Few things are more alarming than seeing smoke or steam coming out from under the hood of your car while you’re driving down the road. When this happens, it’s a sure sign that your engine is overheating — but it’s not the only way to know that your car is experiencing its own personal hot flash.
Learning the signs of a car overheating can help you resolve the problem sooner rather than later, which can save you costly repairs. Continuing to drive a vehicle that is overheating can cause the engine block and cylinders to crack, which will then require a very expensive repair job. That’s why it’s important to watch for signs of an engine overheating and respond to the problem immediately.
4 Warning Signs Your Car is Overheating
In addition to the presence of smoke or steam coming out from under your hood, some warning signs of an overheating engine include:
- A hood that is hot to the touch. Although it’s normal for a hood to feel warm when the engine is running, if you can’t touch the hood for more than 10 seconds without it burning your hand, it is too hot.
- A warning light or the temperature gauge on your dashboard. If the light is flashing or the gauge is reaching its maximum level, your engine is too hot.
- A loud ticking noise. This happens when the oil isn’t properly lubricating your engine’s parts, which occurs when oil is overheated.
- Coolant on the ground. If you see coolant on the ground, it could be the result of a leak in your cooling system or it could be that your engine overheated and the radiator’s overflow tank released some of the coolant to relieve pressure.
Several things can contribute to an engine overheating. Broken fans and blown gasket heads can cause the engine to overheat, it can be the result of a faulty cooling system or it could be a problem with the radiator. You may have a hose that is blocked or detached, which keeps the coolant from circulating in the engine. It can even be the result of a stuck thermostat.
Regardless of the cause, knowing how to respond to the problem is crucial.
What to Do When Your Engine Overheats
When your engine is overheating, you want to deal with it as quickly as possible. Thinking you can make it to your destination may be a gamble that isn’t worth taking. You’re better off taking the nearest exit and finding a safe place to park to deal with the situation.
Until you’re able to get to a safe place to park, turn off your air conditioner. Your air conditioner makes your engine work hard and, if it’s already compromised, can contribute to overheating.
You could also turn on your heater. While this might sound counterintuitive, it’s a little trick that helps release some of the hot air from the engine into the car. Unfortunately, cars are more likely to overheat on a hot day, so it’s probably not going to feel very comfortable inside the car, but it could help keep the situation from getting worse.
If your car is overheating when you’re in traffic and you’re not able to get to an exit, you can also put the vehicle in neutral or park, then rev the engine. This will trigger the fan and water pump to pull more air into the radiator, and that circulating air can help cool things down. (Avoid stop-and-start movements as much as possible, since braking creates friction and heat.)
When you get to a safe place and can park the car, open the hood and give the engine a chance to cool down. Exercise plenty of caution when opening the hood, as there may be steam trapped inside that could come blasting out.
How to Handle an Overheated Automobile
After you’re in a safe place and have given the engine a few minutes to cool down, you can check the coolant tank to see if it’s low or empty. The coolant tank is that plastic, translucent tank sitting near the radiator, and if it’s empty, that could mean it has a leak.
If your tank is empty, you can add coolant to your car — provided you have some with you. It’s a good idea to always keep a jug of coolant or antifreeze in your vehicle, because in many cases the culprit of an overheated engine is a low coolant level.
If you don’t have coolant in the car, you can also use water, which should at least help you cool down the engine until you can get to a repair shop. (Make sure you don’t add cold water to a hot radiator, as that can cause it to crack.)
To add coolant, you will need to remove the radiator cap, and it is extremely important to make sure you let your vehicle cool down before removing the cap. If you remove the radiator cap while the engine is still hot, you could get sprayed by hot coolant that has built up pressure in the radiator. Make sure you know the proper way to add coolant, and always use a towel or cloth to open it and tilt the cap away from you as you open it just in case any fluid sprays out.
What to Do to Get Back on the Road
In most cases, adding coolant will resolve the issue long enough for you to get help. But if that’s not the cause, you could be looking at an electrical or mechanical issue. In that case, your best bet is to have your car towed in for repairs.
Regardless of the cause of your overheating engine, it’s important that you have it checked out by a professional. Not only will this ensure that you don’t get stranded if it happens again, but it can spare you costly damage to your vehicle.
To have your vehicle fully checked out, visit any of Rainbow Muffler & Brake’s six Cleveland-area locations. We can troubleshoot your engine’s overheating issue and get you back on the road quickly and safely.