Vehicles overheat the most in extremely hot weather. Fortunately, today's cars have sophisticated cooling systems that include engine temperature sensors and computer-controlled electric fans to keep your engine running in any seasonal changes. However, overheating can still occur. Although hot weather is the most common cause of overheating, a variety of other factors can also contribute to the problem. But first, you should know what to do if your car is overheating. First, turn off the air conditioning and turn on the heater. Although it may seem counterintuitive it could actually draw the heat away from the engine lessening the burden on the cooling system of the engine. But if the car continues to overheat best to pull over and turn off the engine. Open the hood as soon as the car has cooled off when the temperature gauge returns to neutral, check the coolant to allow you to safely drive the car to the service station.
You may be able to reduce the risk of irreversible engine damage if you can take steps to cool your engine before it overheats to the point of failure. But first, you must recognize the signs of overheating, which can include steam (which may appear to be smoke) coming from under the car hood, a dashboard engine temperature gauge that rises to “H” or goes into the red. (Because engine temperature gauge symbols differ, consult your owner's manual.), a strange odor is emanating from the engine compartment and leaking coolant, for example, may smell sweet, whereas leaking oil may smell more burnt. Take the necessary steps and contact your local repair shop as soon as you notice the engine overheating.
What To Do If Your Car Is Overheating: The Basics of Engine Cooling System
To understand better what to do if your car is overheating you must first know the basics of the engine cooling system. A radiator, a cooling fan, and hoses transport coolant to and through the engine block and head comprise the cooling system (s). The coolant absorbs heat from the engine as it circulates and is cooled as it passes through the radiator. When your engine is running, the process is continuous.
The temperature of an engine's coolant is an indicator of the health of the engine. When a gasoline engine reaches its coolant temperature limit, it must be serviced right away. If a gasoline engine overheats due to exceeding its coolant temperature limit, repairs will most likely be required to return it to proper operating condition.
If the cooling process fails, serious problems can arise. An increase in engine temperature can cause significant damage to expensive components and result in engine failure. Because of this risk of failure, if a warning light on your dashboard indicates that your car is overheating, you should take it seriously.
When an engine overheats, it may “seize up.” This means that the engine has become so hot that some of its internal parts have welded together, rendering the engine inoperable. If a failure of this magnitude occurs, it is not only costly. It is also potentially dangerous because your vehicle could lose power at any time.
What can cause a car to overheat?
To know exactly what to do if your car is overheating you must also know what can cause a car to overheat. Here are the common reasons for a car to overheat:
- Coolant is being circulated incorrectly.
The engine will overheat if the water/antifreeze mixture is not circulated properly. This mixture keeps your engine cool in the summer and prevents it from freezing in the winter. To avoid this, make sure to check it on a regular basis. Even if there are no leaks, it can evaporate over time. To cool down your engine and get you to an auto shop, add about half a cup of water to a low antifreeze tank.
- A Leak
What to do if your car is overheating involves checking for a leak. If your water/antifreeze levels are constantly low, there is a leak somewhere in your cooling system. If you are experiencing this, please contact us right away. We'll locate the leak and provide you with an affordable repair estimate.
- A hose must be replaced.
The hoses that circulate your coolant may become clogged or detached over time. While it may not be completely blocked, even a partial blockage can prevent enough coolant from circulating. Again, we can check for this during an inspection here in our shop.
If the levels of water and antifreeze appear normal, your engine may be experiencing a more serious problem. There could be an internal coolant leak, debris in the coolant passages, a faulty radiator fan, a clogged radiator, or a broken water pump. A water pump failure or a radiator problem is more expensive to repair. The cooling fan is sometimes engine-driven and sometimes electrical. Engine-driven fans can suffer from fan belt failure, which is another relatively inexpensive repair.
In most cases, it is best to bring your car to an auto mechanic as soon as possible so that they can identify problems and help you avoid more expensive repairs down the road.
What to Do if Your Car is Overheating: Step by Step
- Pull to a stop and assess your vehicle.
The safest option on what to do if your car is overheating is to find a safe location and pull over. If the vehicle is overheating, driving with a potentially damaged engine may result in permanent damage.
- Keep driving only when necessary.
If you are unable to come to a complete stop in a safe and clear area, keeping the vehicle moving slowly may still allow a constant airflow around the motor to aid in natural cooling. Leaving your car at rest with the engine running may aggravate the problem, causing additional and unwanted heat to be produced. If you cannot stop just yet, put your car in neutral or park, then start it up and rev the engine. This causes the fan and water pump to spin faster, pulling more air and water through your car's radiator. The increased circulation helps to cool the engine.
- Turn on the heat
Turning off the air conditioning and increasing the heat to high while the vehicle is still moving may help to draw additional heat away from the engine.
- Open all car windows
The objective is to generate as much heat as possible. Another method for allowing heat to escape the vehicle is to roll down and open as many windows as possible.
- Check the Coolant and top it off as needed
If you finally found a secure area to park, it’s time to check the coolant. But do not open the hood until the car has completely cooled or the temperature gauge has moved from hot to cool. You are in danger of being sprayed with hot water or steam as soon as the hood opens.
Examine the coolant (also known as antifreeze) level in the radiator. If you're not sure where the coolant reservoir tank is, consult the owner's manual. Before you open the radiator cap, make sure it's completely cool. Be careful of any hot steam as you slowly twist it off with a towel. Fill coolant to the top of the radiator if necessary. Replace the radiator cap. Check that the upper or lower radiator hoses, as well as any heater hoses, are not blocked, disconnected, or burst.
- Start the engine again.
Adding coolant does nothing to address the issue that caused your engine to overheat in the first place, but it often allows you to safely drive to the nearest repair shop. The car's cooling system will have to be checked by a professional. An important thing to remember on what to do if your car is overheating is keeping an eye on the temperature gauge while driving. You also have to take down important information such as fluid under the car or steam under the hood. This basic information will be extremely helpful in the diagnosis.
How long does it take for a car to cool down after overheating?
It takes at least 30 minutes for an overheated engine to cool down to the point where it is safe to inspect and possibly work on it but that is under normal condition. It is critical to remember that because the engine itself, the radiator and coolant are all scalding hot during the initial cooling process. And if you don’t wait for 30 minutes, you risk serious injury if you do not wait until the engine cools down before performing an inspection and attempting to resolve the problem.
Heat reduction is proportional to the temperature difference between the surrounding environment and the engine when the engine is turned off and the car is stationary. When the engine cools down close to the surrounding air temperature, the amount of convection cooling decreases significantly, which is why it takes several hours for an engine to cool to the ambient temperature.
Engines with aluminum blocks typically cool much faster than engines with cast iron blocks; however, aluminum blocks and heads are more prone to heat damage than iron blocks and heads. Open the hood to increase air circulation within the engine bay to speed up initial cooling.
What happens if you keep driving an overheated car?
Unfortunately, it is happening — you find your car overheating. Either you are in the middle of nowhere without roadside service or you simply can’t be bothered just yet to take your overheating car to the service center. But you really must know what could happen to your car if you keep driving an overheated car. Because your engine can only withstand so much heat, if the system that regulates engine temperatures fails, you'll be in big trouble if you continue driving. Here are some of the consequences of driving on an overheated engine:
- You will warp your cylinder heads
Many vehicles have aluminum cylinder heads, and aluminum is not a material that can withstand high temperatures without warping or melting. So if you continue to drive an overheated vehicle, you risk warping the cylinder heads. Reduced engine power, misfiring, oil leaks, or excessive oil burning are all symptoms of warped cylinder heads.
When you warp your cylinder heads you can also damage your head gasket, which would necessitate a lengthy and costly repair. It also interferes with the combustion process because warped heads perform poorly.
- Blown Head Gasket
One of the most dangerous consequences of an overheated engine is a blown head gasket. When the head gasket fails, engine coolant and oil mix. The oil and coolant mixture is circulated throughout your engine, causing severe damage to the transmission and other costly engine components. Simply put, vehicles are not designed to operate properly when antifreeze is present in the oil. A blown head gasket causes milky engine oil, thick white smoke from the exhaust, and significantly reduced engine performance.
- Busted Hoses
If your vehicle overheats and coolant remains in the hoses, the antifreeze will begin to boil and expand. When this happens, pressure builds up within the hoses, causing them to separate from the various engine connection points. The extremely hot coolant that splatters all over the engine can make a huge mess and damage some of the engine's more delicate components.
- Exhaust System Damage
An overheating car emits a large amount of hot gases passing through and exiting the exhaust system. And if the temperatures continue to be high for a lengthy period of time, it can cause significant damage to the exhaust manifold and catalytic converter
- Melting your engine components
Numerous other components surround the engine compartment and are equally vulnerable to overheating damage. So when you drive your car while it's overheating you are also at risk of damaging your car’s seals, welds, sensors, belts, electrical wiring, and other parts like the exhaust manifold, steering column, and fuel pump are all at risk.
An overheating car is not just about hot weather, so when it happens do not stop at making temporary fixes and have it checked out. You may just avoid expensive engine repairs.