What Makes Cars Overheat?

When the summer heat gets oppressive, many people find themselves longing to jump in the car and drive for at least two hours to their favorite places – typically the mountains or the beach. Usually, it only takes one awful experience of steam shooting out from under the hood, while you’re pulled over in the middle of nowhere, to teach anyone to take greater precautions to avoid overheating. While overheating can happen between your house and the grocery store, its occurrence during long trips is a particular bummer.

When a car overheats, it’s for one of two reasons:

1). Not enough coolant: In a properly functioning vehicle, the water pump moves coolant through the engine and into the radiator, allowing the coolant to pick up and diffuse heat. If coolant is at dangerously low levels, that heat will have nowhere to go, and pressure will build until the engine gets too hot.

-OR-

2). A stuck thermostat: The thermostat plays a different part in the cooling process by regulating the engine’s temperature. Its valve stays shut until the engine gets warm enough to release heat. If that valve is stuck shut, however, the coolant won’t circulate through the system.

Knowing that coolant and a healthy thermostat are the keys to harmony under the hood, it’s important to be attuned to your car’s needs for both. You shouldn’t need to constantly worry about coolant levels unless there’s a serious leak. One way to check for this is to see if there are spots under your car after it’s been parked for a few hours.

If you are leak free, it’s still a good idea to check your coolant levels before you hit the road, when the engine is still cool. You don’t even need to open the radiator; the plastic auxiliary tank next to the radiator shows the “fill line,” and your coolant should be at that level. Also, make sure the fan, which is either electric or belt-propelled, is working for the radiator. For belt-propelled fans, it’s a good idea check the belts (with the engine off, please!) to make sure they’re not too loose or frayed. After these initial inspections, your vehicle should be good to go on any length of trip.

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