What do the lights on my dashboard mean?

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

check engine light on dashThe lights on your dashboard are more than just an annoyance; they are a sign that your car needs attention—and some dashboard warning lights need attention NOW.  We’ve put together a list of the most common dashboard warning lights and what you should do about them (and when!).

Important note: When a warning light comes on, note whether the light is yellow or red. If the warning light is red, the problem is urgent and you should not drive your car.  Call your mechanic immediately.  A yellow car warning light indicates that the car needs to be checked, but you can still drive the car. Don’t wait too long to get your car into the mechanic though, though, as a yellow light left unchecked can lead to permanent damage, a higher repair bill, and you being stranded.

Battery alert

What: A small light in the shape of a battery, often with a small positive and negative sign.

What the light means: Your battery alert light is letting you know there is an issue with your car’s charging system and that your voltage level is low.

What you should do: Make sure your battery connectors and cables are correct and tight. Contact your mechanic to see if you can get an appointment soon; your car is going to break down if the battery cannot recharge.

Brake light

What: A brake light may say ‘BRAKE’ or can be a circle with an exclamation point in the middle.  Some cars have more than one brake light.

What the light means: A brake light can come on for a few different reasons, but usually it indicates that there is a problem with the braking system.

What you should do: Before you panic, make sure your parking brake is not on. If your parking brake is not the problem, make an appointment immediately to get your brakes checked. Don’t wait! Worn or failing brakes are a safety hazard that can lead to a serious accident.

Check Engine light

What: The check engine light is in the shape of irregular rectangle.

What the light means:  The check engine light comes on when your car has an issue that throws a code in your car’s computer system.  There are a number of reasons for this; the reason can be found out when hooked up to a computer by your mechanic.

What you should do: Schedule an appointment to find out what the reason is for the Check Engine light.  Your mechanic can tell you what the reason is, and if the repair is need immediately.

Coolant temperature warning light

What: The coolant temperature warning light looks like a thermometer with a round bottom, often with squiggly lines that look like waves.

What the light means:  Your engine is overheating, and needs attention to prevent engine failure.

What you should do:  Pull over to the side of the road right away. DO NOT unscrew your radiator cap.  If your engine is hot, the fluid could boil up and injure you. Once your car has cooled, check your antifreeze level and add water or radiator fluid to the radiator if needed. If the engine happens repeatedly, your car may have a radiator leak or have another problem that makes your car overheat. Schedule an appointment with your mechanic as soon as possible.

Oil pressure

What: The oil pressure warning light (or low pressure warning light) looks like an oil can, often with a drop of oil coming out.

What the light means: This light means that your car has a low oil level, or low or no oil pressure.

What you should do: Check your oil level as soon as you can with a paper towel.  If the problem was a low oil level, the warning light should go off eventually. If your car oil level is normal, your car may be running with minimal oil pressure. Do not drive your car with the oil pressure light on, especially not for long trips.  This can damage your engine. Call your mechanic immediately.

TPMS light

What: The TPMS light has the letters ‘TPMS’ which stands for tire pressure monitoring system.

What the light means: Your tire pressure monitoring system has sensors in the tires which alert you when your tires are very low and need air.

What you should do: Fill up your tires with air immediately. Your TPMS warning light comes on when your tires are 20% (sometimes more than that) below pressure. By that time, your tire pressure is dangerously low—and dangerous to drive on. If your TPMS light comes on regularly, schedule an appointment with your mechanic to see if your tire has a leak that needs to be fixed.

Transmission temperature

What: The transmission temperature light usually looks like a gear with a thermometer in the middle.

What the light means: If your transmission temperature comes on, your transmission is overheating, which can lead to transmission failure if you continue on for an extended period of time.

What you should do: Check your transmission fluid as soon as possible.  Driving with an overheating transmission is most likely going to lead to total transmission failure (and leave you stranded).  Schedule an appointment as soon as possible to get the problem diagnosed.

Wheel alignment: The What, How Often & Why

tire that needs a wheel alignmentWhen the weather temps start to look like a roller coaster, our Wisconsin roads can start to feel like an amusement ride.  All the jostling from pot holes and uneven roads can take their toll on your car, causing a whole host of problems down the road.  An unbalanced car can lead to extensive repair bills and car breakdowns if you don’t get your car in for a wheel alignment.  Here’s how to know when your car needs a wheel alignment, how often it should be done, and all the other questions we frequently get asked about wheel alignments.

How to know your car needs an alignment

There is no hard and fast way to tell your car needs a wheel alignment: you can’t look under the hood or the carriage of the car and know for certain.  What you can do is notice a vibration or shake that worsens as your car goes faster. Typically, the shake starts at around 40 mph and gets worse as your speed increases, and may also be felt in the steering wheel.  You may also notice uneven tire tread wear when you rotate your tires (or replace them), or a pull to the right or left when you drive.  Another way to tell is to look at your steering wheel when driving straight down the road: is it straight?  If not, it’s time to schedule an appointment for a wheel alignment.

How often you should schedule a wheel alignment

The answer to this question depends on the amount of miles you put on your car annually, but usually your car needs a wheel alignment every 6,000 miles.  You can also ask your mechanic to check for signs of an unbalanced car when you take the car in for an oil appointment.

Where you should go for a wheel alignment

A wheel alignment is not a simple task that can be done in your garage.  Every model of car needs a different, precise alignment that adjusts the camber, caster and toe angles (if adjustable) to the manufacturer’s specifications. (Additional parts and labor may be necessary on some vehicles – see your customer service manual for details.)

Why your car needs a wheel alignment

Think of an unbalanced car like a body skeleton that’s out of whack; you can keep walking but other parts of your body are usually injured from unbalanced movements.  Same with a car out of alignment: while you can drive an unbalanced car, a car with balance issues needs more repairs over time and can become a safety issue. A car without regular alignments wears through tires faster and may need suspension part repair and replacement. Driving your car with a shake or pull can also be a safety hazard when roads become slippery.

What should I do about a check engine light? (& Why it might be on)

check engine light on dashYikes!  When the check engine light glows on your car dashboard, it’s natural to feel a little (or a lot) panic.  Why is the check engine light coming on?  How much is this car repair going to cost?  What’s the cost to find out what the problem is?

Don’t hesitate if the light is red.

For most warning dashboard lights, there are two colors: red and yellow. If your check engine light (or any warning light) is red, get your car to a local repair shop IMMEDIATELY.  The fact that the light is red means that the issue is significant and needs to be looked at immediately.  A yellow light is not as urgent; if your car has a yellow check engine light, make an appointment to get your car diagnosed by a technician.

Get your car in to find out the cause.

There are lots of reasons your check engine light could be on, but there are five very common reasons for a check engine light, such as:

  • Catalytic converter
  • Mass airflow sensor
  • Oxygen sensor
  • Spark plugs (or connecting wire issues-here are more signs of failing spark plugs)
  • Gas cap issue

These are the most common causes, but there are other issues that can cause your check engine light to come on.  If you want to find out the cause of your check engine light—what’s really the cause, not just conjecture—schedule an appointment so your mechanic can hook up your car to a computer and get the answer.

Talk to your mechanic.

If you need to wait to get the cause of your check engine light fixed, make sure you ask your mechanic how long before you should schedule an appointment.  Remember, they can’t see into the future, so they can only give you an estimation of how long you have—or before the issue causes other problems.  We know of one family that waited so long to replace their spark plugs that the catalytic converter failed, significantly increasing the cost of the repair.

Don’t procrastinate.

Don’t procrastinate and don’t ignore the check engine light. Schedule an appointment. Yes, we’ve all heard stories of drivers who went thousands of miles with a check engine light with no problem. However, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be one of them. You don’t want to end up stranded and waiting for a tow truck.

How do I know if my car battery is dying?

battery under open hood ready to be checked to see if it is dyingDying car batteries are annoying. Dead car batteries are even more annoying when you’re stranded. However, that’s exactly what’s going to happen when you don’t watch for the signs of a failing car battery.

Inconsistent starting

If your car won’t start randomly, your battery could be the culprit. Instead of dealing with having to jump your car over and over (which eventually won’t work), talk to your mechanic about testing your battery.  Sometimes, your mechanic can tell there is an issue or they can diagnose the real reason your car won’t start.

Slow, rough starting

That long, drawn out rrrrrrr that you hear when your car is slow to start is more than an irritation—it’s the sign of a dying battery.  Don’t put up with it too long, because the battery is eventually going to permanently die.  Talk to your mechanic about a new battery now—and have them check for other causes—-so you don’t have to sit around and wait for your battery to fail.

Warning light

If you have a dashboard warning light come on that signals an electrical problem, call or email your mechanic and schedule an appointment. The problem could be an alternator or any number of problems, but one of the first places they are going to check is your battery.

What should I do if I think my car battery is dying?

Contact your mechanic to get your battery checked as soon as possible.  Your mechanic can hook up your battery to a load tester to see if your battery voltage is (or has been) low.

On average, batteries die between 3-5 years, so make sure you keep your receipt so you know when to ask your mechanic to replace your battery.  There’s also another good reason to keep the receipt: you can take the battery back during the warranty period if you have issues with it.

When does my car need new brakes?

car mechanic working on car with bad brakesWinter roads can be hazardous enough even in the best of situations.  Trying to drive a car with failing brakes on icy roads can be like trying to stop on a skating rink.  That’s why a car owner needs to be on alert watching (and listening!) for signs they need new brakes—before they’re skating down the road with brakes that don’t work.

A soft pedal

One of our friends had a scary experience with this sign of failing brakes.  She tried to stop at a stop sign…and didn’t.  Instead, the pedal of her van went to the floor and she went right through the intersection.  Luckily, she wasn’t hurt, but it is a valuable lesson for all car owners.  If your pedal feels soft, or goes down to the floor when you press it, it’s time to head to your local mechanic for new brakes.

Pulling to the right or left when braking

You may not think much of this sign of failing brakes; it can mean that your car needs an alignment.  A car that pulls to the left or right can also be caused by uneven worn pads, a broken brake hose, or a stuck brake caliper.  For a diagnosis, and an end to that annoying pull, schedule an appointment to stay straight on the road.

Vibrations

If you feel a vibration in your steering wheel when braking, there are a few different reasons your car could be vibrating.  One of those reasons is an unevenly worn brake rotor in the front or rear; your mechanic can tell you exactly which it the problem is.

High pitched squealing & strange sounds

Do people stare when you hit the brakes?  Worn brakes can make a squealing sound when it’s time for replacement.  The squealing is a built-in warning sign so you can head to the mechanic before your brakes are ready for replacements.  Remember, not all brakes make a squealing.  Some brakes are built to make a chattering or grinding sound when worn—not sounds you want to hear too long before you head in for a brake replacement.

6 Car To Do’s Before You Hit the Road for Christmas

two girls heading out to Christmas after checking carDon’t just pack your suitcases and holiday dishes for your Christmas road trip; add these to-do’s to your holiday task list so you can get to your holiday destination safely and without an emergency tow.

Oil level & change

Before you head out on the road, check the level of your oil to make sure your engine has adequate lubrication for your trip. If your car needs an oil change, don’t procrastinate.  Schedule an appointment so you can head out on the road with fresh oil (which lubricates better than dirty oil).

How to check your oil: Turn off your engine and grab a paper towel. Open the hood of your car and locate your dipstick. Pull your dipstick out. Wipe the oil off the dipstick. Put the dipstick back in and pull it out. Make sure your oil level is between the two lines on the dipstick (and not above the max line). If your oil level is low, add oil. Make sure you added enough by checking the oil again when you are done. If your oil level is low every time you check it, tell your mechanic at your next appointment. A low oil level can indicate an oil leak or another issue.

Headlights & taillights check

It happens to everyone: you’re driving around without a headlight or brake light and don’t even know it.  Even if you don’t intend to drive through the dark during your holiday getaway, working headlights and taillights are crucial for safe travel (especially in a snowstorm!).

How to check your headlights & taillights: Put your car in park (if it’s not already).  Turn on your car and your headlights, and check to make sure you two working (and bright) headlights.  Repeat with your taillights and blinkers to make sure they work when you need them.

Tire tread & pressure check

Good tires and adequate tire pressure are essential for safe travel (especially on our slippery Wisconsin winter roads!) and good gas mileage.  Check you tire tread with a penny into the tread of your tire. If you can completely see Abraham Lincoln’s head, you need new tires. Make sure you try this trick in a few different places on the tire. Tires can wear differently, leaving some tires with uneven tread depth.

How to check your tire pressure: Find out what the correct Pounds per Square Inch (PSI) for your car is.  The proper PSI (pounds per square inch-tire pressure) is in your car’s owner manual or on a decal on the bottom of your door frame on the driver’s side.

Get a tire pressure gauge.  Remove the cap from the tire stem. (The tire stem is a small rubber piece sticking up from your tire.)  Insert the tire pressure gauge into the tire stem. You will feel the gauge fit in there correctly. (If you have a gauge with a knob for deflation, you will know if you are using the right end if you DON’T hear air escaping.) The end of your tire pressure gauge will register a number electronically or the white numbers will rise at the other end of the tire pressure gauge.

Brake inspection

Brakes may not be the most exciting part of your car, but it’s certainly one of the most important.  When wet, it’s normal for your car brakes to make an occasional squeal. If the noise continues even when the weather isn’t wet, your brake pads are ready for replacement.  The squealing sound is actually a warning indicator built in by the manufacturer just to let you know that it’s time to get them replaced. If you don’t get your brakes looked it, and possibly replaced, your brake pedal is going to go to the floor and you’re going to keep going when you don’t want to.

Other signs of bad car or truck brakes include: a grinding noise that goes away you press the brakes, a soft or pulsating brake pedal, or when your car pulls to one side.  If your car is doing the latter, there are other car problems, such as an alignment issue. Schedule an appointment with your mechanic to get a diagnosis so you can get to your Christmas celebration safely.

Check your fluids

Nothing’s worse than not having windshield washer when you need it.  Fill your windshield washer reservoir before you head out for the holidays.  Check your windshield wipers to confirm they can clean your windshield.

If your transmission fluid hasn’t been flushed (ever), schedule an appointment with your mechanic.  Your car uses transmission fluid to shift gears, so a dirty transmission fluid can cause a very expensive transmission failure—and a huge headache when you’re stranded while trying to get to your holiday fun. To keep your transmission shifting, and you on the road, make an appointment to have your transmission fluid flushed every 30-60,000 miles (or as low as 15,000 miles for workhorse vehicles).

Emergency winter car kit

You never know what’s going to happen when you head to your Christmas celebration.  Prepare for the unexpected with an emergency travel kit. Double check to make sure you have the number of a tow truck in your cell phone, and on a card just in case you have a low cell battery.

What should be in your emergency winter kit:

  • Flashlight (with new batteries)
  • Blanket
  • Jack and lug wrench (if not already in your vehicle)
  • Jumper cables
  • Boots
  • Shovel
  • First aid kit
  • Cell phone charger

10 COOL Gifts for the Car Lover in Your Life

decorated christmas tree with gifts for car nut underneathCar lover. Car nut.  Car geek.  There are a million different terms for the car lover in your life, all of which can leave you at a loss for what to get for the gift recipient who loves their car more than themselves.  That’s why we’ve compiled a list of gifts for the car lover in your life, put together by car lovers for car lovers.

Floor mats

Help your car lover’s beloved stay pristine with new floor mats.  Be selective about your purchase; not just any floor mates are good enough for your car lover.  Instead, look for mats that are specially measured and manufactured for their “baby.”

No more cold concrete floors

When the temperatures drop, even the biggest car lover appreciates a few months of NOT having to lay on those freezing concrete floors.  Give your car lover a gift certificate for oil changes and other work this winter—done by a mechanic they trust—so they don’t have to freeze working on their car.

Good detail

Give your car lover the gift that keeps giving: a quality car detailing.  If you want to get rid of the scuff that you left on their car (and stop hearing about it), give them a gift certificate to give their baby the deep cleaning they feel it deserves.

Snow tires

If your car lover has to drive their “baby” in the snow, a good set of snow tires ensures that your car lover and their vehicle arrive in one piece during one of our Wisconsin snow storms.  Contact your local tire shop for new tires; all you have to do is figure out how to gift wrap them.

Good wax

If your car lover is like most, he or she loves to give their “baby” a regular wash and wax.  Find out their favorite car wash kit and wax on the sly or ask around for the best car wash and wax kit around.  Only the best wash and wax is going to be good enough for their love.

Headlights

Not just any headlights are going to do for the car lover in your life.  If your car lover hasn’t upgraded their car lighting, shop for LED lamps that give better visibility and use less energy.  Be prepared when you start shopping; you’ll be amazed by the selection of bulbs on the market.

Roadside assistance

Heaven forbid your car lover’s set of wheels breaks down, but if they do give them the gift of a helping hand so they can get back on the road. 

Remote start

If your car lover can’t wait to get behind the wheel every morning, make it a warm steering wheel.  Purchase an aftermarket remote start system that can get their car going even on the coldest Wisconsin mornings.

Battery charger 

Even the most carefully maintained vehicle can be brought down by a failing or subpar car battery.  To help your car lover out of the garage, buy a quality battery charger.

Tools

No one appreciates a good set of tools like a car lover.  From a set of wrenches to a good flashlight, your self-proclaimed car nut appreciates a good tool as much as you enjoy a ride in their much-loved ride.

5 Car Maintenance Tasks You Should NEVER Forget

car mechanic doing repairs on a car that wasn't maintainedWe know that taking your car to the mechanic is not the most exciting part of your day.  It’s not like meeting with friends or going to a great movie, but regular car maintenance is a VERY important part of keeping your car running smoothly.  If you want to keep your car going, don’t forget to schedule (and keep) regular appointments for these important car maintenance tasks.

Oil changes

There’s a reason that oil changes are first on the list, and should be a high priority when your car is getting close to the mileage your mechanic tells you (it can vary).  An engine without regular oil changes is prone to part breakdowns due to inadequate lubrication.  If you don’t want to end up with a long list of engine repairs, follow your mechanic’s instructions and make regular appointments for oil changes.

Rotating tires

Tire rotation doesn’t seem like a big deal, but regular rotation is important for the life of your tires and car suspension.  Rotating your tires (or having your mechanic rotate your tires) ensures that your tires wear evenly, can prevent surprise flats, and extend the life of your tires. A regular inspection of your tires also gives you (or your mechanic) the opportunity to find small holes on your tire that can be fixed before they become more of a problem.

Replacing the air filter

We won’t go into great detail about how disgusting your air filter can get if not replaced, but we will tell you that part of your regular car maintenance should include replacing or cleaning that gross air filter. If you don’t, a dirty air filter can deprive your engine of air, causing performance issues and damage over the life of your car.  To know when it’s time to replace your air filter, ask your mechanic to check it at your next scheduled oil change.

Replacing spark plugs

Your spark plugs should be changed every 30,000-100,000 miles, depending on the kind of spark plugs in your car or truck.  Spark plugs ignite the fuel-air mixture in your cylinder, creating the combustion that starts and keeps your car engine in motion.  If you wait too long to replace the spark plugs, other parts of your car may need to be replaced as well.

Checking the battery

Over time, the performance of your car battery declines, leaving you stranded.  That’s why a regular inspection of your battery and connections is so important.  Batteries usually give out around the 3-5 year mark.  Ask your mechanic to check your battery periodically so you can replace it before your car starts rough—or doesn’t start it all.

7 Last Minute Car Preps Before Your Thanksgiving Trip  

cars on highway headed out for ThanksgivingThe list of preparing for holiday travel can get very long: packing, making any dishes you volunteered to bring, laundry…the list can go on and on.  The most overlooked items on your list are the preparations that get you your holiday travel destination: getting your car ready for the trip.  Before you head out on the road with the thousands of other Wisconsinites, make sure you’ve checked off all the items on the checklist that gets your car travel-ready (or made a last minute appointment with your mechanic before you hit the road).

Check (and listen to) your brakes

Your brakes are important for your safety whether you are traveling down the street or across the country.  Before you head out for Thanksgiving, have a mechanic check your brakes or pay special attention for these signs of failing brakes before your trip.

Check your tire pressure

Nothing can ruin your Thanksgiving travel like a flat tire from low tire pressure.  Use a tire pressure gauge to check your tire pressure, or have your mechanic check to make sure you have correct tire pressure when you get an oil change.

Check your tire tread

Have a mechanic check the tread wear indicators, or check them yourself with this simple test: when you put a penny in the tread of your tires, you shouldn’t be able to see all of Lincoln’s head. If you can, it’s time for new tires that can get you to your Thanksgiving destination and back home.

Check your battery (and battery connections)

Cold temperatures are hard on batteries (especially sub-freezing temps, depending on where you’re headed for Thanksgivng). Colder temperatures turn your car fluids to the consistency of molasses; this means your battery has to work extra hard to start your engine.  To make sure your battery starts every time on your trip, inspect your battery connections, clean off any corrosion or rust, and watch for any signs your battery needs to be replaced. 

Make sure you have headlights, brake lights & blinkers

Depending on how soon you need to get there—and how much you like your friends or family and the length of your visit—you’re probably going to need headlights and taillights.  You always need brake lights and blinkers.  Check every light on your vehicle before you hit the road, and make an emergency trip to the auto parts store or to your mechanic if any of your lights isn’t, well, lighting.

Replace your windshield wipers and washer

Windshield wipers are one of the cheapest and most valuable parts of your car—especially when it’s raining or snowing.  Fill up your windshield washer, check your windshield wipers, and replace any parts that aren’t doing their job.

Check your oil

Oil is vital to the health of your engine on your Thanksgiving road trip, and for every trip you intend to make in your car for the near future.  Check you oil level, and get it changed if you haven’t done so recently.  The good news is you still have time to make an appointment before you head out on your Thanksgiving road trip.

6 Checks that Get Your Truck Ready for Hunting

woods where hunters head into after readying truck for huntingSocial media, outdoor stores, garages…they’re all full of hunters getting ready to go.  If you’re one of them, you’re probably biting at the bit to get out in the woods and are getting all your hunting gear ready.  Don’t forget to prep one of the most important parts of your hunting supplies: your truck.  This year’s hunt is sure to have more than a few hiccups if you can’t get out into the woods if you’re dealing with a random breakdown.  Here are six key areas of your hunting truck to inspect, and prep, before you head out on opening day.

Battery

If you’re itching to get out to your stand, you don’t want to be delayed by an old battery.  When the temps drop, truck batteries tend to flare up—or not flare up when your truck needs peak power to start up because your truck fluids turn to the same consistency as molasses.  If your truck battery is showing signs that its next start might be the last (i.e. slow start-ups, rough starting, sudden dead batteries, numerous recharges, or just an old battery), check your battery connections or contact a mechanic to check your truck battery and install a new one (so you can get all the rest of your hunting gear ready).

Truck bed

Prep your truck bed for all the heavy lifting that comes with the hunt; every hunter uses a different method: a tarp, good pressure wash, bed liner.  Whatever you do, make sure your truck bed is clean and ready for your deer hunt.

Lights

You can’t count on a full moon during hunting season; it’s best to have alternate lighting for when you need it to get out of the woods or when you’re dragging your trophy back to the truck.  Check your headlights and any auxiliary lights you have rigged up for the occasion so you have lights when you need it.

Brakes

Your time in the stand is going to be limited if you’re dealing with the fallout from an accident because of failing brakes.  If your brake pedal is soft, brakes make squealing sounds, truck is shaking or showing any other signs of failing brakes, replace your brakes before you head out on opening day.  If you don’t have time, schedule an appointment with your mechanic before you head out.

Fluids

Check your oil, windshield washer, and transmission fluid so you don’t have any unpleasant surprises.  Make sure your oil level is optimal, and you’re not in need of a oil change before you head out (if so, set up an appointment ASAP so you can just go).  Fill up your windshield washer just in case the weather gets nasty. Check you transmission fluid to make sure it’s a clean red color and there are no metal shards in the fluid.  If it is, get your transmission checked before you head out (and can’t get home, though maybe that’s a good thing).

Tires

A flat tire can put a real damper on any hunting trip, especially when you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere.  Check your tire pressure to make sure you’re not going to be stuck with a flat and to make sure you’re getting optimal gas mileage (so you’re not stopping every 10 miles for gas).  As long as you’re at it, check for adequate tire tread so the only thing you’re worried about this hunting season is how you’re going to get that huge buck out of the woods.