What to Do If Your Car Overheats: 6 Things You Need To Know

This image shows a man with his hand on the wheel driving, and the interior of the car.

How to stop your car from overheating (and what to do if it does)

Driving in warm weather can be wonderful; with the windows down and the radio on, a pleasant drive to the sea can be a great way to relax. What’s not relaxing, however, is hanging around by the side of the road waiting for your car to be towed because the engine has overheated. Whizzing along in the car whilst temperatures soar outside, then, is an infinitely more attractive prospect than having temperature’s soar under the hood, which can swiftly turn a casual day out into a full-blown nightmare. Check out our guide below to learn how to detect the vital signs, and thereby prevent, identify and remedy your car overheating.

How to prevent it happening in the first place.

First things first; everyone knows that prevention is better than the cure, and there are few areas that this is truer than in the world of automobiles, which are not only burdensomely expensive when they need to be fixed, but also highly dangerous weapons when faulty. It’s in everybody’s interests to keep your car in prime condition, which you can achieve by adhering to a few simple rules that demonstrate you’re a responsible car owner.

Firstly, you should maintain your car regularly. Regular trips to the mechanic will help you to nip potential problems in the bud that could, if untreated, lead to overheating. Leaks, electrical failures, thermostat malfunctions or burst hoses are all common causes of overheated engines, and with a bit of luck your mechanic will spot these during a service if you make the effort to have your car checked over regularly.

Secondly, it’s really important to check the fluid levels in your car. Radiator coolant works by raising the boiling point of the water, thereby allowing it to carry more heat away from the engine. Fortunately, maintaining the coolant level isn’t difficult and doesn’t take up much time at all. Most cars have a white plastic coolant overflow tank next to the radiator, with markings on the side to indicate the optimum level of liquid. Check your coolant level when the car is cold; never do it when the engine’s hot. Make sure that you have plenty of premixed coolant-water solution ready in case your coolant level is low, in which case you can simply top it off according to the markings on the tank.

The likeliest scenario

It’s important to know when your car’s most likely to give you problems so that you can pre-empt this, and hopefully stop it from happening. Typically, cars most often overheat in hot weather, as your car struggles to keep its engine sufficiently cool in a hot environment and when you’re also using a lot of energy to cool your car’s interior with the air conditioner. Although engines rarely overheat in modern cars, it’s still perfectly possible, so you shouldn’t be negligent even in a brand-new, top of the range model. If it’s a hot day and the roads are busy, so you find yourself in stop-and-go traffic jams or climbing steep gradients in a heavily laden vehicle, you should be especially alert to the warning signs of overheating. Your most obvious indicator is the temperature gauge on your dashboard, so keep an eye on that. If the needle starts to rise, or if a malfunction light indicator appears, your engine may be overheating.

You think your engine’s overheating - what now?

If you have the air conditioner on it the car, turn it off immediately, and turn on the heater. This may be the last thing you’d want on a hot day, but it’s a crucial move if your car is beginning to overheat, as it helps to draw excess heat from the engine and thereby cool it down.

If this doesn’t make your temperature gauge start to fall straight away, then this trick hasn’t worked, and it’s time to stop driving. If the needle on the gauge is reaching the red zone, find a safe place to pull over and stop the car, turning off the engine. Then, pop the hood of your car and wait. In theory, this should be the easiest piece of advice to follow, as you don’t actually actively have to do anything except wait, but you’d be surprised at how many people do serious damage to their cars simply because they don’t wait long enough. The key here is patience, so give your car at least half an hour, and ideally even more, to cool down properly before you even think about turning it on again.

If, once you’ve waited a decent length of time and turned on the engine to find that your temperature gauge’s needle is sufficiently far away from the dreaded red zone, drive to the nearest service station for help. Even if the car seems reasonably alright now, it’s worth checking to avoid future problems. Overheating engines can indicate mechanical failure, which could be really dangerous hours, days or even weeks down the line.

What not to do

Under no circumstances should you pop your radiator cap before your engine has cooled down completely. You might think that this would help your car to cool, but it certainly won’t. The coolant beneath the radiator cap is very hot and under intense pressure; if you release the cap, you’re likely to be met with an explosion of burning-hot fluid. To reiterate: don’t do it! make sure that you check your fluid levels before you set off, and only release the cap when you’re positive the engine is cool.

What to do if you’re in traffic

Being stuck in a nasty jam with a car beginning to show signs of overheating is a pretty unpleasant scenario. You can make the best out of the situation, however, and possibly save your car a lot of damage, if you’re alert to the warning signs and respond swiftly. If you’re in non-moving, gridlocked traffic, put your car in neutral or park and rev the engine. This technique is designed to encourage water and air flow through your radiator, helping to cool the engine down. If you’re in stop-and-go traffic, alternatively, try to creep forwards rather than move jaggedly in fits and starts of braking and accelerating, which is important because braking generates a lot of friction, which will only exacerbates the problem. Remember, when you get to a safe place to stop, turn off the engine, pop the hood, and wait.

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