Cars 101: Overheating

If the temperature gauge starts going over the halfway mark, you're in trouble.

Pretty much anyone with a driver’s license has seen someone standing at the side of the road staring at a stranded car with steam billowing out of the engine bay.  Some of these people (myself included) have been forced to pull over due to overheating.  So, how do you handle such a thing, and how do you avoid it happening in the first place?  Read on.

The first warning sign is pretty much inches from your eye.  Keep an eye on the temperature gauge.  Under normal operation, the gauge’s needle should stay dead in the middle on most cars.  If you see the needle creeping up, but no warning lights, you’re seeing the first sign of a potential problem.  Keep an eye on the gauge, and if you get worried, turn off the air conditioning if it’s on, as it might prolong the inevitable.  However, once you see the needle moving into the upper range of the temp gauge, start looking for a safe place to pull over.  Keep an eye on the warning lights too–if one turns on, it could be the first step in the reason for the gauge’s change of state.  For example, the coolant light would denote a leak or other fault in the cooling system (causing the coolant to become dangerously low), or the Check Engine light could come on, indicating yet another way that you could be in trouble.  Don’t drive too fast and avoid traffic, as idling will only make the problem worse–if the needle does hit the red, pull over and shut the engine off.

Keep an eye on the rear of the car as well.  White smoke at speed is a sign of burning coolant, indicating a blown head gasket or another fault causing leakage of cooling liquid into the combustion chamber.  If you see steam, pull over immediately and shut the engine off.  Hit the release handle for the hood, but don’t get out and open it, as you run the risk of being either scalded by the steam or burning your hands on the release handle under the hood.  Wait a good amount of time before actually opening the hood.  When you do, check the coolant tank and the radiator, and check under the car.  If you see wet spots on the radiator, your unit likely will need replacement.  The cooling system is a closed circuit, so if there’s a leak anywhere else, you will need to look at the various hoses and the overflow tank for potential faults.  If all is well with the hoses and radiator, you could be burning coolant–a much more serious problem.

However, if you’re fortunate enough to get to any sort of store, fill the cooling system with water and drive home (or to a repair shop) as carefully as possible.  After you put water back into the cooling system, tighten the cap until it clicks; this is crucial, as if the cap is under-torqued, it will allow water to leak out and cause your car to overheat all over again.  Overheating is a seriously annoying problem to have, but if you keep calm and follow these directions, you’ll be a bit safer and might even find the root of the problem.



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