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False indicators

May 27, 2015
By Larry DeHays , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The gentleman at the front counter was agitated. "The car died while I was driving down the road. The light had been on with a picture of a battery, so I bought a new battery and put it in. Everything ran okay for a day or so, although the battery thing was still showing, then it died again. The new battery was dead, and I had to jump start it. I must have a short, which is killing my batteries. Can you fix it?"

"Shure." I said. "We'll be happy to check it out for you." I knew better than to offer an opinion about his problem before it was checked out, but I already had a pretty good idea what it was. He had fallen for a "false indicator." The picture of a battery that appears on some instrument panels does not mean the battery is bad. It doesn't even mean that it is dead. It simply means that it is not being recharged by your alternator. It is a fault with the charging system, usually in the alternator itself, and not with the battery. The manufacturers must have decided to use a picture of a battery because they figured you wouldn't recognize a picture of an alternator. The light should say "alternator." It's just another case of "They didn't ask me before they designed it." I see a lot of that out there, darn it. (Just kidding).

A lady once came in wanting her battery replaced. When we asked why, she said because a picture of a battery was lit up on her dash. When I looked, the squarish looking indicator she was referring to was of a radiator, not a battery. Her problem was that the engine was overheating. "Well it looks like a battery to me!" she said rather indignantly. "Why doesn't it tell me I'm overheating then?" I wish I knew. It seems simple enough for an indicator to say "overheating," but many times they don't.

A picture of a battery, when it's not the battery, a picture of a radiator when it's not a fault with the radiator, (It could be the water pump, or a leaking hose or a stuck thermostat or any number of causes for the overheating) and, of course, the most blatant one, the ole "check engine" light, are often misinterpreted. A glowing picture of an engine outlined in amber, sometimes with a message to "check engine" is misleading. It should say to "check computer." Everyone gets out and checks the oil and water in the engine, which are two things that the light is not concerned with. That light means your computer control system has detected a condition that is causing excessive emissions, or pollution of the atmosphere. Good luck checking your engine yourself for the cause of that light. A special scanner is needed to extract a code number, which can be traced to a faulty system.

The ABS light means your antilock brake system won't work. You have only the old-fashioned "lock-em up and skid" brakes. The "air bag" light means you have the old-fashioned "face-plant in the dash" experience awaiting your crash. A light only saying "brake" indicates either that you left the parking brake on, or that you are leaking brake fluid, the latter meaning you will shortly not be able to stop. It seems that the simpler lights indicate the larger dangers. Don't let them fool you, check your owner's manual for what each of the mystery lights really mean.

--Larry DeHays is the author of the book "The Car Care World", a compilation of his most popular columns. It is available now through Amazon, Barnes and Noble,, or at the DeHays Automotive office, 17617 Broadway Ave., Fort Myers Beach. He has been an ASE Certified Technician for 37 years and an arbitrator for the Florida Lemon Law for 16 years. For more information go to or



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