Like any other complex machine, your car needs regular maintenance to run properly. A major part of the reason for periodic maintenance is to catch small problems before they become big ones. This is particularly true in the case of engine cooling systems. If a part is starting to fail, your engine could be running too hot and not receiving enough lubrication as a result long before the problem becomes obvious; when your car overheats, at best you'll be stranded; at worst, your engine will already have suffered major damage.
Avoid Turning The "Check Engine" Light Into The "Engine Destroyed" Light
Do you know that little picture of an engine that lights up on your instrument cluster when you start your car? This is called the "check engine" light and tells you that something major is going wrong. The trouble is, in the case of an overheating engine, when that light finally comes on, your engine may already be in serious trouble. You can stop that happening before it gets to be serious, by doing routine checks on some key engine parts.
The Parts You Can Easily Check
Many cooling system engine parts can be checked by spending a couple of minutes under the hood. In most cases, you don't need any tools. One caution--unless specified, do these checks when the engine is not running and is cold.
- Identify the belt(s) that drive the water (coolant) pump. Do they look frayed or worn? Press your thumb into a belt--it should not give more than about half an inch or so. If there is too much slack in the belt, then the water pump won't deliver enough coolant to the engine.
- Look at your radiator. Are the fins cracked or broken? Is there debris on the front of the radiator that would prevent airflow through it? Is the radiator cap in good shape? Remove it and inspect the seal. Is it intact, and does it look torn or cracked? (Major damage is done to cooling systems simply by a faulty radiator cap, because the system can't maintain the pressure needed when the cap doesn't make a good seal.)
- Look at the coolant reservoir. There should be a line on the side that indicates when it is full. If its coolant level is down, you should add coolant in accordance with the instructions in your owner's manual, but don't leave it at that. Check the coolant level several times soon after topping it up; if it drops again, you have a coolant leak somewhere. Also, visually check the coolant tank itself for signs of leakage.
When the Engine is Running
You should also observe the engine when it is running, ideally when it is up to operating temperature. A coolant leak is sometimes visually obvious, but even if it isn't, a dead giveaway is the smell of steam, which is unique--it's like the smell of heated metal and hot mud mixed together. You don't necessarily smell this from inside the car, which is why the inspection is important. DO NOT reach into the engine compartment while the car is running, and do not remove the radiator cap.
Taking these simple steps, all of which can be combined in ten minutes or less, can help head off a major cooling system failure and avoid that "engine destroyed" light coming on. For more maintenance questions, contact a pro like Dean's Auto Repair Inc.