An overheating engine is more than a minor nuisance. At best, it’ll cause permanent damage to your engine and your wallet. At worst, it could pose a danger to you and your family.
The summer months are hot in Maryland, and that means you’re going to want more information about how your engine’s cooling system works, what to do if you experience engine overheating, and give you some tips to prevent your engine from overheating. This guide will answer all of those questions and more.
Understanding Your Engine’s Cooling System
Regardless of the weather, a vehicle engine gets really, really hot. That’s because of the nature of how it works. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- A regular four-cylinder engine propelling a small passenger vehicle 50 miles per hour produces over 4,000 controlled explosions every minute.
- Each cylinder has a spark plug that ignites a fuel/air mixture in that cylinder multiple times every second. That’s more explosions than a Michael Bay movie!
- If there were no cooling system, the heat created from these thousands of explosions would destroy any engine in a few minutes.
Automobile engines have been cooled by this same method since the early 1920s. Your engine is equipped with a complex system designed to move liquid coolant through the engine and to the radiator, where it is cooled again by the air coming through the vehicle’s cold air intake. There are a few essential parts to this system, including:
- The radiator
- Radiator cooling fans
- Pressure cap & reserve tank
- Water pump
- Bypass system
- Freeze plugs
- Head gaskets
- Intake manifold gaskets
- Heater core
- A series of hoses
If your vehicle overheats, it’s because one or more parts of this system failed. Let’s talk about a few ways that can happen.
How an Engine Overheats
An engine overheats when the heat generated by the engine’s typical operation exceeds its normal operating temperature. The excess heat is usually caused by some failure in the vehicle’s cooling system. Here are a few reasons your engine could overheat.
Leaks in Your Cooling System
If your cooling system is leaking coolant, you’ll eventually end up with not enough coolant to maintain the vehicle’s appropriate operating temperature. These leaks can be occurring in the hoses, radiator, water pump, head gasket, or elsewhere.
Broken Water Pump
The cooling system relies on the water pump to help move the coolant throughout the system. If the water pump breaks, the coolant will cease to move through the system and complete its cooling cycle, causing the vehicle to overheat.
Damage to the radiator or radiator cooling fans will make it impossible to fully recool the coolant before sending it back through the engine. This will cause higher than normal operating temperatures and eventually engine overheating.
Low Engine Oil
Engine oil is primarily used to lubricate the many moving parts in your engine, but it also draws heat from the engine and helps maintain the engine’s temperature. If the engine is operating on low oil, you’ll experience higher temperatures and possibly an overheating event.
Just like in your house, your engine uses a thermostat to regulate its temperature. If this thermostat fails, it will prevent the system from properly regulating the temperature of the vehicle.
It can be difficult to determine which of these factors — or another one entirely — might be causing your engine to overheat. Working with a skilled automotive professional can help you narrow down the issues and identify how to fix them.
What to Do if Your Engine Overheats
If your engine overheats, it’s imperative that you take the necessary steps to ensure your safety and prevent expensive or irreparable damage to the engine. Here are some steps to keep in mind.
Identify that Your Engine is Overheating
The first step in dealing with an overheating engine is recognizing that it’s happening before it’s too late. There are three common signs of overheating:
- Steam escaping from underneath your hood (it looks like smoke)
- The temperature gauge on your dashboard is all the way up
- Strange odors that can smell like burning (from burning engine oil) or sweet (from burning antifreeze)
Once you’ve determined your engine is overheating, do the following:
Stop Driving and Pull Over
As soon as it’s safe to do so, stop driving and pull over. If you continue to operate the vehicle while the engine is overheating, the temperature will continue to rise and cause significant damage. If it’s not safe to stop, roll down the windows, drive at low RPM, and turn on the heat. That sounds crazy, but running the heater will actually pull heat away from the vehicle’s engine.
Once you come to a complete stop and turn off the vehicle, don’t immediately open the hood. There could be a dangerous amount of heat and pressure buildup, and remaining in your car is the safest thing you can do.
Call for Help
Once you’re in a safe place, call for roadside services and a tow truck to come and lend you a hand.
Knowing what to do and who to call for assistance can make the process of an overheating engine go from a catastrophe to a minor inconvenience. Keep the number of your trusted towing partner in your car or phone to avoid having too much time taken up by having to find a towing service to trust with your vehicle.
Preventing Engine Overheating
Sometimes engine overheating is caused by factors outside of our control, but there are a few simple things you can do to help prevent it from ever occurring in the first place.
Change Your Oil Regularly
Low engine oil can contribute to overheating. Having your oil changed according to your manufacturer’s recommendation will help maintain your engine’s temperature.
Maintain Your Coolant Levels and Flush Your Cooling System
If you get regular maintenance on your vehicle per your manufacturer’s recommendation, your auto repair provider should be completing these two services. Replacing lost coolant is essential to the cooling system’s function and periodically flushing the system helps remove dirt, grime, and debris that could clog your hoses or water pump.
Inspect Your Radiator, Cold Air Intake, Belts, and Hoses
Visually inspect the front of your vehicle and the radiator to make sure nothing is blocking cool air from entering the engine compartment. Remove any debris that could disrupt your cooling system. You should also visually inspect your belts and hoses and seek professional help if you see any damage.
Don’t always assume you know everything that’s going on with your vehicle, even if you spend quite a bit of time on maintenance. A professional will likely catch things you didn’t, so taking your automobile to a dealership or maintenance shop is key to keeping it running at its best.
Frequently Asked Questions
An engine can overheat at almost any time, and for many different reasons. It can happen in any weather or any time of day, so knowing what you’re looking for — and how to fix it — is key to keeping yourself safe and getting back on the road as soon as possible.
Here are a few commonly asked questions about engine overheating:
What Happens When a Car Engine Overheats?
A car engine overheats when it is unable to maintain its normal operating temperature. As the temperature rises, the engine will ultimately destroy itself via failed head gaskets, cracked engine block, warped pistons and cylinders, and other failures.
How Can You Tell if Overheating has Damaged Your Engine?
If you suspect that your engine has been operating above its normal operating temperature, you should immediately contact an auto repair provider to assess any damage and have it repaired. Some signs that your engine has been operating at too high of a temperature might include damaged seals and gaskets.
How Do You Fix an Overheating Engine?
To fix an overheating engine, you’ll need to repair or replace the cooling system parts that have failed. These could be the vehicle’s radiator, water pump, gaskets, or thermostat.
Having a trusted towing service’s number stored in your phone and written out in your car can be key to keeping your vehicle working at its best. Geyer’s Towing & Recovery is the quickest way to get you and your vehicle out of the heat if you have an overheating event and need a towing service. Give us a call for immediate roadside service.