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Understanding Your Vehicle’s Radiator System

Understanding Your Vehicle's Radiator System

Unfortunately, most people don’t pay attention to their vehicle’s radiator until the engine is overheating or the air conditioner has stopped working. Yes, the radiator is a central part of the cooling system and it plays a vital role in the overall operation of your vehicle. Understanding exactly how this system works can help you spot symptoms of failure. How does the radiator work and what are the most common problems you’ll incur with the radiation system?

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What Is The Radiator and How Does It Work?

The radiator is the core of the engine’s cooling system. The engine is responsible for burning fuel and generating enough energy to power several other internal components. This power and movement produce a tremendous amount of heat as a result of internal combustion. It’s imperative to vent this excess heat because it can lead to the engine overheating causing thousands of dollars in repairs.


While some of the heat escapes through the exhaust system, a large portion of the heat is taken care of through the radiator or the cooling system. The cooling system consists of the water pump, thermostat, and of course the radiator. The radiator is at the final stage of removing excess heat.


The lifeblood of the cooling system is the coolant which is a mixture of antifreeze and water. Coolant cools down the engine and regulates its temperature. The coolant flows through the engine where it dissipates the heat picked up from the engine and exchanges it for cooler air then recirculates through the passages of the engine. This is a continuous cycle in maintaining the vehicle’s operating temperature.


How Does The Radiator Look?

The radiator itself comprises three primary components; the pressure cap, the core, inlet, and outlet tanks. The core is the main section which is made up of a large metal block equipped with rows of thin metal fins. Hot coolant that is flowing from the engine flows through this section where it releases its heat and is cooled until the next heat-exchange process. 


The pressure cap seals the cooling system so that it remains pressurized. The cooling system has to maintain its pressure for the radiator to function properly and to keep the coolant from boiling and overflowing. The inlet and outlet tanks are responsible for directing the coolant to the radiator. It manages the coolant when it’s hot after it has circulated through the engine.


Radiator Hoses

When you pop the hood on your car or truck you’ll notice that there is a maze of hoses. The radiator is attached to the cylinder head as well as the engine through the radiator hoses. The radiator hoses are made up of rubber and they aid in the transfer of coolant throughout the engine. 

The radio uses two primary hoses which are the upper and lower hoses. The upper radiator hose is attached to the thermostat and the radiator itself while the lower radiator hose is linked to the water pump. Both of these hoses are the biggest hoses in the cooling system. The other hoses under the hood are the coolant, overflow, and heater hoses. 


Radiator Failure

Your car’s radiator deals with a lot of heat and endures just as much pressure. In addition, the radiator resides at the front of the vehicle where it’s highly susceptible to flying debris from the road. The hoses are the most vulnerable components of the radiator. Its rubber material can break down from heat and dry air. Since the hoses are subjected to extreme temperatures, oil and sludge it eventually starts to degrade from the inside out.


 The metal fins on the core component of the radiator can get bent. When the fins are bent or damaged in any way it traps a portion of the heat inside of the radiator instead of dissipating it. 

Radiator failure can be attributed to a faulty thermostat, a broken pressure cap which can cause a coolant overflow, radiator leak, or a mechanical problem with the fan. 


Rust and scaling is another common issue that can cause problems within the radiator system. Over time rust accumulates in the exterior or interior of the radiator. Scaling is small flakes from the seals and gaskets. The flakes make their way into the engine, make their way to the radiator, and clog it. 


Cracks in the radiator are one of the top problems that car owners have to deal with. A crack can occur as a result of an accident, temperature fluctuations, or too much pressure. Rocks can also crack the radiator. The grill in the front of your vehicle is the radiator’s only means of protection from the gravel and rocks in the road. Dirty coolant which can be due to corrosion within the radiator system causes pitting in the cylinder head and the radiator.


The most common signs of a problem within the radiator is:

  • Coolant or antifreeze leaking underneath the vehicle
  • Rust buildup on the cooling system
  • Smoke coming from the hood of the car
  • Erratic readings of the temperature gauge 


What Happens When Your Car’s Radiator Fails?

Besides the engine overheating a malfunctioning radiator can cause a host of issues. Some of the issues that can arise include:


Thermostat Troubles

When the radiator fails the thermostat pressure starts to build up. The thermostat isn't able to handle this significant increase in pressure which leads to the thermostat failing. The thermostat ends up stuck in one specific direction which prevents it from doing its job.


Water pump

The water pump moves coolant throughout the cooling system. The water pump starts experiencing troubles from radiator parts breaking off. Also, when the radiator fails Its unable to cool down the coolant. The hit coolant can damage the water pump’s impeller which is a plastic piece that's susceptible to damage.


Heater core issues

The heater core is similar to the radiator system. When the radiator pipes break or start to leak it eventually clogs the heater core. If the engine starts to overheat due to the faulty radiator, the increased pressure will destroy the heater core. 


5 Essential Tips For Maintaining Your Car’s Radiator System

Properly maintaining your vehicle and the radiator is the key to preventing radiator issues. Check out these five essential maintenance tips for your vehicle’s radiator:


  1. Regular Servicing


      Perhaps the most important step in maintaining your vehicle’s radiator system is having it regularly inspected by an experienced technician. A well-maintained radiator can last the entire life of the vehicle. Regular inspections and servicing can help detect issues like leaks and cracks before it becomes a major problem. If your radiator is not regularly being serviced it can lead to a host of issues.


  1. Maintain coolant levels

It’s important to know exactly what type of coolant your car needs and to maintain the proper coolant levels. Inadequate amounts of coolant in your vehicle during the summer months will lead to the engine overheating or freezing during the winter. You should be checking the coolant levels regularly. 


There are a few different ways to check the coolant depending on what type of car you have. Most vehicles are equipped with a coolant expansion tank so all you have to do is remove the cap to determine whether you need to top up on the coolant. 


  1. Check for leakage in the radiator hoses

Most vehicles are equipped with two radiator hoses. During your regular oil changes, you should be inspecting the hoses for cracks and holes. Also, be on the lookout for drips and leaks underneath the vehicle. If you detect any leakage this can be a sign of a problem within your radiator system. 


  1. Avoid overloading your vehicle

Believe it or not, overloading your vehicle with more weight than it’s designed to carry can wreak havoc on your radiator. The more load your vehicle has to bear, the harder the engine has to work which means the radiator has to work just as hard to regulate the engine temperature. 


If your vehicle begins to overheat due to being overworked or overloaded it’s important to give your vehicle enough time to cool down. Once it cools down you can add water if necessary you can add water and or coolant to the radiator to help bring down the temperature. 


  1. Don’t forget to have the radiator flushed

The radiator needs to be flushed regularly to keep the radiator system in good condition. A flush removes dirt, contaminants, and other particles that can end up clogging the radiator and the entire cooling system. A flush also improves your engine’s efficiency. During a radiator flush, all the coolant is pushed out and a cleaning solution is applied to help get rid of any corrosive agents. 

Can A Bad Radiator Affect The Air Conditioner?

Although the air conditioner isn’t part of the cooling system, components of the radiator and air conditioning system are connected. Therefore, if one of these systems isn’t operating at its full efficiency it will affect the performance of the other. A great example of this is the radiator cooling fan and the air conditioner’s auxiliary fan. 


Both of these fans work together to push an adequate amount of air through the air conditioner condenser and the radiator. If the radiator fan stopped working or if both of these fans were malfunctioning it would limit the airflow needed.


In vehicles that are equipped with liquid-cooled internal combustion engines, the radiator transfers heat from the coolant to the air outside and then returns the cooled coolant to the engine to regulate the engine’s temperature. The cooled-down coolant also reduces the heat and regulates the temperature of the air conditioner refrigerant and the intake air.


A radiator leak can have a significant impact on the air conditioning in your vehicle. The air conditioning system relies on freon or coolant. A leak in the radiator can deplete the coolant in the vehicle and the air conditioner won’t be able to work properly.

What About The Radiator Cap?

The radiator cap is a small component but it plays a big role in preventing your car’s engine from overheating. The radiator cap is designed with an upper pressure seal, lower pressure seal, and vacuum valve. The radiator cap serves many different purposes:


  1. It seals off the cooling system which prevents any air from entering the system. Air in the system would prevent the cooling system from maintaining a proper operating temperature.
  2. The radiator cap maintains the pressure in the cooling system which in turn increases the boiling point. Maintaining the right amount of pressure allows the coolant to reach high temperatures without the coolant evaporating or boiling out of the cooling system.
  3. As the coolant temperature increases, it expands in volume. When it reaches the top of the radiator cap the pressure spring compresses and the coolant flows into the reservoir tank. 
  4. The vacuum valve helps the coolant flow throughout the radiator system during cool down. 

Without a radiator cap, the coolant would overflow and this will ultimately cause the engine to overheat. 


Common Questions Related To The Radiator System

Q: Can a bad radiator cap cause  the car to overheat?

If the radiator cap is unable to maintain the correct pressure the engine will begin to overheat.


Q: Can a car run without a radiator?

Technically you can run an engine without a radiator system however there will need to be an alternative method to cooling the vehicle. Once the engine starts to heat up it will eventually combust or become damaged. 


Q: Is it safe to drive with a broken radiator?

Driving with a cracked or leaking radiator is never a good idea. When the radiator system is cracked or leaking enough coolant fails to reach the engine. The car will end up overheating and stalling. 


Q: How much does it cost to replace the radiator in a car?

If the radiator is beyond repair it can end up costing you between $292-$1,193 for the parts and labor involved in the repair job. The make and model of your vehicle can determine the complexity of the replacement which also affects the cost. 

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