Car Care Tips

Tips to keep your car on the road.

Maintenance June 21, 2018

What Happens When a Car Overheats?

What happens when a car overheats?

We’ve all seen it—a driver stranded on the side of the road, perplexed as their vehicle stalls and smokes. You may have even been there yourself. Your car can overheat for a variety of reasons. This most commonly happens during the summertime in the warm weather. Although there are ways to prevent this from happening, even the fanciest of vehicles are prone to overheating. Here’s what could be going on:

What Happens When a Car Overheats?

1. Your engine coolant is low 

The most likely culprit of your car overheating has to do with your liquid coolant. Most modern cars have a liquid-cooling system—whereas older cars are air cooled.

Coolant, also called antifreeze, takes on heat to prevent your car from overheating. It has a very low freezing point and extremely high boiling point in order to hold the maximum amount of heat. Your vehicle’s cooling system uses pressure to increase the boiling point even further (similar to how water’s boiling point is higher in a pressure cooker).

This fluid is circulated through the pipes and passageways of your engine, and therefore cools the most critical parts. It then passes through a radiator, and that heat is transferred from the fluid to the air blowing out of your exchanger.

When your coolant is running low or when your engine hasn’t been cooled in a long time, it can overheat or even seize. When the metal gets hot enough, the piston can weld itself into the cylinder. This likely indicates that your engine is destroyed.

2. You have a leak in your cooling system

There are a few indicators that you’re experiencing a coolant leak. Your reservoir tank might be lower than it should be, or you might see or smell a pool of coolant collecting under the vehicle.

Coolant leaks can happen if you have a leaky radiator cap or internal or external leak. An internal leak is the likely cause if you notice that your coolant level does not stay constant, but there aren’t any visual signs. An external leak will be evident just by looking under your car — this can happen at the water pump, engine freeze plugs, and heater core.

The experts at Virginia Tire & Auto can quickly determine where your coolant leak is originating and can recommend the appropriate repairs.

3. Your thermostat is malfunctioning

Thermostats prevent engine wear, emissions, and deposits. Located in between the engine and the radiator, the thermostat blocks the coolant until the engine has warmed up to its operating temperature — this typically happens at about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, the thermostat opens and allows the antifreeze to reach the engine at the right time.

If your thermostat is malfunctioning and displays a false reading (i.e. tells you that your car’s temperature is normal when it’s too hot), the coolant is not released and the car becomes progressively hotter. If this occurs continually, it can cause stalling and billows of smoke.

4. Your motor oil is low

Motor oil helps take heat away from your car’s engine and reduces friction and wear. It also helps keep the metals lubricated and picks up other damaging contaminants. If it’s too low, this can cause your engine to heat up faster than normal.

Read: Why Fluids are Crucial for Proper Vehicle Maintenance

What You Should Do Next:

If your car overheats, there are a few critical steps you can take to prevent the damage from getting worse.

  • Pull over to a safe area if possible.
  • Turn off your air conditioner and roll down your windows.
  • If the overheating continues, turn on your heat and blower to transfer the heat to the passenger compartment.
  • Open the hood of your car to let things cool.
  • If you are stuck in traffic and the temperature continues to rise, put your car in neutral or park and rev the engine — this helps draw more liquid and air through the radiator. Additionally, try not to brake hard or fast, as this will heat the engine up even further.

The best way to prevent this from happening is to ensure you keep up with your regular maintenance schedule. In addition to getting regular oil changes, choosing cooler oil can also contribute to greater longevity of the engine and other automotive systems. Ultimately, the less thermal stress you put on your vehicle’s components, the healthier it will be.

Read: The Car Maintenance Checklist Every Driver Needs

Having Car Trouble?

Bring your vehicle into Virginia Tire & Auto. Our experts will diagnose the issue and make sure you understand any necessary repairs or replacements. Schedule an appointment at one of our 17 locations today!

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