is either low or dead. Either way, it may be time to get a quick jump from a friend or purchase a portable battery. You can also talk to a mechanic, because it may be time for a new battery, but it could also be the alternator, which keeps it charged.
  • Thermometer: If you notice a thermometer, it could mean your engine’s temperature is higher than normal, and it’s time to investigate the coolant levels or look for leaks. This symbol can also mean you need to check your transmission fluid. When in doubt, check your car’s manual.
  • Wrench: This one is pretty easy—your car is due for service. Make an appointment to take your vehicle to the shop to ensure everything is in proper working order.

What about fluids or warning lights that aren’t listed here?

If you see a leaking fluid or a warning light you can’t identify, check your car’s manual. It should have the most comprehensive information about what to expect with your car.

Whether your car’s in perfect shape or needs a little maintenance, Dairyland® has a variety of policies to help keep you safe on the road. Contact an agent to learn more today.

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Trying to fix your car at home? Check out these five tips to help you before you get started. Looking for discounts on car insurance? Check out all the ways you can save with Dairyland.