You may not be an expert at car maintenance, but that doesn’t mean you can't be 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 requires quite a few different fluids 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 is a translucent red color when new and becomes more of a reddish-brown color as you put miles on your car. If you notice this type of fluid leak, you need to address it quickly. Take your vehicle to a dealership or auto service shop to have a technician identify the source of the leak.
This type of oil is translucent yellow or gold when it’s new. As you use your vehicle, engine oil darkens to brown, eventually becoming dark brown or black when it needs to be changed. An engine oil leak will occur directly under your vehicle’s engine. If you notice this kind of leak, check your engine’s oil level to determine if it’s still within safe operating range. Add oil if you need to (check your owner’s manual for the correct type) and take your car to a shop so they can find the leak.
Brake fluid should be mostly clear or a light translucent yellow, though it can become translucent brown as it gets older. If you notice this leak, it can be indicative of a serious issue. Check your brake fluid level and examine the reservoir for any cracks. If it’s too low, your brakes can fail, leading to a dangerous situation. Get your car to a shop safely—even if it means calling a tow truck—as soon as possible.
The fluid inside most car batteries is a mixture of water and sulfuric acid, and it should never leak to the point where you find it on the ground. If you see fluid leaking from your battery, don't touch it with bare hands, and have your battery replaced immediately.
More often, batteries will form a small leak near the terminals that will result in a white or green powdery buildup. You can clean this up by disconnecting your battery’s negative (black) terminal and using a water and baking soda solution to get rid of the buildup. Your car can still be driven, but you should replace your battery soon.
This fluid can be translucent red or light yellow depending on the brand, so it can be hard to differentiate from other vehicle fluids. Also like other fluids, it becomes darker with use. If power steering fluid is leaking, it’ll most likely be located under the driver’s side of your vehicle, toward the front. Look for any obvious cracks or disconnected hoses where this fluid may be leaking from and check the level in the reservoir to help ensure your vehicle is safe to drive.
Washer fluid is most commonly blue, though depending on brand and variant, it also comes in green, purple, or orange. A washer fluid leak typically indicates a cracked reservoir or a cracked or disconnected hose. You may be able to replace a worn component yourself if it’s in an easy area to access, or you can take your car to a shop to have this repair completed. But this type of leak typically does not pose any immediate safety risk to you or your car.
Modern vehicles require specific types of coolant depending on the manufacturer and model. While most coolant used to be neon green, it now comes in a additional colors, including pink, orange, blue, and yellow. However, coolant type can’t always be determined by color, so be sure to carefully read the description and instructions on its container.
If you find coolant on the ground, clean it up responsibly and make sure pets and children aren’t allowed near it, because it’s very toxic.
If your coolant level is low, be sure to consult your owner’s manual before adding any. Mixing coolant types can be detrimental to your car’s cooling system, causing greater, more expensive issues down the road. If you suspect a coolant leak, we recommend having it repaired quickly because coolant helps keep your engine from overheating. This is especially important to help keep your car running during the summer months.
Water is usually nothing to worry about. Often it just means you’ve been running your air conditioning and some condensation has built up. The air conditioning system expels this condensation under normal operating conditions, so most often nothing is wrong.
You’re driving down the road when suddenly, a symbol lights up your dashboard. What’s your next step? Recognizing and understanding these indicators will help you respond appropriately.
There are several symbols that use an exclamation point, so be sure to note what the full symbol looks like.
Low tire: An exclamation point inside what looks like a low tire means the air in one of your tires is running low, or there is an issue with the tire pressure monitoring system. Many gas stations have free air pumps available so you can fill up your tires. 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.
Brake warning: An exclamation point inside of a circle that has parentheses around it indicates an issue with the vehicle’s braking system. If this comes on while you’re driving, proceed with caution in case your brakes aren’t properly working. Then, come to a stop where you can safely do so and make plans to get your car to a repair shop to figure out the issue.
Transmission warning: An exclamation point inside a gear or cog typically displays when there is an issue with your car’s transmission or drivetrain. If your car is driving normally, get to a service shop to have a technician find out what’s causing the light to turn on. But if your car starts moving strangely or jerking, it's time to pull over and call a tow truck.
General warning: An exclamation point inside of a triangle can mean different things depending on your vehicle’s manufacturer, but it’ll typically be accompanied by a message explaining what the light is indicating. If not, check your owner’s manual for more details.
This light, also known as the malfunction indicator lamp, is either in the shape of an engine (some compare it to a submarine) or the words “Check Engine.” It typically indicates a problem somewhere within the engine of your car. Stop by your nearest auto service shop; they should be able to diagnose the issue fairly quickly. Then you’ll know what you’re dealing with to have the proper repairs completed.
A symbol that looks like an oil can with a drop of fluid coming out of the spout indicates that your vehicle’s engine oil pressure is low. If this symbol lights up while you’re driving, pull over as soon as safely possible and shut the engine off. Low oil pressure can be indicative of a low oil level or a more serious problem. Either way, you don’t want to run the engine any longer than you need to.
Check the oil level, and if it’s low, add the type of engine oil specified in your owner’s manual. If your oil is at the correct level when the low oil pressure light comes on, it may be a good idea to call a tow truck to avoid causing engine damage by driving it. Get your vehicle to an auto service shop and have it diagnosed to find out what’s causing the dashboard warning light.
If you see this symbol, there is an issue with your car’s battery or charging system. If your car won’t start, you can get a quick jump start from a friend or purchase a portable battery booster. You should also talk to a technician to determine if the problem is the battery or the alternator, which keeps the battery charged. Car batteries typically only last three to four years, so if your battery is older than that, it’s likely time for a new one.
If you notice a thermometer that appears to be floating in water, it likely means your engine’s temperature is higher than normal and you should shut it off as soon as you can safely park. Check the coolant levels and look for leaks but be sure not to open the radiator cap or reservoir cover until the engine has completely cooled – when the engine is at operating temperature, the coolant is under pressure and can shoot out and burn you.
Transmission temperature: If the thermometer is inside a gear or cog, this means your transmission is overheating. When in doubt, check your car’s manual.
Like the exclamation point, this can have different meanings depending on your vehicle’s manufacturer. It could simply mean your car is due for service, or it could indicate an issue with your vehicle’s powertrain. If you’re not sure, check your owner’s manual to find out what action needs to be taken.
If you see a leaking fluid or a warning light you can’t identify, check your car’s manual. If you don't have a physical copy of the manual, you should be able to search for a copy online. It will have the most comprehensive information about what to expect with your car.
And remember, whether your car’s in perfect shape or needs a little maintenance, we have a variety of coverage to help keep you safe on the road. Contact an agent to learn more today.
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 we can help you save.
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*Data accuracy is subject to this article's publication date.