What Causes Engine Overheating?

A man talking on the phone as he standing next to his open car hood with the engine smoking.

Summertime drives are a favorite pastime of Americans around the country, especially for those who live in areas where the temperature isn’t ideal year-round. However,  overheating an engine on the highway can put a damper on any road trip or commute, no matter where you’re located or the time of year.

As a mechanic, I often have people asking me about overheating, and I always tell them that maintenance is the key. Making sure that your vehicle’s fluids are topped off and properly flowing can go a long way towards preventing issues. Knowing what causes this common issue can also help you avoid any potential issues resulting from it.

Generally, an overheated engine is due to a lack of maintenance or a malfunction and can cause real, long-lasting damage to your car. Overheating is especially common when the weather warms up, so be extra vigilant in protecting your vehicle during the summer months.

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What Happens When Your Engine Overheats?

When you are driving, your vehicle’s engine produces a massive amount of heat due to the combustion happening inside the engine block. This heat needs to be moved away from the source before it can cause damages or issues to your engine, which is done through the vehicle’s cooling system. When the cooling system doesn’t work efficiently, overheating can occur.

When your engine temperature starts to rise to the point of overheating, the metal inside it begins to expand and contract. This is incredibly dangerous for the engine and can lead to seizing and stalling, and in extreme cases, irreversible damage. If the engine is allowed to get hot enough, the pistons can actually weld to the cylinders, completely ruining the engine and

An engine replacement is your car can undergo. A new engine can cost between $3,000 and $4,000 for a ten-year-old car and is usually not a component covered by your vehicle’s insurance provider. However, with the help of an auto protection plan from Endurance, you can have your vehicle’s most vital components covered in the event of unexpected breakdowns or repairs.

An image of the red thermometer warning indicator on a vehicle dashboard display, indicating possible engine overheating.

What Are the Signs of Engine Overheating?

One of the first signs of an engine overheating is the red ‘thermometer’ warning light on your car’s dashboard display. Almost all vehicles have this light and if you see it, this could be a sign of a serious issue. While it is possible to check for the cause of this warning light yourself, bringing your car into a certified repair facility or ASE Certified mechanic is the best way to avoid further damage.

If your car is overheating, you may also notice the tell-tale sign of steam rising from the hood. This is excess moisture burning off the engine block and is an early sign of your engine getting too hot. You may also notice the distinct odor of coolant, which can have a distinctly sweet smell, similar to maple syrup.

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What Causes Engine Overheating?

There are several reasons your engine may overheat. One of the most common reasons is a lack of coolant in the cooling system. Coolants, sometimes referred to as refrigerants, are designed specifically to help absorb the excess heat from your engine before ultimately reaching your car’s radiator. Leaks within your coolant system can also cause overheating issues. You may also have an issue with your radiator or water pump, which could keep the engine from cooling down. If your car is regularly overheating, the cooling system most likely will be the first culprit.

Your car may also have a broken belt that is blocked, or it could also be low on oil. To help you avoid these potential issues, EnduranceAdvantageTM can help. With up to $3,500 in regular maintenance coverage included, including up to three oil and filter changes, you can be sure to always be up to date on these critical systems.

What to Do When Your Engine Overheats

The first thing you should do when you find your car overheating is to safely pull over to the side of the road as soon as possible. Running your vehicle while it is overheating is the worst thing you can do and will almost certainly lead to severe and expensive damages. While you are pulling over, be sure to turn off the air conditioning as this will help divert cooler air from outside the vehicle to your engine.

Once parked, don’t try to open the hood for at least 15 minutes. You could seriously injure yourself on the hot latch if you don’t allow it to cool down completely. Once your vehicle has cooled down, get your car to a licensed auto shop as soon as possible to get the issue fixed. If you cannot drive your vehicle after it begins to overheat, Endurance can help get you and your vehicle safely to the nearest repair facility. With the purchase of any Endurance protection plan, you will automatically receive 1 year of free Endurance Elite Benefits, such as 24/7 roadside assistance, collision discounts, and more. All you need to do is show the shop your Endurance contract, receive your approval, pay any applicable deductible, and sit back while we work the facility to get your vehicle back on the road as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • How long can you drive on an overheated engine?

Some vehicles can drive for up to 20 miles with an overheating engine. However, it is difficult to know just how well your vehicle will manage, so it is best to pull over as soon as possible.

  • What happens if you keep driving an overheated car?

Driving an overheated car could lead to seizing and stalling. In some worst-case scenarios, it can even lead to a completely destroyed engine block.

  • How can I cool down my engine fast?

Put your car in neutral and give it a couple of revs as soon as you suspect overheating. This will engage the radiator fan and speed up the cooling process.

Keep Your Engine Cool with EnduranceAdvantage

Overheating can completely ruin your vehicle’s engine if the root cause isn’t found and promptly fixed. Regular maintenance can help keep your engine’s cooling system in good working order, so you don’t have to worry about overheating in the middle of rush-hour traffic. Stay on top of these types of maintenance tasks and more with the help of EnduranceAdvantage and up to $3,500 in regular maintenance coverage, including oil changes and other preventative procedures so you can help keep your vehicle running properly for longer.

For more information about any one of our vehicle protection plans, request a free, no-obligation quote. You can also visit our Learning Center to discover even more helpful and informative articles on key topics such as DIY maintenance, common repair issues, FAQs, and more.

A Vehicle Service Contract (VSC) is often referred to as an “auto warranty” or an “extended car warranty,” but it is not a warranty. A VSC does, however, provide repair coverage for your vehicle after the manufacturer’s car warranty expires. A VSC is a contract between you and a VSC provider or administrator that states what is a covered repair and what is not. Not all vehicles qualify for coverage; Endurance does not offer VSCs in California.