Few repair jobs can be more frustrating for a driver than having to deal with a cracked head gasket. For such a small part of your vehicle, it can really cause some big headaches. The overall effect it's going to have on your car's performance if it cracks, not to mention how much time, effort, and money you're going to have to put into fixing it can all make it seem overwhelming.
Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can deal with a cracked head gasket if one pops up. And it's possible that you may be able to fix yours without breaking the bank by having to have it replaced. Let's take a look at what your head gasket even does in the first place, how you can tell you have a crack head gasket, and what it's going to take to get it fixed so that you can drive your car again.
What Is a Head Gasket?
The engine in your car is not just one solid piece of machinery. It's made up of many parts that have to be precisely lined up and put together in order for the entire engine to work. If you were to pull your engine apart and take off the cylinder head from the engine block you would find your head gasket in between the two of them. On its own a head gasket doesn't look like much, in fact it's a very flat panel that's full of holes to make room for the cylinders that it fits around. So, there's really not even a lot of material there. However, the head gasket’s job is incredibly important to keep your engine running.
When properly fit in place, a head gasket seals that gap between the cylinder head and the engine block. That allows your engine to maintain adequate pressure for the combustion reaction to occur. It also prevents fluids like coolant and motor oil from leaking into the cylinders themselves and causing you problems with how your engine functions.
To look at a head gasket you wouldn't notice much remarkable about it. Modern head gaskets are typically made of very thin sheets of metal and elastomer. This makes them durable and able to withstand the intense operating conditions of your engine, including the high temperatures.
If you have an older car with an original head gasket it might be made of something like asbestos or graphite. Neither one of those is used today, and they certainly weren't the best materials for the job, but they are able to handle high temperatures.
Over time any head gasket is going to have to endure a lot of wear and tear as a result of the conditions in your engine. If you find that your engine is running too hot this is going to put some extreme pressure on the head gasket and that is potentially what could cause it to break. High pH levels in your coolant as a result of contamination could also take their toll on a head gasket and cause it to wear down and break much sooner than it should as well.
How Do You Know if You Have a Cracked Head Gasket?
Because of the size and shape of your head gasket and where its position when it breaks down on you it's going to form cracks that mean you have lost the seal between the outside and the inside of your engine. This will result in a loss of pressure as well as potentially leaking fluids. Since you can't really see your head gasket by popping your hood and taking a look at it, you have to be aware of these symptoms and signs to let you know that something has happened to your head gasket.
Poor Engine Performance: When your car struggles to get up to speed, you suffer bad fuel efficiency, poor acceleration and so on. These are all potential signs of a bad head gasket affecting your engine's ability to do what it's supposed to do. When it's no longer able to maintain the pressure required for a proper combustion reaction, your car's performance will suffer as a result.
Contaminated Oil: Because the cracked gasket is no longer able to keep out oil and coolant the two substances are going to mix together. When you go to check your oil, you'll notice that it no longer looks like motor oil but more like a frothy sort of milkshake. It will take on a creamy, milky brown sort of colour and will no longer be able to do its job efficiently.
Contaminated Coolant: Just as oil and coolant can mix together in your oil reservoir, coolant in oil can mix together in your coolant reservoir. In this case the oil will form a mayonnaise-like layer on top of your coolant which will be visible when you open the radiator and will probably be on the radiator cap as well.
Overheating: Overheating is one of the things that can cause your head gasket to crack in the first place. However, once it is cracked, it's going to lead to more overheating in your engine. Because your coolant and your oil are going to be leaking, they won't be able to do their job keeping your engine working at the temperature it's supposed to be at. So overheating is a cause of and a symptom of a bad head gasket.
Smoke: Oil and coolant are not meant to get into the combustion chamber of your engine. When coolant gets in its going to evaporate at the high temperatures inside your engine it's going to be seen coming out of the back of your car in the form of white smoke. If motor oil gets into the combustion chamber and starts to burn that will produce blue or grey smoke as a result.
Can You Drive with a Cracked Head Gasket?
The next question that many drivers have is whether or not they can still drive even though their head gasket is cracked. And to be fair there are a number of things that can go wrong with your car that will not render it undrivable. Certain maintenance jobs can be put off for a period of time without causing too much damage to a vehicle. However, ignoring a head gasket that has been cracked is really not one of these things.
Although technically your car will still drive with a cracked head gasket it's not something that you want to ever do. The loss of pressure as a result of the crack in the head gasket is going to make it harder for your engine to perform its function. The timing could be thrown off in your engine as a result and you may suffer some serious engine misfires which could end up causing damage to the valves, cylinders, and pistons.
Additionally, the power output from your engine is going to be reduced because engine gases will be escaping through the cracks in the head gasket. You'll notice that your car struggles to get up to speed and may not be able to accelerate nearly as quickly as it once did. Your fuel economy is going to suffer so you'll find yourself heading to the gas pumps far more often. Going up hills, towing anything behind your vehicle, all of these things are going to be much harder to do as a result.
The longer you drive with a crack in the head gasket the more damage you're going to do to your vehicle as well. Thanks to issues with oil and coolant leaking through a crack head gasket you can potentially be causing your vehicle to overheat. Engines that get too hot can suffer some extreme damage. If it gets bad enough you could be looking at a total engine rebuild as the only potential fix to the problem. That could cost you well over $5,000 in some vehicles.
Thanks to the full range of damages that you could suffer as a result, it's really a terrible idea to drive anywhere once you realize you have a broken head gasket. Getting this fixed as soon as possible is your best bet. Luckily there's more than one option when it comes to repairing this kind of damage.
How Much Does It Cost to Fix a Cracked Head Gasket?
You have two paths to take when it comes to fixing a cracked head gasket. If you go with a replacement head gasket then you're going to be spending a good deal of money, unfortunately. Fixing a blown head gasket will likely cost you between $1,000 and $2,000 at a mechanic. Obviously if you have a higher end vehicle is probably going to cost you the higher end of the price range.
A head gasket itself is typically not very expensive. You can get them for between $20 and $50, usually. However, in order to access the head gasket to replace it with a new one a mechanic is going to have to do a lot of work inside your engine which is going to take many hours to finish. That's where all the additional cost comes in, you're paying for quite a bit of labor to get this job done.
On the other hand, there is a cheaper option that may work for you depending on the nature of the damage we're dealing with. Obviously there's no way to tell because every car's situation is unique, but it's possible that some head gasket leak sealer could fix the problem for you at a fraction of the cost of a replacement.
Head gasket leak sealers, things like Blue Devil or Steel Seal can be bought online or at auto supply stores. This is a liquid compound that you pour into your car's radiator. You have to make sure it's compatible with the kind of coolant you use in your vehicle, and that you bought enough to handle the size of your engine. Obviously a V8 engine is bigger than a 4-cylinder, so you need to read the directions on the package carefully to make sure you've made the right choice.
Once you pour the head gasket sealer into your radiator the instructions will tell you how long you need to run your vehicle for. Typically, this will be somewhere between 15 minutes and 30 minutes to allow the substance to fully cycle through your radiator into the engine and back again. Once it reaches your engine the compound will filter into the cracks in your head gasket. As your car gets up to temperature the heat will cause the leak sealer to harden and fill in those cracks in your head gasket.
Depending on the kind of gasket sealer that you buy, and the nature of the damage to your gasket in the first place, this will potentially give you a durable and long-lasting solution to your problem. Head gasket sealers aren't typically meant to be permanent fixes, although some of the higher end products boast that they can make your head gasket almost as good as new again. Other ones may only give you a few months reprieve from falling apart. It really depends on the sealer you buy and also how bad the damage to your gasket is. Obviously if you have very large breaks in your head gasket it's going to be harder to fix.
The other thing you need to remember is that whatever caused your head gasket to break in the first place needs to be addressed. If your engine is routinely overheating and that's what caused the gasket to crack, you need to get to the root cause of why your engine is running hot. The repaired gasket is just going to suffer the same fate if you don’t.
Head gasket leak sealer compounds are much more affordable than replacing your head gasket. You can buy these probably between $50 and about $120 depending on the brand you buy and how much you need.
The Bottom Line
No one wants to have to deal with a cracked head gasket because it could potentially be a very time-consuming and expensive repair job. Your engine is going to suffer more severe damage the longer a head gasket is allowed to go in a broken state so it's the kind of thing you need to get fixed as soon as you can. If possible, get yourself some head gasket leak sealer to see if that can fix the problem in a much more quick and cost-effective way. And the best thing you can do is make sure you're engaging in preventive maintenance by keeping your oil and coolant changed on a regular basis so your car doesn't overheat and leads to a broken head gaskets in the first place.