You have five miles left on your journey, and the battery light comes on. Do you pull over immediately? Do you continue to your destination? It can be very difficult to tell the proper course of action when it comes to the safety of yourself, your passengers, and your vehicle -- which is a very sizable investment for most drivers.
So, are cars safe to drive with the battery light on?
The battery light comes on when either the battery, alternator, or wiring is faulty. The engine will still function normally, so technically, it is safer to drive than if the engine light had come on. However, headlights and brake lights still require the use of the battery, as do all the electronics in the car. Electric function may begin to fail – and the car may not be able to start again once stopped.
These issues tend to happen when you least expect them: in the middle or end of a long trip, or at a completely random time, making it impossible to really judge what's going on for yourself. This is why we're going to cover how to best judge the severity of your battery problem.
Is It Safe to Drive a Car with the Battery Light on?
Drivers will not know whether the issue is within the alternator, so power may not be available once the battery is drained. The power windows and radio won't always lag, and the lights won't always dim. It can be impossible to know what's safe for you and your car by relying on common sense alone.
Because the battery light can mean there is a problem with any area in the battery and charging system, it is very difficult for the average motorist to know exactly what is going on without a trip to the mechanic.
When the battery comes on when you start your car, you think nothing of it. But when the battery light lingers a few minutes, you start to worry, right? Some of us don't even notice when the light comes on, and some are hypervigilant the moment anything changes in the car. There is a middle ground somewhere, but how do you find it?
What Do I do If My Battery Light Comes On?
The first thing you should always do when your battery light comes on is turn off everything non-essential that draws electricity. If you are driving at night, you must turn off everything but the headlights. The radio, air-condition, charging cables, and any other non-essentials must be powered off or unplugged in order to minimize the power that is being drained from a battery that isn't recharging.
Your battery light may have come on because there were too many appliances draining power from the battery. Especially if you have an older model car. You will know if this is the case within a few minutes of turning off every non-essential. If your battery light remains on after a few minutes, please proceed to the troubleshooting section.
Troubleshooting When the Battery Light Comes On
When your battery light comes on, the safest solution is to pull over. You can always keep driving, but the question is, for how long? If there is only a mile left to your house, it might very well be safer to just continue on. If you have another 20 miles, it is safer to pull over and try and figure out what's going on.
Safety is always the name of the game, and sometimes it's safer to keep driving, and sometimes it's safer to stop. If you are ever in doubt, pull over and call roadside assistance.
The first step is to pull over and ensure you have the space you need before opening the hood. Ideally, we would all have traffic cones and a full toolbox in the trunk, but we tend not to prepare for the worst possible scenarios with every drive to and from our homes.
If you're on the highway, make sure you have as much space as possible between the car and the start of the road. Get as close to the guard rail or the edge of the road as you can!
Open The Hood
Once you're safely pulled over, pop the hood open and take a look inside. Because we're concerned with the battery light, we need to make sure it's where it's supposed to be! It might sound crazy, but some car models actually have the battery in the back in a compartment under the trunk. So, 'open the hood' could actually become open the trunk!
Make sure you have all the light you need in order to properly see the battery and the terminals and wiring if you're driving at night. Ideally, there will be a flashlight in the trunk or somewhere in your car. If not, use the flashlight on your smartphone. Just make sure that you are able to prop up your light source somewhere where it will stay put and where it won't interfere with the inspection you're about to do.
Inspect the Battery Terminals.
The metal connections protruding from the plastic-cased battery are your terminals. The terminals serve as the go-between for the battery and the electrical systems in place in your car. Over time, battery terminals can become corroded and, therefore, less conductive. This can result in your battery light turning on.
Your battery terminals are corroded if there is a greenish or whitish buildup surrounding them.
If you have a toolbox handy with you at the time of the light turning on, you can easily clean off the terminals with a wire brush or with the grooves on a pair of pliers.
If you are without a toolbox at the time, you might be able to use your shirt to clean off the terminals before starting your car to see if the light is still on.
Inspect the Fuse Box
Like with your battery, your fuse box is most likely under the hood of your car, or in the console of your dashboard, under your steering wheel. It could very well be located somewhere in the trunk as well. Either way, find it.
Remove the cover for the fuse box and examine the fuses.
If one or any of them are tripped, simply reset the switches and try restarting the car. This might end up solving your battery light problem altogether.
If multiple fuses have been tripped -- especially the larger fuses, this might be symptomatic of a larger issue that will require special maintenance and might put an end to the trip. Always check to be sure!
Most Common Causes of the Battery Light Turning On
Faulty Alternator Belt
Believe it or not, this is the most common cause of the battery light turning on. Your battery light will either turn on because of an issue with the alternator, the battery itself, or the wiring that connects them, but the alternator belt that drives the alternator is actually the first component that most mechanics check.
The alternator belt is a serpentine belt -- meaning it curls between multiple wheels like a snake -- and drives the alternator which charges your battery. When your alternator belt is improperly made or when it breaks, you will have issues with your battery.
Mainly, you will get an indication via your battery light. This is the most common cause of your battery indicator illuminating, and it is also one of the least repairable problems that a modern motorist can handle.
If It's The Alternator, Pull Over and Call a Mechanic
If your alternator belt causes your battery light to illuminate, you won't be able to fix the problem on your own because you will need professional equipment. You will also likely not be able to access your alternator belt in most modern cars because of the manufacturer's tendency to cover them in plastic paneling.
A car from 30 years ago will likely feature an alternator belt that can be examined without removing components, but a more modern car will need to be taken into the mechanic in order to fix it.
Because the most common cause of your battery light turning on probably isn't fixable to most drivers, you should pull over in all likelihood if you are far from your destination, and you should continue the last mile or two if you are close to your destination.
It's a difficult question to answer because the average driver doesn't know for certain what is causing the light to come on, but because the solution is usually out of reach, it depends on how close or how far the destination is.
A faulty or broken battery is probably the problem that most people would assume causes their battery light indicator to illuminate. Think about it: the battery light should be caused by a faulty or broken battery, right? It adds up from a common-sense point of view, but it's not the most common problem in reality.
Batteries are powered by cells that generate electrons that we call electricity. Car batteries are filled with acid that generates electricity via terminals connected to the wiring in our cars. When the battery breaks or never worked properly in the first place, the acid simply sits in the cells and only weighs your car down instead of doing its job.
A faulty or broken battery will not continue to power your car's lights, which is a serious problem if you are driving at night. For the most part, if your battery light comes on at night and you have room to pull over, you should. Driving without lights is extremely dangerous, as any driver knows. However, it can also be dangerous to pull over with a battery that will not be able to start your car -- given cars need electricity to start.
Should You Pull Over When It's a Faulty Battery?
If you pull over with your battery light on, plan for the worst-case scenario that your car will not be able to start back up. If you have room to pull over and you have cell service, it's a good idea to pull over and try and see what's wrong before your lights begin to dim, and you are no longer able to see at night.
If you're driving during the day, it might be a good idea to continue as long as you can, with every unnecessary appliance switched off. Try using the power windows and radio; if they don't work, your battery is only going to get worse.
The name of the game when driving with a faulty or broken battery is to get yourself to a place where you are able to stop and assess the problem as best you can, and where you have cell service. If you can't tell what's going on with your battery, you need to call a tow truck and visit a mechanic. Pull over when you can, don't wait till you're driving somewhere without any cell service and without anywhere safe to pull over.
It Helps to Know Your Car
If you're going on a long trip, it is a good idea to find out where your battery and alternator belt are beforehand -- because it's possible for a driver to inspect and even fix those components without professional assistance. It is certainly possible for every driver to find those components if they know where to look and what pieces to remove in order to inspect them.
Most drivers would be surprised to know that the alternator itself breaks less often than the alternator belt or the battery. The alternator is an expensive part that costs anywhere from $100 to $200 and tends to be better made than relatively cheap parts like the alternator belt and the battery, which typically go for far less than the labor costs of installing them.
Mechanics typically assume that the alternator itself is working perfectly, while the belt or the battery are the parts most expected to break.
The alternator is often buried under metal parts and cannot be simply assessed as the belt or batter can. A broken alternator is a big-ticket repair that will, without a doubt, require a visit to the mechanic. As with both previous faulty and broken parts, an alternator problem will potentially not allow you to start your car again if you pull over. So, the same advice still applies: pull over if you can do so safely and without the need to quickly start the car back up again.
Corroded Battery Terminals
Corroded battery terminals are likely the easiest problem to fix. This problem is also the simplest area to inspect as the terminals are designed to be accessible so that the average driver can jump start their car.
If your battery light indicator comes on and it's safe to pull over, simply find your battery and lift any plastic that's in the way -- again, there won't be much removal because the manufacturer actually wants you to find the terminals. If there is green or white buildup, you've got corroded terminals.
This problem is not as common as the other previous causes, but as we mentioned, it's a very simple fix if you have a toolbox with you in your trunk. Once you've pulled over and cleaned off the corrosion, your car should run perfectly again, without the battery light turning on.
Tip: Drivers of older cars should always carry a toolbox with them, as should anyone going on a large trip. A wire brush or any other abrasive tool will clean the terminals. It's also a good idea to carry a light
Too Many Accessories in Use
While this is far from the most common cause of your battery light illuminating, it's by far the simplest to fix. Many drivers rely upon their cars to charge their smartphones, and while this only draws a minuscule amount of electricity for most cars -- some will not be able to handle the unnecessary drain.
Everything from air conditioning, radio, power windows, windshield wipers, and the defroster will draw electricity from the battery. If your alternator, battery, and battery cable are working perfectly, too many accessories will probably not be an issue. But if you have a sub-standard connection between your battery and your alternator, using too many unnecessary accessories could cause your battery light to illuminate.
Even though this is the least common cause of the battery light indicator, this is the first check that every driver should make when it comes on.
Make sure that nothing but the engine and your headlights are using electricity and wait a few minutes to see if anything changes. If your battery light turns off, you've all but solved the problem. Unfortunately, there is probably something wrong with your battery, alternator, or wiring.
Luckily, if you are able to get the light to turn off, you're in the clear for the moment. It's about reaching your destination or reaching a safe place where you can call a tow truck if you suspect the issue will return. It's all about safety at the end of the day, and it's about pulling over when you know you can. If the battery light comes on, try what you can, THEN pull over when you know you can remain pulled over if you have to.