Why a Car’s Engine Overheats: How To Prevent It and What To Do if It Happens to You

Why a Car’s Engine Overheats: How To Prevent It and What To Do if It Happens to You

Spring is out, and summer weather is here once again. With the heat ramping up, many consider the prospect of going on a long-awaited road trip!

But whether you’re going on a full-on summer vacation or just venturing on a short summer drive, you’ll need to prepare for the heat out on the open road. Overheating engines are common this time of the year. Without taking the proper precautions, the extreme heat can pose a risk of damage to your car — which could be costly to repair.

So today we’ll cover some useful tips to prevent overheating and what to do if you suspect an issue with your car. 

Overheating Warning Signs

While out on a summer drive, you may find that your car stops working and ceases to switch on. It may be because your engine is overheating. Here are some common warning signs that your engine is overheating:

  • Steam (or smoke) coming out from the hood of your vehicle
  • The engine temperature gauge on your dashboard is in the red region (pointing to the letter H)
  • You smell strange odors, especially coming from the front of the vehicle

Engine that has overheated


Reasons Why Your Engine Might Be Overheating

Engines can overheat for many reasons. Of course, the sun’s scorching heat may be the biggest culprit, but your car does a pretty good job of regulating heat and maintaining a relatively low temperature. Unfortunately, this means something might be wrong inside your vehicle when it does overheat.

Here are some reasons why your engine could overheat during a summer drive:


  • The cooling system is failing.

The engine’s combustion chamber, where fuel combustion occurs, can reach sweltering temperatures – up to 4,500 oF. All of this heat that radiates from the combustion chamber can go to other parts of the engine, which can contribute to the cause of an overheated engine.

This is where the engine cooling system comes in. It is tasked with drawing heat away from the combustion chamber and dispersing it outside to help the engine maintain a relatively low temperature. But when something is wrong with the cooling system, such as a leak, it will no longer be able to perform its function well, resulting in an overheated engine.

  • Your thermostat is malfunctioning.

The engine thermostat is a small device between the engine and the radiator. It controls the coolant flow to the engine in response to its temperature. The thermostat remains closed when it is cold, allowing the engine to heat up until it reaches a stable operating temperature. At that level, the thermostat will open up slightly, releasing coolant to allow the engine to maintain that temperature.

But in many cases, the thermostat could fail. As a result, temperature readings may appear lower or higher than usual. Often, it could remain in a closed position, which means it won’t release any coolant to the engine, causing it to overheat. 

  • The water pump is damaged.

While the thermostat dictates when the coolant is released to the engine, the water pump is responsible for keeping it moving when the valve is open. Once released to the engine, the coolant will absorb all the heat inside it and is circulated by the water pump through its hoses until it reaches the radiator. The radiator then extracts the heat from the coolant, at which point the coolant is released back to the engine to extract more heat.

The cycle of heat exchange and absorption is disrupted when there are problems with the water pump. Issues with the water pump could arise when there is a bad seal, a loose drive pulley, a broken belt, or corrosion due to an incompatible coolant. Such issues could be avoided as they come up during routine engine maintenance.

  • Problems with the radiator.

As mentioned before, the radiator is responsible for pulling heat away from the coolant during the engine cooling process. This means your engine could quickly overheat when there are problems with the radiator. Common causes of problems with the radiator include particle or debris accumulation, leaky hoses, and pressure buildup.


What To Do When Your Engine is Overheating

Dealing with an overheating engine can be stressful in itself. However, it gets even more problematic when dealing with the issue during the most inopportune moments, such as during a traffic stop or traveling along a highway. During those moments, what do you do? Here are some tips on what to do so you can get back on your journey ASAP:

  • Turn off the A/C and crank up the heat.

If you suspect that your engine might be overheating, turn off the A/C immediately and turn on the heat. This may sound counterintuitive, but doing so takes away some of the load and pulls some of the heat away from the engine and into the car’s interior. In many cases, this action alone can cool the engine down quite a bit – at least until you get to the repair service and have it checked out.

  • Pull over to the side.

If you see steam emanating from under the hood, your best course of action should be to pull over to the side of the road. This will give you a safe spot to inspect the engine and see what’s wrong without blocking traffic. Once parked, allow ample time for the engine to cool off. Then, keep an eye on the temperature gauge and wait for the dial to reach a safe temperature before checking under the hood.

  • Check your coolant levels.

After allowing a considerable amount of time to pass, it’s time to put on your gloves and check the engine. Open your hood, look for the radiator cap, and place a damp towel over it. Next, slowly put pressure on the cap and push it down. Turn it just enough to release some of the built-up pressure due to coolant expansion during heating. 

After a few seconds, fully turn the radiator cap to open it and check the coolant levels inside. If the coolant level is low, top it off slowly with half water and half antifreeze until it reaches the ‘Full’ line. Next, add more of the coolant to the small reservoir made from clear plastic near the radiator. This is why it helps to keep engine coolant around. Then, once you’re done topping off the coolant, place the cap back on the radiator.

In most cases, topping off the coolant in the radiator will do the trick. But if other issues arise, such as a clog in the coolant hose or a malfunctioning water pump, then you will need assistance.

  • Restart the engine.

Now that your coolant has been topped off, try restarting the engine. You should now be able to drive your car to the nearest auto repair shop, keeping careful note of the temperature gauge as you go.

  • Call for assistance.

If your car’s engine continues to overheat even after adding more coolant, then it’s time to call for roadside assistance. 


Engine Maintenance Tips to Prevent An Overheating Engine

Of course, engine maintenance is still the best way to prevent your engine from overheating. Regular engine maintenance ensures that your car is in optimal shape and prevents any problems that may lead to overheating.

For instance, having a regular flush process opens up restricted oil passage, which improves overall oil circulation and prevents engine issues. Without it, the oil in your engines can go bad, causing your moving parts to create more friction and generate more heat than the cooling system can control. That’s why the manufacturer’s recommendations for oil changes should never be ignored.

Here are some other vital engine maintenance tips to consider:

  • Check your engine fluids regularly.
  • Keep an eye on your temperature gauge to see if reported levels are accurate.
  • Flush out your radiator periodically.
  • Inspect your belt and look for signs of wear and tear.
  • Examine all hoses for leaks.

Only Use Regulated Products in Your Engine

 The type of products you use for your vehicle will ultimately contribute to its overall performance. Cheap, unregulated products may have a lower upfront cost but will eventually cost you in repairs and maintenance in the long run. In addition, these products may contain ingredients that clog your hoses, accumulate in different engine parts, or may otherwise be incompatible with your system.

Talk to our experts to learn more about what products are safe to use on your vehicle.


Berryman Products