What to Do if Your Car Overheats

The dog days of summer are approaching, and with high temps and your AC pumping away, your car may be more likely to overheat, sending your car’s temperature gauge (and your blood pressure) off the charts.  If you’re on the highway, in the middle of nowhere, or stuck in heavy traffic, and your car overheats, you may be wondering what your options might be.

Here are a few steps to follow to safely get your car off the road, to your garage or final destination.

Do not let the needle crawl up into the red.

This could cause more damage than is already done. Although it may be uncomfortable, try turning on the heat; this may help reduce engine temperature. If you can keep the temperature hovering just above the halfway point, you may continue driving to a garage or your destination.

Cool it down.

If the needle keeps edging closer to the red mark, pull the car over and let it cool down as much as possible. If the temperature seems to be taking time to reach the upper limits, you may drive the car in stages until you arrive at a garage.

Do not take the radiator cap off when the engine is hot.

The cap is under some pressure, and if that pressure is relieved too quickly then hot coolant and water will spray out, potentially causing burns. Wait until the engine is close to ambient temperature. When you can, safely and slowly add some water or coolant. Remember: in older cars, it is a good idea to carry a gallon of water or pre-mixed coolant as part of your break-down kit.

Check under the car for a coolant leak.

You may see coolant pouring out, or significant wetness, or the leak might be rather small if coolant has been lost over a longer period of time. If the coolant leak is large, calling a tow truck will be the best solution. With a smaller leak, filling up the coolant may allow you to nurse the car to a garage, home, or at least off the road.

If there are no visible leaks, and if the coolant appears at the appropriate level, then the overheating problem is likely mechanical in nature. The thermostat could be stuck closed, not allowing coolant to flow to the radiator. Maybe the water pump has stopped working, or maybe the head gasket is leaking, letting exhaust gas in the coolant. In all of these cases, the best solution would be to call for a tow truck.

Remember: the idea here is to avoid damaging the car with prolonged, severe overheating. No one likes to wait – or to pay -for the tow truck, but be smart. If you can keep the temperature down close to the halfway point on the gauge, nursing the car to someplace (other than the side of the road) can be done safely.

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