It’s the warning light you never, ever want to see on a hot summer day: that red icon illuminating on your dashboard to let you know your engine is overheating. When the temperature needle cranks all the way over into the red, you’ve got to move quickly to make sure that you protect your motor from any permanent damage, while also staying safe in the process.
Check out these five tips for dealing with an overheating engine so you can keep your cool all summer long.
Most modern cars come with a temperature gauge that sits alongside the speedometer or tachometer (although there are a few companies that still make do with a simply ‘dummy light’). It’s a good idea to keep an eye on this gauge as part of your regular driving habits, but especially when your vehicle is at greatest risk for overheating. Pay that much more attention on the hottest days of the year, or when you’re asking it to work extra hard – such as when towing, hauling around a heavy load of cargo or passengers, or constantly driving up and down steep hills and inclines.
If you notice the needle start to move to the right, towards the ‘red’ side of the gauge, it’s time to slow down (when it’s safe to do so) to reduce the load on the engine. Next, turn off your air conditioning and turn your heater on – it’s counter-intuitive, but blasting the blower in the ‘warm’ will help draw heat away from the engine block. Finally, pull over and wait until the temperature gauge begins to settle back down towards the middle.
If you see steam or smell the sweet odor of engine coolant at any time – or if the temperature gauge quickly spikes into the red – find a safe place to stop and shut down the motor’s ignition immediately, but leave the key in the ‘on’ position to allow the fan and water pump to continue operating. You’ll want to let the engine cool down for at least 20 minutes and verify that the needle returns to normal – or that the warning light disappears – before starting it again. If you don’t feel safe where you’re stopped, call for a tow so you can get off of the shoulder as soon as possible.
It might be tempting to try and open the radiator cap or overflow container to add in some cool water in a bid to bring the temperature back to normal – especially if you suspect a coolant leak is causing your issue – but this is something you should definitely avoid, for two reasons.
The first is that overheated coolant – or any engine antifreeze/water mixture that’s been in a running motor for any length of time – is hot enough to severely scald you should it come in contact with your skin or clothing. The second issue is that your cooling system is under pressure, and opening that cap will spew coolant all over the place while also reducing the effectiveness of the system to manage engine heat. Better to leave the hood closed than risk being burned.
If you were asking a lot of your car, truck, or SUV when the overheating occurred, then you can most likely chalk the incident up to a case of over-exertion. If you weren’t towing or driving up a particularly steep grade, however, there could very well be a problem with your vehicle’s cooling system that needs to be addressed. There could be small, pinprick leaks reducing the efficiency of the system, the coolant may need to be changed, the radiator may no longer be functioning optimally, or the water pump could be on its way out. It’s worth a visit to your mechanic to get a cooling system inspection and diagnosis before you are forced to deal with the problem again – and end up potentially damaging your motor.