What to Do if Your Engine Overheats

With the dog days of summer upon us, you can bet that the number of cars parked along the side of the road with their hoods up will increase. It’s Murphy’s law that on the hottest day of the year, your engine's temp will start creeping up into the red. So after you grumble a bit and let out a sigh, do you know what to do? Let's start with ways to keep an overheating engine at bay.

Steps to Prevent Engine Overheating:

Determining the Normal Operating Temperature:

Keeping your car from dangerously overheating is done best when you know how warm your engine should be. A properly working car will take 5-10 minutes to fully warm up in hot weather, and you’ll know it’s fully warmed up when the temperature gauge’s needle stops moving. Even in sub-zero temps, a properly working car will run as warm as it does on a hundred degree day. So once the needle stops moving, make a mental note of where it is—this is your normal operating temperature.

Be Proactive:

Now that you know where your engine should be running, make sure to keep an eye on the engine temperature. You don’t have to constantly hover over it, but checking on it occasionally is a good habit to have—this is especially so on extra hot days.

Note: Running your car’s A/C puts a lot of extra load on your engine. So on very hot days, don’t be surprised if your engine runs a little hotter than usual if your A/C is on—just be extra attentive to the heat gauge if your A/C is on!

Maintain:

The easiest way to prevent you engine from overheating is to keep the coolant level at 'Full'. To keep your coolant properly filled, you'll first need to know what to look for: the coolant tank is usually a translucent plastic container that can be found under the hood. It will have markings on the side indicating the proper coolant level. If it's below full, add a 50/50 mixture of water to coolant fluid to get it back to full.The fluid in your coolant reservoir is usually a 50/50 mix of water to coolant fluid, but make sure to read your owner's manual to make sure!

Additionally, the cooling system is a closed system, so theoretically, your coolant level should never drop. However, leaks happen, and low-quality coolant evaporates, so make sure to keep an eye on the coolant level. 

How to Handle an Overheating Engine:

When the Needle Starts to Rise:

If you notice the engine’s temperature rising past normal, you have a few options before you have to pull over. First, turn off your A/C immediately. It won’t be as nice as air conditioning, but rolling down your windows should still keep you cool. If that doesn't fix it, turn your heater on as high as possible. This will redirect some of the hot air in the engine and hopefully keep it cool (you’ll have to sweat it out, though).

Pulling Over:

If those two options still haven't changed anything, pull over as soon as you safely can. Find a good shoulder on the highway or interstate, or find a side street or parking lot if you're in town. Get as far away from traffic as safely possible. If you have the time, wait for an overpass or a shady tree to park underneath.

Note: It’s recommended to never go more than a quarter mile while your engine's temperature is in the red!

Opening the Hood:

Once you’re safely pulled over, turn off the vehicle and open the hood, but don’t touch it with your bare skin! If you have gloves, wear them while raising the hood. A towel or shirt might work as well. Also, there might be steam or smoke trapped under the hood, so be careful as you’re opening it! With the hood up, it may take over thirty minutes to cool your engine down to a safe temperature.

DO NOT POUR WATER ONTO THE ENGINE/RADIATOR! 

Playing Mechanic:

When the temperature has gone down, it’s time to start troubleshooting. The best place to start is checking the coolant level. The coolant tank is usually made out of translucent plastic, and the proper coolant level will be marked, often with a line with “Full” by it. If the level is below full, you can add water to get you where you need to go.

Note: A 50/50 mixture of water to coolant is typically recommended, so put in some coolant as soon as you can if you add water to it.

However, if the tank is almost or entirely empty, you've probably sprung a leak. Check for cracks in the coolant tank, or cracks in the radiator. The radiator is at the very front of your engine. You'll know it's the radiator because there will be a metal cap on it that has an orange sticker on the top, and the sticker will say something similar to: “Warning: Never open when hot"). If you can't find any cracks, look for hoses that are worn out or disconnected. If you've found the broken/worn-out part, it's probably not going to be an easy fix—it's time to call a tow truck.

If your engine has overheated but the coolant level is where it should be, the problem could be a clog in your cooling system, or it could be a mechanical/electrical issue. Again, it's time to throw-in the towel and call a tow truck.