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How to Respond to Burning Coolant in The Car

How to Respond to Burning Coolant in The Car

There is something unmistakable about the smell of burning coolant while driving a car.

Auto Repairs Are EXPENSIVE


It’s sweet.  It almost has a color to its smell, like the taste of a lime-flavored ice slushy.  Yet, the aroma isn’t associated with something good.  It’s the smell of auto repair bills coming your way – you probably have a problem with the engine.

Coolant, antifreeze, thermostats, and oil filters – it’s all a bunch of jargon to some of us.

To those in the know, however, there are plenty of obvious signs and symptoms that the car is having a problem related to burning coolant.  For example, white smoke coming from the exhaust or the engine itself (that could be steam, FYI) are signs that the engine is hot water (perhaps literally).

The temperature gauge on the vehicle’s dashboard also gives you a clue as to if coolant is burning.  If the car heats up beyond the normal level, something is very wrong with the vehicle.  It is never normal for that happen.

Identify the causes and get help right away.  Not repairing this problem could leave you stranded in the wrong part of town.

Finding a Mechanic for a Car That’s Burning Oil

“Hello, I need to talk to a mechanic about my car burning coolant.”

Does this sound like something you will be saying soon?  If so, it’s best to learn what this means exactly.  

When you talk to a mechanic, even on the phone, it helps to have some familiarity with the car problems in question.

Some mechanics have a bad reputation for taking advantage of people who don’t know what they’re talking about when discussing the necessary repairs.  For these folks, it’s easy to overpay for services you do not need nor understand.

Most honest mechanics would never dream of doing this, but it doesn’t hurt to be informed about your car’s health before taking it into the shop.

Bonus tip:  Maybe you know somebody who knows a lot about cars.  Talk to them about the problems you’re having before talking to a mechanic.  Ask them if you can share the estimate with them so they can guide you through the process.

Better yet, if your car contact is available, just take them with you when dealing with the situation.  Sometimes having somebody knowledgeable at your side can save you a few bucks down the line.

What does Burning Car Coolant Mean?

Here is the simple definition of a car that is burning coolant.

The car’s coolant is either burning on a hot surface and/or leaking at some point.

There are some tests a mechanic might do to see if the car is losing coolant because of a leak.  If not, there could be two more causes that are fairly common:

  1. Heater Core Leak
  2. Head Gasket Leak

If the exhaust looks like a volcano billowing white smoke into the atmosphere, remember that it’s not a cool special effect – it’s a sign of engine troubles related to burning coolant within the car’s motor.

This simple understanding of the problem should be enough to guide you through a typical conversation with a mechanic.

Car Coolant Burning, Leaks, and More 

When talking about a car’s coolant burning, there is a question of whether that’s a leak.  In some ways, they are one in the same.  If there’s a leak, there’s coolant burning somewhere, most likely.  If not, it’s still not good!

The coolant shouldn’t be anywhere other than within its designated system.  If it works its way into places it shouldn’t, it’s going to burn when it makes contact with heat.

How to Tell if Coolant is Burning in the Car?

One way people know that the car is burning coolant is by the sweet and sticky smell of antifreeze coming through the blowers in the car cabin.

Be aware this isn’t really normal.  It’s a sign of a serious problem that requires urgent attention.

The car requires coolant to keep the engine from overheating.

The coolant is a mixture of antifreeze and water in a 1:1 ratio.  The mixture keeps the engine from freezing and from getting too hot.  If the system is disturbed, the engine could suffer.  At best, you lose fuel economy.  At worst, the engine breaks down beyond repair.

The candy-like smell of antifreeze is clue number one that the car is burning coolant.

Puddles are another clue.  The colors of the rainbow are reflected in the small lakes of antifreeze or coolant that collect under old or broken-down vehicles – orange, pink, aqua, fluorescent green all are likely to be coolant.

Clue number two that your car is burning coolant is the rising needle of the engine’s thermometer.  The car is getting hotter and hotter, and that’s not good.  Pull over.  Give the car some time to cool off.  Call a mechanic and get help!

Notice that this advice says to STOP and WAIT for the car to cool down.  You should never open the hood of a hot car, especially a car that is overheating.  There could be very hot steam that will swell onto your face, neck, and arms.

You already have an overheated engine; adding serious burns to the mix doesn’t sound like the brightest idea.

20 minutes should be enough, say most mechanics.

When you finally pop the hood, you can look for leaks or stains.  Check by the radiator, the hotels, and the remainder of the engine.

Another cause could be the old radiator core for the heating system.  If the car is musty and the windows fog up all the time, there could be a leak within this system.

The system is not easily accessible – so the repair is not really of the DIY variety.  Cal a mechanic for assistance.

Some leaks aren’t easy to spot, but spot they will.

If the smell or the smoke is catching your attention, don’t settle for a onceover glance at the engine.  

Take the car to somebody who knows what they are doing.

Short-term Fix for Dealing with Burning Car Coolant

These days, everybody is looking for a hack – even when it comes to dealing with a car that is burning coolant.

Some coolant problems can be put off a few days.  It all depends on what the situation is under the hood.

For example, a very mild leak could be treated with a fresh mix of coolant.  Add a little water to keep it full.  Even better, create the proper mix of 50% antifreeze and 50% water.  This is highly recommended for the winter months.

If you’re just throwing water in there, you could wake up to a frozen system in the morning.   

In Chicago, you have to think twice about adding plain old water to the cooling system when you know the temperatures are lightly to dip.

Car Burning Coolant: Did I Use the Wrong Antifreeze?

Some people don’t know that antifreeze has changed over time; if they’re researching the latest news on car burning coolant, then this knowledge could be quite beneficial.

The green antifreeze is made of ethylene glycol.   This is the old school antifreeze.

Propylene glycol comes is what a mechanics finds in the orange and yellow bottles.  

The latest type comes in a variety of colors such as yellow, green, violet, and tangerine.  Blue bottles are out there, too.  Don’t get it confused with the windshield washer fluid!

How Much Does It Cost to Fix a Car Burning Coolant?

The age-old question, how much does it cost to fix a car that is burning coolant?  It could be a repair that costs less than $50.  It could be something that runs into the thousands.  It all depends.

For example, if you are mechanic yourself, you are in luck.  These repairs often don’t cost a lot for parts.  They cost a lot because of labor – something you can do for yourself, saving hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars.  

For the everyday Joe who doesn’t have knowhow, tools, or a garage in which to work, the answer is visit a mechanic.  

Don’t be surprised to see a parts bill that costs less than $100 and labor cost 2-30 times that.  

What’s a Common Cause for a Car Burning Coolant?

One of the most common coolant-related problems is a busted head gasket.  

When the head gasket goes bad, the little filter-looking piece isn’t what makes it expensive.  It’s the labor!  Changing it out is a complicated and time-consuming process.

If you’re in luck, the problem is just the radiator hose.  That will run the average driver $40-$70.  Shop around to ensure you’re getting the best prices.

There is no shame in being picky about your mechanic when you have the time and resources to be so.  For example, if you call three garages to get estimates, you might go to the garage with the best price.

Then again, you could read reviews of garages on the Internet to figure out which provides the best work or the best customer services.  Sometimes, in the world of cars and motors, you get what you pay for.  

Used parts and shoddy workmanship are not generally great long-term solutions when your car is burning oil.

Your Car’s Burning Coolant:  A Tough Road Ahead

A car that is burning oil is not your friend.  You will have some tough decisions to make.

Fewer and fewer people have even a basic understanding how a car works these days.  In the past, most households had at least one person who not only knew cars well enough to maintain them on their own but so well they could fix moderate to severe problems in their own garage.

These days are long gone.  The image of someone working on their own car engine, covered in grease, while their child holds the flashlight just doesn’t happen like it to used to.  This is because most people just ship their car off to a mechanic and pay the bill when there’s a problem.

Or worse, they take the “wait and see” approach.  It’s also known as the “drive until total failure plan.”

Neither of those approaches are a good idea, although they may seem appealing.

The problem is that driving to total failure, even if you plan to send the car to a junkyard afterwards, is going to have you second guessing your safety at every turn.

Is today the day the engine coolant problem is going to cause the car not to start?  Where will you be when the engine finally dies?  

If you’re not at home, you’re going to be left out in the cold dealing with a broken car – maybe even on the side of the Chicago expressway.  That’s not safe!

If neither of these options suit your tastes, you could send the car to a local junkyard.  Many junkyards pay cash money on the spot for old cars – even for cars that are burning coolant.

Sending the car to the junkyard may be the most responsible decision after all.  

For example, if you drive a car that wouldn’t really sell for more than $2,000 and you get an estimate to repair the burning coolant that will run you $2,000, maybe it’s time to say goodbye to that old car.

There are some cases where this won’t work for people, but consider this: you can take the money the junkyard pays you for the old car to fund your next move.

You could put the cash toward a new car (or a down payment).  You could rent a car.  You could start using ride sharing applications. The bus and the train are old standbys.  And of course, your boots were made for walking!

In all seriousness, when dealing with a car that is burning coolant, junking the vehicle might be the wisest (and safest) decision at the end of the day.