In any car with a combustion engine, a lot of heat is generated, causing a significant increase in the engine’s temperature.
The engine must be kept within a specific temperature range for any vehicle to prevent significant issues that could get to complete engine damage.
Luckily, your vehicle is equipped with many systems and components to maintain your engine’s operating temperature, including the oil and the cooling system.
Over time of use, it is very likely to get to a situation where you are running on a low coolant level because nothing lasts forever in your vehicle. Driving with a low coolant level is never recommended, and that’s why every driver needs to know how to measure his coolant level.
In this article, we walk you through step-by-step guidance on measuring your vehicle’s coolant level. Also, we answer several related questions that can help you understand and monitor when anything goes bad with the coolant.
What is the best timing to measure the coolant level? Do we check the coolant while driving?
As you might know, the coolant is responsible for absorbing any temperature excess from the engine and takes it to the radiator. As a result, after driving your car for a while, it is expected that the coolant can be very hot.
That’s why never check the coolant level when your vehicle is running. The vehicle must be completely turned off, and the engine must be left to cool down for a little before attempting to measure the coolant’s level.
You might have heard about people getting burns as they try to open something under the vehicle’s hood. Those people tried to measure the coolant level before their engine cooled down.
How to check the coolant level?
The process of checking the coolant level is very simple, and anyone without any mechanical experience can do it on his own. Thus, no need to go to a repair shop or a professional mechanic every time you want to check the coolant level.
Here is all that you need to do:
Familiarize yourself with the coolant
Many people might not see the coolant before; therefore, they might not detect coolant’s leak from their vehicle.
Thus, the first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with how the coolant looks.
The coolant is usually an orange or green fluid with flow characteristics like water. It is not an oily substance like the engine’s oil or the transmission’s oil.
Depending on the formula, some special coolants might come in blue, pink, or gold colors.
Locate the coolant’s container/storage
The next step for you would be to locate the place where the coolant is usually stored.
If you open the hood, you will find a plastic container like a bottle or a gallon. This container is usually transparent to allow the driver to see what’s inside and visually inspect when their coolant runs low.
If you cannot locate the coolant’s container, you can always refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual as the best resource. If you don’t have a copy of the manual, you can request a hard copy from your local mechanic or download a soft copy from the internet.
Locate the minimum and maximum coolant levels marks
Once you have located the coolant’s container, you will find two marks on the outside of the container: the minimum acceptable coolant level, and one is the maximum acceptable coolant level.
Yes, having too much coolant is as bad as having low coolant.
Without even opening the coolant’s cap, you will see its level if you looked closely at the coolant’s shadow. You want to make sure that the coolant is between the two marks mentioned before.
If you determined that your coolant’s level is within the specified range, that’s it! You are all set!
Some people might not feel very confident about looking at the coolant’s level from the outside. If you are one of those people, you can go ahead and check the coolant level from inside the container after removing the cap. BUT remember! Never to open the coolant’s container’s cap before your engine is cooled down. Otherwise, you are putting yourself at a high risk of getting burned from the hot coolant.
However, if you noticed that the coolant’s level is below the required, proceed to the next steps.
Top off your coolant’s level
If you noticed that you don’t have enough coolant in the container, you must top it off using a 50/50 premixed coolant (50% of water to 50% of antifreeze).
This proportion is the standard way of preparing a coolant ready to go inside your coolant’s container.
As you are checking the coolant’s level, you recommend that you look for any signs of leaks or rusted connections. These connections don’t only let the coolant leak out of the cooling system but also allow air to get into the cooling system.
If your cooling system has many air bubbles, the overall cooling process can be affected, which could damage your engine.
Another thing you might need to check is the coolant’s status. Your cooling system needs to run on a clean and clear coolant. If you noticed there are signs of dirt and debris inside the coolant, which is not very rare, you might need to change the entire coolant in your system.
Is it normal for the coolant level to drop?
Well, that’s a great question!
Unfortunately, it is very likely for your coolant’s level to drop due to multiple issues, including:
One of the most common causes for your coolant’s level to drop is a leak around the cooling system.
Your cooling system has a lifespan, and it is very likely to deal with wear and tear in any of the connections or gaskets. That’s when your coolant will leak from these locations as they continuously build breaks and cracks.
Coolant might also leak from any of the components that it passes through, including the water pump, the radiator, the thermostat, etc.
A blown head gasket
The head gasket is a metal plate placed between the engine’s block and the cylinders. This plate is responsible for preventing any coolant leak to the cylinders.
Over time of use, the head gasket can get damaged as it is exposed to continuous extreme temperatures from the engine’s block or the cylinder itself.
As the head gasket blows out, one of the first consequences is coolant leaking inside the cylinders. As a result, you will notice a significant drop in your vehicle’s coolant’s level.
Problems with the radiator’s cap
Another less common coolant leak might occur as your radiator’s cap gets damaged. The radiator’s cap is one of the locations that can be very hot as it continuously deals with hot coolant.
Therefore, if you would like to check for any problems with the radiator’s cap, you must ensure that the engine cooled down for a good period.
How to tell if coolant is low?
Driving with a low coolant level is very serious and might result in catastrophic consequences like a complete engine failure.
That’s why it is important to detect the problem early and solve it simply by topping off your coolant’s level.
Luckily, there are several symptoms you can look for as you drive, indicating a low coolant level, including:
Engine overheating is one of the most serious engine issues that you never want to ignore as it can kill your engine in a very short time.
While engine overheating occurs for many different reasons, a low coolant level is one of the primary and most common causes.
Therefore, if your vehicle complained about a high engine’s temperature, you must stop driving your vehicle immediately, allow the engine to cool down, and check your coolant’s level.
If the coolant’s level is low, try topping it off with more coolant. If you noticed that the coolant’s level dropped again, this might indicate significant cooling system leaks.
In that case, you must consult a professional mechanic to inspect and repair your cooling system immediately. In difficult coolant leaks situations, you might not even be able to drive your vehicle to the repair shop and must have it towed instead. Otherwise, you are scarifying your engine.
Smelling something sweet
As a rule of thumb, if you smelled anything strange coming from your vehicle, whether it's good or bad, it is never a good sign. Therefore, you must have your vehicle inspected and repaired by a professional mechanic.
For example, as we mentioned earlier, the coolant is a combination of water and antifreeze. The antifreeze has a sweet smell that you can never mistake.
Therefore, if you smell something sweet from your car, you need to get it repaired as soon as possible.
A significant drop in the fuel economy
The engine usually recycles some of the generated gases from the combustion process.
As your coolant’s level drops, the engine overheats, resulting in burning fuels inefficiently and never recycle any of these gases.
Therefore, if you noticed a significant drop in your fuel economy and that you need to visit the gas station more than usual, it could be a coolant leak.
Note that the drop in fuel economy can happen due to multiple other vehicle problems, and you can not only rely on this sign to confirm it’s a coolant leak.
To ensure it’s the coolant, you must get your vehicle inspected by a professional mechanic who can connect certain tools to your car’s computer and determine the root culprit.
Check light indicating coolant issues
Your vehicle’s internal computer uses the dashboard lights to complain about internal problems with your vehicle.
While there is no actual check coolant light on your dashboard, a low coolant level might trigger other warning lights to illuminate.
For example, if the high-temperature checks light illuminates, it is most likely severe leaks in the cooling system. In this scenario, you MUST turn off your vehicle and consult a professional mechanic immediately.
Can I top up my coolant with water?
You’ve probably seen these movies where a guy gets a bottle of water and pour it on top of the radiator to bring its temperature down.
While this might be done in emergencies, it is never the appropriate approach to top off your coolant’s level.
As we mentioned before, the standard coolant is usually a 50:50 antifreeze to water combination. As you try to top off the coolant’s level with the water, you are disturbing this ratio, affecting the performance of your cooling system.
Unlike water, the antifreeze is designed to withstand extreme temperature ranges and drops the engine’s temperature more efficiently.
Therefore, when your coolant’s level drops, do not top it off with water; instead, use the standard antifreeze to premixed coolant liquid.
That’s why it is recommended that you have some of this liquid stored in your vehicle in cases of emergencies.
Your car’s engine must be maintained within a specific range of temperatures. However, as the engine generates the required energy, a lot of heat is generated.
Your car uses the cooling system to drop the engine’s temperature as it exceeds the allowed optimum levels by running a coolant liquid around the engine.
This coolant doesn’t last forever and can leak from cracks anywhere around the cooling system. That’s why you need to maintain regular checks on the coolant level to prevent engine overheating that can quickly damage your engine.
To measure your coolant’s level, all you need to do is allow the engine to cool down, pop the hood, locate the coolant’s container, visually inspect the coolant’s level, and make sure it's between the two marks of minimum and maximum levels.
If you noticed that the coolant is below the minimum mark, add a premixed coolant liquid to top off the missing amount.