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Can My Car Overheat in the Winter?

BY: Andrew Giorgi
An emergency road triangle place in front of a pulled over vehicle on a snowy road.

Despite the cold weather, there’s plenty to look forward to during the winter. Maybe it’s the upcoming holiday season. Maybe it’s you getting ready to cheer on your favorite college or professional sports teams at an upcoming tailgate, heading up to the slopes, or catching the latest sales on your favorite brands. 

Either way, whatever the season has in store for you likely means more traveling during the winter months. And maintaining your car will ensure that your vehicle is ready for these long road trips, especially in drastically cold temperatures. But, even though the winter temperatures can be frigid, your car can still be susceptible to overheating. That’s why learning more about avoiding an overheated engine and proper cooling system maintenance is key to caring for your vehicle.

What Is Overheating?

Overheating is pretty much as it sounds, as it refers to your car’s engine temperature exceeding the normal operating temperatures set forth by the manufacturer. For most vehicles, the average operating temperature for an engine is between 195 and 220 degrees Fahrenheit. While this is good to know, most vehicles do not show your engine’s exact temperature. Instead, you will likely see a needle temperature gauge with a red H and a blue C, standing for Hot and Cold. This temperature is read from a coolant temperature sensor located in your engine and measures the temperature of the coolant or antifreeze to ensure your car is cooling properly.

When you start your vehicle after letting it sit overnight or even for a few hours, especially during the winter, your temperature gauge will read cold. This is perfectly fine, as your vehicle will take a few minutes to warm up to the normal operating temperature. However, this doesn’t mean you must sit and wait for it to warm up before heading out.

But whether you sit and wait for the car to warm up or hit the road right away, the coolant will sit stagnant in the engine until it reaches its optimal operating temperature. When this happens, the thermostat will open up, allowing just enough coolant to flow through the cooling system, hoses, and radiator, to keep the engine properly cooled and at a constant temperature while driving. This will rely heavily on proper coolant levels as the cooling system needs a specific amount to keep the engine cool. 

Can My Car Overheat in the Winter?

Yes, a vehicle can overheat in the winter, but it is much less likely to occur as the colder temperatures help to cool the engine down. Conversely, as you could guess, your engine fights hotter exterior temperatures in the summer, so overheating is more common during the hotter months.

However, while less likely, overheating in the winter can still happen, and it can be just as inconvenient as any other time of the year. And there are several reasons why your vehicle may overheat in the winter, including:

  1. The radiator cap needs to be replaced: The radiator cap on your car’s cooling system is used to help seal off the system and allow it to build pressure. When a radiator cap is damaged or not sealing correctly, your coolant system will not pressurize correctly, causing coolant leaks and overheating or underheating issues.
  2. The water pump has gone out: A water pump is used in your cooling system to help circulate coolant throughout your engine block. As the water pump pulley turns, an internal propeller moves coolant in the correct direction for proper flow of coolant. Over time, water pump impellers can deteriorate, causing circulation issues and overheating problems.
  3. There’s a coolant leak: Coolant leaks are one of the most common issues most overheating engines face. Since there are many different components of your vehicle’s cooling system, there are many places your car’s coolant can leak from. You can find coolant leaks at the water pump, radiator, radiator hoses, coolant reservoirs, and freeze plugs. 
  4. You’ve got a faulty thermostat: The thermostat in your engine is one of the most vital parts of your entire cooling system. While it is one of the cheapest to repair, it can cause costly repairs. If your thermostat is stuck closed, your engine can quickly overheat, causing a blown head gasket
  5. There’s restricted airflow to the radiator: While this is a more uncommon issue, it is still an area you must check when dealing with an overheating issue. If your engine is overheating, check your radiator for any bags, trash, or other debris that would restrict airflow to your radiator. This can also happen when your radiator’s fins have been damaged over time or from a large impact. When the fins become bent, air cannot flow through the radiator, causing your coolant not to cool properly. 
  6. You’re dealing with larger engine block issues: Other engine issues can cause your engine to overheat, such as a blown head gasket, a cracked engine block, clogged coolant passages, and many more. These will be a little harder to diagnose for the DIY mechanic, so seeking assistance from a reputable mechanic shop is highly recommended.

When you’re an Endurance customer, you can get help fast whenever you’re dealing with an overheating engine. That’s because, with any Endurance plan, you can get complimentary roadside assistance and towing services and can take your car to any ASE Certified mechanic or repair shop. And, with the Advantage plan, you can enjoy comprehensive breakdown protection while saving on some of your car’s essential maintenance needs, including up to $3,500 in yearly services like oil and filter changes, engine diagnostic exams and more. But that’s not all, as you’ll even be able to enjoy several one-time-only services for even more coverage and savings, including a battery replacement, a brake pad/shoe replacement, and more, including some potentially much-needed cooling system maintenance. 

What to Do If Your Car Overheats

An overheating engine can cause detrimental damage very quickly at any time of the year, so knowing what to do when this happens can save you from more extensive repairs and repair bills. 

Turn On The Heater

The first thing you will want to do when you notice your car overheating is turn on the heater. And yes, while this may sound odd, it actually helps to draw heat from the engine by sending coolant into your heater core. This can help buy you some much-needed time until you can get to your nearest repair shop or your towing services can arrive.

Pull Over

If turning on your heater does not help, and your needle is getting closer and closer to the red H, you will need to pull over to allow your engine to cool down. Trying to drive with an overheating engine will only increase the risk of more damage. Stopping for some time could help you from becoming stranded on the side of the road

Wait for Your Engine to Cool Down

Once you have pulled over in a safe location, allow your engine to cool down for about 30-45 minutes. This time may be reduced in the winter months, depending on how cold it is outside. Allowing your engine to cool down can help you get back on the road and drive to a mechanic’s shop before it overheats again. 

Add Coolant or Distilled Water

If you believe your coolant level is low, you can add coolant or distilled water to your radiator to help keep your engine cool. Before opening your radiator cap, you must wait until your engine has cooled down completely. Otherwise, you can risk severely burning yourself from the steam. You can always add coolant or distilled water to the reservoir tank as it is not pressurized and safe to open when the engine is hot. 

Drive to the Nearest Auto Parts or Automotive Shop

Lastly, when your vehicle has cooled down, you want to drive it to the nearest auto parts or automotive shop. An overheating engine is not something you want to be driving around on for extended periods, so you must have it repaired as soon as possible.

Keep Your Vehicle Protected with Endurance

No matter the car you drive, it is important to follow its recommended maintenance schedule to keep it running at its best. For example, routinely checking if you have low coolant levels and having a coolant flush performed are great ways to prevent overheating issues, potentially saving you from unexpected repair bills. And while it can help you avoid repairs right now, just like keeping your vehicle’s tires at the correct PSI or checking your oil, maintaining your cooling system can save you time and money over the years of ownership. It can also help you avoid that dreaded check engine light coming on. While maintaining your car is the best way to prevent a breakdown, even the most maintained vehicles can experience an unexpected breakdown. This is where having an Endurance vehicle protection plan can help.

Whether you have a car just past its factory warranty or a car up to 20 years old, Endurance vehicle protection plans can help you avoid costly and unexpected repair bills that can happen anytime or anywhere. But that’s not all, as every Endurance plan also comes with 24/7 roadside assistance and towing services, trip interruption coverage, and rental car coverage as standard benefits. You will also be eligible for a full year of Endurance Elite Benefits for even more perks and savings to give you more peace of mind, including tire repairs/replacements, collision discounts, key fob replacements, and even up to $1,000 in total loss protection.

To get started with your Endurance protection plan and to learn more about how a protection plan can help you, call our industry-leading customer service team at (800) 253-8203 or request a free, no-obligation quote. Or, you can learn more DIY car tips or find other articles on topics like auto expert buying guides, extended warranty coverage comparisons, money-saving car maintenance tips and more by visiting the Endurance blog.

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