What does it mean if your car overheats? 

When we say this, we’re actually referring to your engine overheating. Many times, this happens because the vehicle’s cooling system isn’t working properly and doesn’t allow heat to leave the engine compartment. 

This means that when the engine overheats, it’s unlikely the problem is with the engine itself, but instead could be with a number of other components. The true source of the issue could be a cooling system leak, a broken water pump, a clogged coolant hose, a blown head gasket, or a faulty radiator fan. 

What are the signs of excess heat in the engine compartment?

Being aware of the symptoms of an overheating engine can help you ward off any serious damage, such as engine failure. Watch for these warning signs:

Steam coming from the hood: Steam puffing out from underneath your car hood can sometimes look like smoke, and it’s a definite sign of overheating. This means that your coolant has reached its boiling point, and is being converted into steam. As the pressure builds up within the cooling system, the steam escapes, and that’s when you can see it coming from the hood. 

A warning light or temperature gauge in the red: If the temperature gauge or light on your dashboard spikes to “H” or into the red, then there is excessive heat in the engine. This gauge or light measures the engine temperature by measuring the temperature of the coolant. (If you have a coolant leak, this gauge will not work properly, and you could have an overheated engine without this warning sign.)

An unusual smell coming from the engine compartment. When an engine heats up significantly, it starts to burn oil, resulting in fumes you wouldn’t normally smell otherwise. Most people describe this as a “hot” smell. If you have a coolant leak, it may smell sweet, and if you have an oil leak, it may also have a burnt or a “hot” smell. Be aware that any unusual odor coming from your vehicle is a bad sign. 

Reduced engine power: If your engine is in trouble, you’ll feel it struggling, because you won’t be able to go the speed you would like, or you might have trouble climbing a hill.  

Thumping noises or ticking: Sometimes the valve that allows the flow of coolant to the radiator gets stuck, trapping coolant in the engine block. This coolant becomes superheated, and when cold coolant flows in and comes into contact with the heated coolant, it causes a loud thumping noise. A ticking noise coming from your engine also means the engine oil is overheated and not able to function properly, so the mechanical parts of your engine begin rattling against each other. 

What should you do if you notice these warning signs? 

If you observe any of these signs, don’t panic, but do pull over to a safe spot. Continuing to drive with an overheating engine can cause extensive and expensive damage to your vehicle. Here are the steps you should take: 

#1 Turn off the air conditioner and turn up the heat. 

This may sound counterintuitive, but the A/C puts a lot of stress on your engine. Turning up the heat diverts heat from the engine, allowing it to begin to cool. 

#2 Pull over in a safe place. 

As soon as you’ve pulled over to the side of the road, turn off the engine and allow it to cool. In 15 minutes or so, the temperature gauge should drop to a normal range. 

#3 Don’t touch anything until the engine is sufficiently cool. 

Because so much heat and pressure has built up, checking under the hood right after you pull up could result in serious burns from the hot engine and the steam. 

#4 While the engine cools, contact someone for help. 

If possible, contact your local mechanic or a knowledgeable friend or family member — someone who can advise you as to whether you should contact a tow truck or roadside assistance, or if it is safe to drive your car to the repair shop on your own. 

#5 Check the coolant. 

Check our owner’s manual to find the location of the coolant reservoir tank. Open the hood and check to see if the fluid in your coolant reservoir is low. If it is and you have some handy, add coolant. Topping it off may prevent your car from overheating again on the way to the repair shop. If there are other underlying issues, though (such as a broken water pump or faulty radiator fan), this may not do the trick. Never add water to an overheated radiator. 

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