What To Do When Your Car Overheats

As outside temperatures climb during the warm summer months, temperatures inside your vehicle’s engine bay can near 200 degrees. In that type of heat, it’s important to keep your engine cool.

Your car’s cooling system is usually up to the task. But if the needle of your temperature gauge rises or you spot steam coming from under your hood, your car could be overheating.

When your car overheats, it often means something is wrong with one of the cooling system components, which include your fan, radiator, thermostat, water pumps, hoses and coolant.

Steps to Take if Your Car Overheats

  • Turn up the heat. While you may be tempted to turn on the air conditioning, this is counterintuitive. Turning your heat on full blast can actually help disperse the heat coming from your engine.
  • Find a safe place to pull over. 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. Pull over and away from oncoming traffic, then turn off the engine.
  • Open your hood (or call for help). After parking your car, open your hood to let excess heat escape – then, stay back to let things cool down. Be extremely careful and remember that a hot engine can spew boiling coolant or steam under high pressure without warning. If you’re not comfortable opening the hood yourself, there’s no shame in calling for help. Either way: Never touch a hot engine with your bare hands!
  • Look for leaks. You may not be a mechanic, but some cooling system issues aren’t difficult to identify. Look at your radiator and hoses to see if you can find leaking coolant.
  • Fill your coolant. If you can’t find a leak, you may be low on coolant. If you’re comfortable and confident in identifying the proper parts of your engine, follow these tips from Consumer Reports for a quick fix. To check your coolant level, you’ll need to remove your radiator cap – but only after your engine has cooled off. Once your engine is cool, use a towel to slowly remove the cap. Your coolant should reach the top of the radiator. If it doesn’t, top it off. And be sure to check the plastic coolant expansion tank, if your car has one. Most cars use a 50/50 mix of water and antifreeze, but you can just add room temperature water as a temporary fix.
  • Know when to call a mechanic. If your car was low on coolant, you can start it back up after topping it off. Keep a close eye on your temperature gauge to ensure that it is in a safe range. If you found a coolant leak, or your coolant was full, you may have a more complex cooling system issue and it’s time to call your mechanic.

How to Prevent Your Car from Overheating

  • Before you head out on your next summer road trip, follow these steps to prevent your car from overheating and spending your vacation at the repair shop.
  • Check your coolant level and make sure it’s fresh.
  • Check your drive belt to make sure there is no unusual wear and tear.
  • Check your radiator. If your car’s A/C condenser sits in in front of your radiator, a buildup of leaves, bugs or mud can block the airflow.
  • Inspect your radiator cap. If the spring is too weak, it may not be able to maintain the pressure needed to prevent boiling over and overheating.

Finally, make sure to schedule a multi-point inspection on your car before heading out on any road trip or vacation. A trusted mechanic will know to check for maintenance issues that would need a quick fix to help make your drive as smooth as possible.