What to do with an overheating car? This is the first question that appears if the temperature gauge starts showing higher values or, in a worst-case scenario, steam starts coming from the engine bay.
Overheating is a car problem that has some of the most serious consequences regarding the engine. If you don’t know what to do, you may cause some serious damage which means lots of lost money, time, and nerves.
Hopefully, this article will help you avoid that and if you find yourself in a situation like this, you’ll know what to do.
Also, towards the end of the article, you’ll find some common questions and answers related to the overheating car problem.
You can also read about the most common reasons for an overheating car by clicking here.
1. STOP THE CAR AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
The moment you see the temperature gauge needle go over the middle or other anomalies, start thinking about how to pull over and stop the car.
Time is the main factor here, mainly for saving the engine.
If it comes to major overheating it may be too late and severe damage may occur.
This is why it’s very important to pay attention to all the information on the dashboard while driving. I’m mentioning this as lots of drivers have a bad habit of ignoring the most important parameters (oil, coolant, fuel, etc).
A good thing is that most modern cars have visual and audio warnings so even if you’re not careful, you will be warned on time.
When pulling over, make sure to do so in a safe and calm manner. A parking lot or resting area would be ideal.
2. DON’T PANIC
Once you notice the problem, try to stay calm and don’t panic.
As all drivers know, panic is the arch-enemy of reason and proper reaction.
Overheating can happen suddenly and have dramatic effects (like the appearance of steam under the hood). This is the perfect situation for a panic attack, especially for inexperienced drivers.
Furthermore, panic can easily end up in losing control over the car, endangering yourself and other participants in traffic. Not to mention causing major engine damage.
The best way to avoid panic is a combination of noticing the problem on time and a cool head.
3. OPEN THE HOOD AND LEAVE THE ENGINE TO COOL DOWN
As soon as you stop the car, raise the hood and let the engine cool down.
The sooner it’s cooled, the sooner you’ll be able to see what’s wrong or make an inspection.
Best don’t touch anything when it’s still hot so you don’t injure yourself.
Be extra careful if steam is coming from the engine bay or water is dripping under the car. In these cases, best to wait for the engine to cool down a bit and then open the hood.
Don’t hurry, rather first evaluate the situation at a distance so you don’t end up with burns.
4. DO NOT IMMEDIATELY TRY TO OPEN THE COOLANT RESERVOIR !!!
Once the hood is up, don’t try to open the coolant reservoir until the engine has cooled down.
This is a reflex reaction that many drivers do. The idea is that you’ll relieve the pressure by opening the coolant reservoir and somehow save the engine.
In reality, you don’t achieve anything with this except expose yourself to the possibility of third-degree burns.
Opening the coolant reservoir under pressure will cause a geyser of steam and boiling coolant to gush out. Some of it may well end up on your hands or body.
One more thing: when you can eventually take off the cap, slowly turn it counter-clockwise. This is a good way to slowly let the steam out and relieve the pressure build-up.
Use this as an extra safety measure so you don’t burn yourself.
5. CHECK THE COOLANT LEVEL
Once the engine has cooled down, the first thing you should do is make a visual inspection of the coolant level.
A low level means that the system is probably losing coolant somewhere (like because of a leak). However, if the level is normal, it may mean that some part of the cooling system isn’t working (like the thermo-switch, radiator fan, or else).
This is the first checkpoint when you want to solve what to with an overheating car.
6. MAKE A BRIEF INSPECTION OF THE ENGINE BAY AND UNDER THE CAR
Take a look around the engine bay and see if you can notice any anomalies (ruptured hoses, loose clamps, loose connections, etc).
Just don’t touch any part of the coolant system until everything has completely cooled down.
Sometimes the cause of the problem is simple and you may be able to solve it yourself and avoid the fuss around towing and the extra expense. More about that lower in the article.
Even if you can’t solve the problem, you may be able to give a heads-up when you arrive at the mechanics.
Make the inspection even if you don’t have any experience with cars. You’ll maybe figure out something and get out of trouble. It won’t hurt to take a look.
7. ADD SOME COOLANT OR DISTILLED WATER
If you conclude after the inspection that there’s no severe damage and that the coolant level is low, try adding some.
Lack of coolant is a pretty common cause of overheating, especially if car checkups are not done on a regular basis.
Best add the same coolant you already have in the system (this is why it’s always good to have an extra bottle around the car). Mixing other types of coolant may cause problems.
If you don’t have any at hand, the next best thing is distilled water. It will help and at the same time prevent a scale build-up in the coolant system.
The last resort is tap water. It will help but use it if there’s no other option.
Have in mind that using water will degrade the coolant. This is harmless during warmer temperatures but if the mixture stays in the system during winter it may cause damage.
Also, keeping tap water in the system for a prolonged period of time may cause a scale build-up and eventually clogs.
8. IF THE REPAIR IS MINOR TRY FIXING IT YOURSELF
Sometimes you can solve the overheating problem on your own and on the road provided you have some knowledge around car repairs, some tools, and that it’s accessible.
Punctured hoses, loose or broken clamps, loose or broken electrical connections, sometimes even the serpentine belt can be changed or fixed on the spot.
The most important thing is to make a good assessment of the whole situation and see if you have the means and knowledge to do it. This is very important so you don’t get yourself into more trouble.
With major breakdowns and if you lack knowledge around car repairs, the best thing to do is call a towing service and seek professional help.
Knowing how to make a good car repair can be a lifesaver and get you out of harm’s way. It can also serve as a first-aid measure until you reach a mechanic.
If you’re interested in this topic, you can click here to read a separate article on how to learn to fix your car.
9. ADJUST YOUR DRIVING
The next two tips are for situations when the overheating is not that serious and you’ve concluded that you can drive further without causing damage.
For instance, there may only be a small leak or a loose clamp which doesn’t cause a lot of coolant loss.
This is good to avoid towing, to get to the nearest rest area, mechanic, or a convenient place to fix the problem.
To achieve this, you’ll have to watch your driving. Don’t force the car into high revs and avoid straining the engine as much as possible.
Make more breaks while driving, especially in an uphill drive. Also, frequently check the coolant level so you don’t run out.
All in all, drive at a slower pace if possible. The point is to reach the destination safely and without causing engine damage.
Know that more pressure on the engine means more overheating and in case of leaks more coolant loss.
10. TURN ON THE HEATER
This tip is sort of a hack and it does actually work to some extent once the overheating starts.
It’s useful when the problem is a lack of coolant circulation (like a bad thermostat or a clog somewhere in the system).
The principle is based on letting the coolant flow through the heater core relieving the extra pressure inside the system.
By doing this, the coolant temperature goes down and driving can be continued.
So, if there’s overheating but no leaks or problems that you can see, try turning on the heater and monitor the temperature gauge. In a few minutes, the temperature should go down.
The downside of this tip is the extra cabin heating. If it happens during the summer (which is most likely), in order to continue driving you must endure the extra heating.
Been in this situation, all that I can say: it’s not pleasant at all but it is durable, especially if you need to continue driving.
HOW LONG CAN YOU DRIVE AN OVERHEATING CAR?
In case of minor malfunctions like small coolant leaks, you can continue driving relatively normally. Just make enough stops so you can add coolant on time.
On the other hand, in case of major malfunctions (like bad thermostats, punctured radiators, faulty radiator fans, broken serpentine belts, or else) stop the car as soon as possible.
In practice: if the temperature gauge starts showing rapid overheating stop the car as soon as possible.
However, if the gauge shows slightly higher values (but not overheating) best stop the car and make an inspection. If you see no major faults, continue driving carefully combined with perhaps turning on the heater.
Despite this, look for help as soon as possible, even a minor overheating problem should be checked so it doesn’t get worse.
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU KEEP DRIVING AN OVERHEATING CAR?
You will cause severe engine damage. So much so that the engine may need a partial or complete engine overhaul.
The usual scenario is that the head gasket blows which leads to coolant and oil getting mixed up. If it does, a greasy foam-like substance forms inside the coolant reservoir.
The solution to this problem is to remove the cylinder head and change the gasket. Sounds simple but it is a very expensive and time-consuming job.
All in all, if you’re persistent or reckless enough to drive this way, your spelling doom for your car’s engine and your budget.
Always pay attention to the engine temperature, especially during the summer season, in city traffic, and in long uphill drives. Here, the coolant system is under extra pressure.
The moment you see any kind of anomaly, pull over as soon as possible and make a quick check.
Do so in a calm and safe manner, avoid drama and panic as much as possible.
Solve the problem if you know how, if you have the means, and if you won’t hurt yourself. Otherwise, call professional help.
In the end remember: knowing what to do with an overheating car means safety, saved time, nerves, and a serious amount of money left on your account.
Written by: Sibin Spasojevic
Former car technician, life-long car and DIY enthusiast, author for Despairrepair.com