Why Is Your Car Engine Overheating?- 6 Possible Causes

Today’s cars have sophisticated cooling systems equipped with multiple heat sensors and computer-controlled electric fans designed to keep your engine running in any weather. But overheating can still happen.

Why Do Engines Overheat?

Engines can overheat for many reasons. In general, it’s because something’s wrong within the cooling system and heat isn’t able to escape the engine compartment. The source of the issue could include a cooling system leak, faulty radiator fan, broken water pump, or clogged coolant hose.

Regardless of the problem’s source, an overheating engine isn’t something you want to let linger. Your engine could sustain serious, if not permanent, damage.

Signs Your Engine is Overheating

If you’re able to take steps to cool your engine before it overheats to the point of failing, you may reduce the risk of irreversible engine damage. But first, you’ve got to notice the symptoms of overheating, which can include:

  • Steam (which can look like smoke) coming from under the car hood.
  • An engine temperature gauge on your dashboard that spikes to “H” or into the red. (Engine temperature gauge symbols vary, so consult your owner’s manual.)
  • A strange smell coming from the engine area. For example, leaking coolant can smell sweet while leaking oil might smell more burnt.

As soon as you notice the engine overheating, take the following steps and contact your nearest repair shop.

What Causes a Car To Overheat?

Generally, an overheating engine means that there’s something wrong with the cooling system. After all, this system is designed to move excess heat away from the engine. Below are five major problems that can develop within this system.

1. A Malfunctioning Thermostat

The thermostat keeps the coolant from entering the engine until the engine has warmed up. This means your car can reach operating temperature faster. However, if the thermostat is broken, it may not open and let the coolant flow in when it needs to.

2. A Damaged Water Pump

Coolant is a mixture of water and antifreeze (which keeps the water from freezing in low temperatures). So, a water pump is what pumps the coolant through the engine, where it absorbs the extra heat. A problem with the water pump means that the coolant’s flow may be impaired or it may not flow at all.

3. Low or Contaminated Coolant

Of course, even if the water pump works, it won’t do much good if there’s something wrong with the coolant itself. If there’s not enough in the system, it will be inadequate to cool the engine. And if the coolant has contaminants, it won’t work as effectively, and may not absorb as much heat.

4. Bad Hoses

The hoses are what the coolant moves through as it goes between the engine and the radiator. Damaged, cracked, loose, or clogged hoses may cause the coolant to leak, or they may simply impede the flow of coolant.

5. Damaged Radiator

The radiator itself is where the coolant goes to get its cool back. So if the radiator has suffered damage, the coolant may stay too warm. There are many things that could go wrong with a radiator. For example, the radiator fan could have burned out, or the radiator itself may have sustained physical damage from an accident.

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Though radiators can sometimes be repaired, it’s usually a good idea to have them replaced.

What to Do When Your Engine Overheats

1. Kill the A/C and crank the heat.

Immediately turn off the air conditioner to reduce stress on the engine. Then, turn the dial to maximum heat. This can help pull heat away from the engine to keep it from overheating until you can pull over in a safe location. You may get a little hot yourself, but a few minutes of discomfort is a small price to pay compared to major engine repairs.

2. Find a safe place to pull over.

Pullover and shut off the car. Allow the engine to cool for at least 15 minutes. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge, as it should move back to a normal range as the engine cools.

While you’re waiting (and watching the gauge), put together a plan to get your overheated engine checked out.

3. Check and add coolant (if you have it).

If your coolant level is low, a quick top-off could help protect your engine and prevent overheating until you can get things fixed. However, this step won’t do much good if a coolant hose is clogged or the source of your troubles is a broken radiator fan or water pump.

Consult your owner’s manual to find the location of your coolant reservoir tank and to learn how to add coolant to your vehicle.

4. Restart the engine.

If your car isn’t being towed, now’s the time to carefully restart your engine and drive to your nearest auto repair shop. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge as you drive. If it rises again, pull over and let the system cool.

What Not to Do When Your Engine Overheats

1. Don’t panic.

Your engine isn’t keeping its cool, but you can! Avoid swerving through traffic or slamming on your brakes when pulling off the road.

2. Don’t keep driving.

If your engine is overheating but still running, you’re not doing it any favors by staying on the road. Sure, you may be able to get to your destination before it gives out entirely, but you may cause significant (and costly) damage by pushing your engine too far.

3. Don’t open the hood immediately.

Once you’ve pulled over, wait for the engine to cool before popping the hood to check things out. Opening the hood immediately can put you at risk of burns or injuries from spewing steam or smoke. Patience is key. Wait until the engine temperature gauge settles before opening the hood.

4. Don’t let the issue linger.

An overheating engine won’t resolve on its own, even if it seems to be fixed after you add a little coolant. It will only get worse if left unaddressed. Get to the root of the issue to help save your engine.

How to Prevent an Overheated Car Engine

Take care of your car, and it’ll take care of you. The best way to prevent an overheating car engine is to have regular coolant flushes and exchanges performed on your car, and stay up-to-date with radiator maintenance as recommended by your vehicle manufacturer. Routine inspections can also help you fix any potential radiator or engine issues before they worsen.

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FAQs.

Why Do Engines Overheat?

Engines can overheat for many reasons. In general, it’s because something’s wrong with the cooling system and heat isn’t able to escape the engine compartment. The source of the issue could include a cooling system leak, faulty radiator fan, broken water pump, or clogged coolant hose.

Can you drive with an overheating engine?

Driving your car when it’s overheating can cause serious and sometimes permanent damage to your engine, so it’s best to stop driving as soon as possible. Pullover and away from oncoming traffic, then turn off the engine.

What happens if engine overheats?

As an engine overheats, the aluminum material can begin to warp, swell, expand and even crack. A warped cylinder head could separate from the engine block, creating a leak in the head gasket. A leaky head gasket will cause your engine to start burning oil and coolant.

What are 10 common causes of overheating?

10 Common Causes of Car Overheating:

  • Leaks in the Cooling System.
  • Incorrect Coolant Concentration.
  • Loose Coolant Hose Clamp.
  • A Faulty Thermostat.
  • Clogged or Cracked Car Radiator.
  • Worn Out or Burst Hoses.
  • Bad Radiator Fan.
  • Loose or Broken Belts.

How long can you drive on overheating engine?

If your car overheats, do not drive more than a quarter-mile. Have it towed to avoid further damage to the engine. However, if there is no experienced mechanic or tow truck nearby, follow these simple steps: Pull over to a safe location and turn off the engine.

How do I fix my car from overheating?

What to Do When Your Engine Overheats:

  • Kill the A/C and crank the heat. Immediately turn off the air conditioner to reduce stress on the engine.
  • Find a safe place to pull over. Pull over and shut off the car.
  • Check and add coolant (if you have it).
  • Restart the engine.

How long should you wait if your car overheats?

Wait until the engine completely cools for at least 30 minutes. You might be able to speed up the cooling process if you can pop the hood with a latch located inside the car cabin. But, do not touch or attempt to open the hood until the engine is completely cool.

How do I know if my engine is damaged from overheating?

Signs of an Overheating Engine:

  • Steam (often looking like smoke) coming from the front of the vehicle under the hood.
  • The engine temperature gauge in the dashboard or driver console spiking to “H” or moving into the red area of the gauge.

Can low oil cause overheating?

It’s usually noticed if your coolant is low, but low oil can also cause the engine to overheat. This can occur even if your coolant level is fine. If there is too little oil in the engine, it will continue to heat up because it has no opportunity to cool.

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How can I cool down my engine fast?

If your engine is overheating, do the following to cool it down:

  • Turn off the air conditioner. Running the A/C puts a heavy load on your engine.
  • Turn on the heater. This blows some excess heat from the engine into the car.
  • Put your car in neutral or park and then rev the engine.
  • Pull over and open the hood.

Can an overheated engine be fixed?

Your radiator is likely already damaged, but in the early stages of overheating, it can be repaired. The more you drive on it, the more you’re likely to see burst hoses burst, failed radiator stems, and exploding cooling systems.

Will my car turn off if it overheats?

A car will commonly lose power when it overheats simply because the cylinder head expands and allows cylinder compression to escape past the cylinder head gasket. This often also causes a no-start after the engine overheats.

Can I pour water on my engine to cool it down?

Do not pour cold water into a still-hot radiator it could cause the engine block to crack due to the sudden change in temperature. If you absolutely have to add water while the engine is still warm, pour slowly while the engine is running in neutral or park.

Why won’t my car start after it overheated?

You can’t run and test an engine, other than VERY momentarily, without an intact cooling system. Overheating can warp the cylinder head and/or engine block, which can cause a failure to start due to loss of compression, valve damage, and so forth.

What to look for after engine overheats?

A regular cooling system checkup will confirm the engine coolant levels are correct, the fluid is in good condition and there are no coolant leaks which are a telltale indicator of numerous cooling system issues. “A cooling system check can even reveal problems in other parts of the engine,” Moreno adds.

How do I know if I need a new engine?

4 Signs Your Car Needs an Engine Replacement

  • Smoke. When thick smoke comes from your car, it’s likely your engine is at the end of its lifespan and needs a fast replacement.
  • Strange Noises.
  • High Fuel Consumption.
  • Stuttering and Stalling.
  • Never Ignore the Need for an Engine Replacement.

How do I know if my engine is damaged from low oil?

Some of the most commons signs of low engine oil are as follows:

  • Oil pressure warning light.
  • Burning oil smell.
  • Strange noises.
  • Weaker performance.
  • Overheating Engine.

Will my car overheat if I need an oil change?

Yes, an oil change can help prevent your car from overheating. However, an overdue oil change is not the only possible cause for an overheating engine.

What causes a car to overheat at idle?

If your car begins to overheat when idling, but the temperature gauge moves back down once you get going, it’s most likely due to a broken radiator fan. When the coolant goes to the radiator, it’s spread over a large surface area to cool it down. Airflow further cools it before it returns to the engine.

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