No one expects their vehicle to overheat during their daily commute. It can happen at any time for a variety of reasons, but there are things you can do to effectively handle the situation and stay safe in the process.
If your vehicle's engine is overheating, it's important to pull over as soon as it's safe to do so. Many times, the driver will not have the resources to do anything about it. In this situation, you should turn off your vehicle and make the call to have your vehicle towed to a reputable repair shop. Even one instance of an engine overheating may be severe enough to cause permanent engine damage.
While we do not recommend it, you may be able to buy some time to get off the road by turning on the cabin heater, as this feature pulls its heat directly from the engine. This is a very short term and commonly known solution. Unfortunately, this is not always the solution to the current issue, as there are some overheating problems that are not mitigated by doing this.
The best way to cool down your engine is to turn it off and wait.
If there is steam emanating from under the vehicle's hood, it is not recommended that you should try to open it. It typically takes at least 30 minutes for a hot engine to cool down. More importantly, you should never open the radiator cap while the engine is hot. The coolant inside the radiator is very hot and under a lot of pressure, opening the radiator cap of a hot engine can cause severe burns to yourself and others around you. Leaving the system closed until the vehicle fully cools may actually be better for your engine as well.
What Are the Warning Signs?
There are several symptoms of an overheating engine that come long before a steaming radiator. In winter months, your cabin heater not getting warm may indicate that the engine's thermostat is malfunctioning or that coolant may be running low. A quick glance at the temperature gauge can also be telling. Your vehicle's temperature gauge should almost always indicate engine temperature below or around the center of the gauge. While a slightly higher than normal temperature can be cause for a little concern, activation of the vehicle's temperature warning light or a sudden burst of steam from under the hood is a sign that something is very seriously wrong.
What Are Some Preventative Measures?
Why do vehicles overheat? Most commonly, low coolant in the engine is the cause. Thankfully this can be alleviated by regular maintenance. Regular maintenance doesn't always mean bringing your vehicle into a shop. Simply learning how to check your fluid levels and conditions is an essential skill every vehicle owner should be privy to. Your cooling system, for example, includes a plastic tank under the hood with a marker for minimum coolant level. Topping this off is as easy as popping the cap and filling it to the recommended level.
However, there are other reasons your vehicle may overheat. Regular inspection of your vehicle's cooling system should be part of your maintenance schedule. Older vehicles typically need more maintenance, from replacing old coolant or engine belts, to leaking hoses that can reduce the efficiency of the vehicle's water pump.
Most coolant should last around 100k miles, but the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule should supersede this, especially for older vehicles. A qualified technician will be able to tell you with certainty when it's time for something to be replaced or repaired.
If anyone could accurately predict when a vehicle is going to overheat, that person would likely be more wealthy than you or I. However, keeping up with preventative maintenance and knowing what to do if it happens to your vehicle may help to avoid expensive repairs further down the road.