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What to Do When a Car Engine Overheats

BY: Keith Benline
A young woman looking as steam comes out from her car's open hood.

With summer quickly approaching, more and more people will be taking road trips and vacations. To have a worry-free trip, you need to ensure you are keeping up with your vehicle’s maintenance schedule to prevent unexpected breakdowns, such as an overheating issue. An overheating car can drastically affect your road trip by putting your car in a repair shop for days, so knowing what you should (and shouldn’t) do when dealing with this issue can help you avoid a more serious issue.

What Causes a Car to Overheat?

When your car’s engine temperature gauge on your dashboard starts moving closer to the red “H” on your dashboard, this is your indication that your engine is overheating. Unlike many other simple repairs, an overheating engine can be caused by a few different issues.

A car can overheat due to the following mechanical problems:

Low or Leaking Coolant: Running your vehicle with a low coolant level will reduce the capabilities of your cooling system, causing your engine to overheat. If you can, check your car’s coolant level regularly and give it a top off when needed. And if you notice that you have to fill up on coolant more often than you should, you may have a coolant leak, so it’s best to get it checked out by a professional mechanic as soon as possible. Coolant also has a sweet smell, which can also indicate that you may have a coolant leak.

Clogged Radiator: Radiators can become clogged due to poor maintenance or using the wrong coolant. Rust or buildup can clog the ports on the radiator, causing the coolant not to be able to flow through the radiator correctly.

Malfunctioning Thermostat: The thermostat’s job is to open up at certain temperatures to allow coolant to flow through your engine to keep it cool. If this gets stuck closed, your engine will not receive the needed coolant to regulate engine temperatures.

Malfunctioning Cooling Fan: A cooling fan malfunction can cause your engine to overheat when idling as your radiator is not getting any air from driving. Cooling fan issues are common, so ensure that yours is in proper working order with no cracks or issues.

Bad Water Pump: The water pump on your engine is designed to move coolant through your engine. If your water pump is seized, leaking, or has eroded past the point of being effective, it can cause your engine to overheat.

Damaged Radiator Hose: Lastly, a radiator hose that has been damaged can also lead to excess heat in your engine. Check over your radiator hoses routinely to look for any wear and tear.

What To Do When A Car Engine Overheats

Seeing your car overheat can be stressful, but the best thing you can do is stay calm and follow a few important tips to ensure you and your car are safe.

1. Turn Off A/C & Turn Heat On

The first thing you can do if your car overheats is turn off the air conditioner and turn the heat on. But why? Well, to put it simply, turning the heater on takes heat from the engine as coolant is sent through the heater core, helping your engine cool faster. 

2. Turn On Hazards & Pull Over

When your engine overheats, turn on your hazards, find a safe place on the side of the road, and pull over. If you see steam coming out from under the hood, you will need to call for roadside assistance and a tow truck soon, so make sure you are out of harm’s way and parked safely.

3. Turn Off The Vehicle

After finding a safe place to park, turn off the vehicle to prevent any further damage. The longer your engine runs while it is overheating, the most likely it is to get more damage that can cost you thousands of dollars

4. Call For Roadside Assistance

The next step is going to be to call for roadside assistance. If your engine is overheating, you will need to have a certified mechanic look over your car for the root cause. Roadside assistance can help arrange for a tow truck to take your car to an auto repair shop. And, if you’re an Endurance customer, you can call for your complimentary 24/7 roadside assistance and towing with the press of a button, thanks to the Endurance Mobile app. Then, you can get your vehicle taken to the nearest certified repair facility for repairs while you enjoy your complimentary rental car reimbursement and trip interruption coverage. 

5. If No Steam Is Coming From The Hood, Open Hood

If there is no visible steam from under the hood, open the hood to help your engine cool more effectively. However, be sure to look closely, as an overheated engine is a hot engine, and you can risk severe burns if you’re not careful.

What Not To Do When A Car Overheats

While there are several steps you should take when dealing with an overheating engine, there are also plenty of things you shouldn’t do to keep you safe and prevent further damage to your vehicle.

Don’t Keep Driving

The one thing you should not do when your car overheats is to keep driving. Continuing to drive with an overheated engine can cause your head gasket to blow, resulting in a hefty repair bill or your insurance company totaling your vehicle.

Don’t Open the Hood When Steam Is Coming Out

If you notice steam coming out of your hood, leave it closed. This is an indication that your coolant is leaking and extremely hot. Opening your hood can cause the boiling hot coolant to hit you, causing severe burns and injury.

Never Use Cold Water To Cool Engine

Lastly, you will not want to use cold water to cool your engine. While this may seem like a great idea, the drastic temperature change can cause your engine block or other engine components to crack.

Protect Your Car This Summer with Endurance

Before you hit the road this summer or any other time of the year, you’ll want to give your engine’s cooling system a once-over. Spotting any potential issues before they turn into full-blown repairs can help you avoid any unexpected stops during your trip. 

Still, while staying up-to-date with your car’s maintenance can help you potentially avoid repairs in the first place, it can’t prevent everything. And for those without an active factory warranty, any repair bills would be left to you to pay. But, when you have an Endurance auto protection plan, you can get help covering your vehicle from unexpected and expensive breakdowns and repairs. Or, with the Advantage plan, you can get the peace of mind of having breakdown coverage while also getting help maintaining your vehicle’s cooling system. That’s because when you have Advantage, you can save up to $3,500 in yearly maintenance services, including oil changes (and filters), engine diagnostic exams, alignment checks and more, including one-time services like a brake pad/shoe replacement, a battery replacement, and cooling system maintenance.

Another great benefit of Endurance is that no matter the plan you choose, you will get free 24/7 roadside assistance, trip interruption, and rental car coverage. You’ll even be able to take your vehicle to any certified repair shop across the country. And, if you choose to activate your year’s worth of Endurance Elite Benefits, you can get even more coverage and savings, including tire repairs/replacements, key fob replacements, total loss protection, and collision repairs.

Request a free quote or call the award-winning Endurance customer care team at (800) 253-8203 to learn more about the protection plans Endurance offers that fit your specific budget and needs. Or, to find more articles on topics such as DIY car tips, vehicle buying guides, extended warranty comparisons and more, visit the Endurance blog.

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