What Does the Check Gauge Light Mean?

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Abbey Orzech
Updated on Oct 4, 2022 · 10 min read
When you see an illuminated “check gauges” light, several different malfunctions could be happening: low tire pressure, a loose gas cap, depleted engine oil, a blown fuse, or an overheated engine. Check the instrument panel for other illuminated gauge lights or investigate the situation under the hood to identify the issue.
You might be really nervous when you see the CHECK GAUGES light flash on while you’re driving. What does it mean this time? Are you about to break down on the side of the road during rush hour or are you simply nearing an empty gas tank?
There are many different meanings to the check gauges light, and some of them are more serious than others. Here to go over the possible causes of your warning light is
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What does the check gauge light mean?

The check gauge light can mean anything from a too-loose gas cap to major engine damage, so, unfortunately, there isn’t a super straightforward answer to this. 
However, you can always assume that an illuminated check gauge light means that one or more of your vehicle’s gauge readings is out of whack.
The Powertrain Control Module (PCM) is responsible for setting off the alarm when there may be a problem within the vehicle’s systems. It monitors the gauges that monitor things like your engine oil pressure, fuel level, engine temperature, and battery performance. 
When the PCM gets word that a gauge reading is off, it will turn on your check gauge light and typically another, more specific gauge light that gives you a better idea of where the issue lies.
To understand what the PCM is trying to tell you, it’s a good idea to get familiar with your car’s instrument panel. The exact layout and appearance of it will vary depending on your car’s make and model, but typically, there are similar symbols and colors across every vehicle.
Yellow/amber, orange, and red lights will give you an idea of the severity of the issue, with yellow being the least severe and red being the most serious.
Depending on the issue at hand, you may be able to take care of it yourself or you may need to seek out a mechanic’s help immediately.

Triggers for the check gauge light and how to fix them

Let’s go over some of the most common reasons for an illuminated check gauge light so you can better know how to resolve the problem when it comes up.

Low oil pressure

First on the list of potential triggers for the check gauge light is low oil pressure. Oil pressure that is building too slowly will alert the PCM and illuminate the warning light.
You could be experiencing low oil pressure from a leaking oil filter, low engine oil, a malfunctioning oil pump, or a bad oil pressure sensor. In these cases, replacing the faulty part or getting an oil change to refill your engine oil level should fix the issue.

Engine overheating

Another catalyst of a triggered check gauge light is an overheating engine, or an engine that has gotten too hot to operate effectively. This can happen if there is a leak in the radiator or if something else is preventing coolant from circulating through the system.
In addition to the warning lights, you may also smell something burning or notice that your coolant levels are depleting quicker than normal. 
When an overheating engine is the cause of the check gauge light, you’ll want to pull over as soon as you safely can. If you choose to work on the issue yourself, do so with extreme caution. There may be some extreme pressure build-up in the cooling system while the engine is still hot.
Once your vehicle has had a chance to cool down (refer to the temperature gauge on the dash if you’re not sure), you can add more coolant or take your car to a repair shop to replace any of the damaged or malfunctioning components.

Loose gas cap

Certainly on the less-severe end of potential warning light causes is a loose gas cap. A loose gas cap can alter the pressure in your fuel tank and interrupt your fuel delivery system so that you lose fuel faster.
This is one problem that can be fixed relatively easily. Simply tighten your gas cap back down, or if the issue stems from a bad O-ring or damaged gas cap, replace the faulty part.

Bad sensors or sending unit

The sensors or sending unit in your vehicle are responsible for keeping track of and displaying accurate readings across several vehicle systems. A bad sensor itself could set off the check gauge light, but it may also lead to more severe problems like a damaged catalytic converter or spark plugs.
If you suspect you’re dealing with a faulty sensor or sending unit, you’ll want to identify which sensor is causing the problem and replace it with a new one.

Problems with the thermostat

A leaking or faulty thermostat won’t be able to regulate the flow of coolant into the engine, contributing to an overheating engine. 
It may also contaminate the coolant, so it will be best to replace a damaged thermostat, but adding more coolant to the system will help mediate the issue until you can get it fixed.

Bad water pump

Problems with the water pump can actually freeze the accessory belt and lead to other mechanical issues. For issues with a bad water pump, the best course of action is to replace the malfunctioning part.

Blown fuses

Another relatively easy-to-fix issue that causes the check gauge light to come on is a blown fuse. Fuses can blow due to various mechanical malfunctions, but all you need to do to remedy the problem is to replace the problem fuse.
You should be able to tell which fuse you need to replace just by looking at them—you’ll usually notice blackened or broken filaments or metal strips
Just be sure that your vehicle is off and there is no power to the fuse box before you make the swap or you’ll risk electrocution.

Leaky vacuum

The vacuum system performs multiple roles in a vehicle’s functioning and is an essential part of a healthy car. A leaking vacuum can cause your car to reach high RPMs for seemingly no reason or a host of other problems. 
Replace the vacuum gauge if you run into this issue.

Loose accessory belt

A vehicle’s accessory belt, among other things, helps the alternator and power steering charge. It can get too loose for a few different reasons. 
If you’re experiencing a lot of precipitation where you live, the belt may get too wet to effectively grip its holdings. It also could have slipped from its place from simple aging and natural wear and tear.
If moisture is the issue, you can usually rely on warm, dry weather to rectify it. If wear is causing the belt to slip, you’ll need to replace it. Keep an eye on your accessory belt on a regular basis to make sure it’s in good condition.

Problems with the PCM/ECM/ECU

That’s right—the component that’s telling you you have an issue may also have problems itself. As with any computer or digital gauge, the PCM and other onboard diagnostics tools can go a bit haywire and send false warnings.
If you investigate your vehicle and find nothing amiss besides the check gauge light, it could be a defective diagnostic tool that needs recalibrating or replacing.

Charging system issues

You may see an illuminated check gauge light if your vehicle’s charging system isn’t able to effectively do its job. Issues here could stem from clogged or dirty battery terminals or shorted-out wiring that are leading to extra strain and drain of your battery.
Check out the charging system by using a voltmeter or getting a battery test at your local auto store to see if your alternator is working as it should.

Faulty mechanism

The check gauge light could be leading you to some sort of faulty mechanism in your vehicle. Depending on the role of the faulty mechanism in question, you may notice things like electrical system issues, engine failure, or malfunctioning valves accompanying your check gauge light.
If you feel comfortable, take a look at the electrical components in your car and note any damage or looseness. The solution could be as simple as tightening a component back down or it could call for a faulty part replacement.

Lack of proper maintenance

Remember all those oil changes and scheduled services that you “missed”? Well, they might come back to bite you.
Without regular servicing and maintenance, your vehicle’s systems can get worn out, clogged, or otherwise damaged in ways that can wreak havoc on your car. By the time it reaches the point of an illuminated check gauge light, it might be too late to service your way out of the issue. 
Be sure to keep up with the appropriate maintenance schedule required for your ride to avoid costly repairs and replacements down the road!

What to do if your check gauge light is on

There are a lot of potentially scary reasons the check gauge light comes on, but you shouldn’t panic as soon as you see it. 
As soon as you safely can, pull over in a well-lit area to check out some of the major systems in your vehicle and decide how you need to proceed.

Check the oil pressure

Start by checking your oil pressure because this is one of the most common causes of a check gauge light turning on. If the oil pressure gauge looks like it’s on the low side, you’re likely in need of an oil refill.
You may also be dealing with the wrong oil viscosity, a clogged oil filter, or simply some wear and tear on the car’s engine components.

Check your fuel level

How’s your fuel gauge looking? If you’re riding close to “E”, stop in at the next gas station you see to fill up your gas tank and the issue should be resolved. 
If you recently filled up or your gas gauge is still well above “E”, the issue could be a loose fuel cap. Tighten it closed or see about replacing any faulty O-rings or the cap itself.

Do a diagnostic scan of your car

Most cars these days have onboard diagnostics (OBD) tools that exist for the purpose of identifying problems in the vehicle's systems. If you can, run a diagnostics scan to ID the issue.

Take your car to a mechanic

If all else fails or you’d simply prefer to leave your vehicle in the hands of a professional mechanic, head to your nearest repair shop. Certified mechanics will have the proper tools and knowledge to identify and repair whatever is going on in your vehicle.

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The answer to this will depend on why the check gauge light is on. If the check gauge warning means your engine is about to overheat, you should pull over. If the car gauges are just guiding you to check your washer fluid level, you should be fine to keep driving.
If the check gauges light in your vehicle is switching on and off, it’s likely that you’re dealing with defective diagnostics tech like the PCM.

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