What Does Service Engine Soon Mean?

by Darla Himeles

The "service engine soon" warning lights up on your car dashboard to alert you to a problem with your car. You or your mechanic can use a specialized computer scanner or code reader to diagnose the issue. Generally, if the light stays lit for at least several minutes at a time, this means you need to schedule a checkup for your car.


Different car brands and models have slightly different names for the "service engine soon" warning, also known as the SES warning. Some car SES warnings simply say "engine" or they use slightly different words like "check engine" or "service needed." Note the exact phrase and the color of the light (usually red, orange or yellow) when talking with your mechanic.

Time Frame

If the SES light is red, your car's problem is serious. Pull your car over, turn off the ignition and call for assistance. Note any smells, sights (smoke, for example), sounds or sensations that were out of the ordinary. If the light is yellow or orange, you may generally safely drive to your destination. Make an appointment at a service center as soon as possible and limit driving.

Serious Causes

Serious problems that can cause the red SES warning light to come on include low anti-freeze, engine oil, brake fluid or transmission fluid; missing or broken belts; a bad battery; or a broken alternator.

Other Causes

The yellow or orange "service engine soon" light may mean something is wrong with your anti-lock brake or safety restraint systems, there is a computer problem in your car or something is wrong with your emission system. A cap left off one of your fluid containers can cause the light to turn on, as can an overdue oil change.


Without scanning the computer in your car, you cannot be sure that your car is safe to drive long distances once the "service engine soon" warning has come on. Do not take road trips or unnecessarily drive your car until the problem is diagnosed and, if possible, fixed.

About the Author

Darla Himeles is a freelance writer, editor and poet living in Castine, Maine. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College's English and education programs and a current student in Drew University’s MFA in poetry and poetry in translation program, Himeles writes frequently about education, wellness, writing and literature.

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