What to do When Your Car Overheats- 3 Quick Steps




What to do when your car overheats

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    There is nothing like cruising around with your friends on a hot summer day and all of a sudden you have white steam billowing from your hood, your car makes a funny noise and then quits running.  An overheating car is not an uncommon problem, but a potentially dangerous one.

Of primary concern is safety, safety for you and more importantly the safety of the people driving around you.  

So if you suspect your car is overheating or has the potential to overheat what steps do you need to take?  I am not a mechanic, but I have been behind the wheel of a car that has overheated. Also, I have scoured the internet searching for proper procedures for what to do when your car is overheating.  First, we will see what are some signs of an overheating car. Then we will see what to do if you believe your car is overheating.   


What to do when your car is overheating?

This depends a lot on where you are actually at; are you on the open road cruising along or are you stuck in stop and go traffic?   You don’t have all that much time, but you may be able to buy yourself a couple of minutes to get off the road and call for a tow.

  • Turn off the AC. More than likely it is probably summertime when your car overheats.  And yes it’s hot outside, but the air conditioner in your car puts an incredible load on your engine.  Shutting it down will relieve a great burden on your motor and may buy you the time you need to get to a safe location.  But this is not the only thing you need to do and you are really not going to like the next step…
  • Turn on the heater, like full blast.  I am talking fans on high and temperature all the way over in the red.  I know it’s summertime, and you’re going to be really uncomfortable soon. But as with turning the AC off, turning the heat on is a necessary evil.   Why?
    • The normal operating temperature for an engine is 195 – 220 degrees Fahrenheit, so an overheating engine in excess of these temperatures; turning on the heater transfers heat from the engine compartment to the passenger cabin (that’s where you are).
    • We’ll discuss the damage that can happen to an overheated engine later, but it could literally be thousands of dollars worth of damage to your car.  So roll down the windows and make the best of it. By turning the heater on you may get yourself to safety and save yourself a hefty repair bill.

At this point, if you can, get off the road and turn the car off.  The longer the car runs the more likely the chance you will cause significant damage to your vehicle.  Turn the car off, pop the hood, but don’t open it. Just let the engine cool down. Most likely, at this point, you will need to call for a tow truck. You can’t drive the vehicle anymore. But what if you can’t get off the road?

What if you are stuck in traffic?

Follow the first two steps, those are a given when your car is overheating…

If you are in stopped traffic, do your best to get to a place you can pull off.  In addition to this, now this will seem like a bit of a contradiction, you want to rev your motor a little bit, around 2,000 RPMs.  This is assuming that there is coolant left in the system.

The idea here is you want to get the coolant circulating through the engine as much as possible.  There is a fine line here because you don’t want to rev it too much because you will obviously cause more damage to your vehicle. Again, it may buy you just enough time to get off the side of the road.

Lastly, if you are stuck in traffic, but you are moving slowly, avoid riding your brakes, this also puts stress on your motor. At this point, your motor has had all it can take.  So put your vehicle in a low gear, try to keep it at a crawl, and around 2,000 RPM’s as we mentioned above and make your way to a safe place off the road.

Now with all that said.  If you follow these steps, which come from several mechanic shops, if you don’t see your temperature gauge start to come back from the brink ( away from the “H”), within two (2) minutes.  You need to get off the road, in a safe location, immediately and shut the car off. If your car gets too hot, it will shut down wherever you are at.  

To summarize.  If you see that your car is starting to overheat, implement the steps outlined above.  And get off the road as soon as possible, in a safe location. Turn the car off, allow the motor to cool and call for a tow truck.  There is not much you can do at this point.

Now you may ask yourself, how do I know if my car is overheating?  Let us look at some signs and symptoms of an overheating car.


Signs your car is Overheating.

There are several signs that your car is overheating.  Yes, you have a gauge on your dashboard that tells you when your engine is getting hot, but how often do you look at that? It’s on my list, but it’s not number one.

Smell.  That’s the first thing I notice when my cars have started to get hot.  Antifreeze coolant has a distinctive odor to it. If you have a leak, or it’s starting to evaporate, you can smell the antifreeze. The other smell can be described as a ‘hot’ smell; does ‘hot’ really have a smell? 

 Again, it’s hard to describe but think about like this.  Your engine is getting very hot. Your engine also has a number of plastic and rubber pieces inside of it.  When these get hot, they will start to melt. So trust your nose, if you smell something odd, you will want to take a look at the next sign your car is overheating…

The temperature gauge.  I told you it was on my list.  If I smell something odd, immediately I look down at my temperature gauge.  If it is above the midway point and closer to the “H”; I know I have a problem and will try to get off the road as soon as possible.  It doesn’t take long for an engine to overheat, so if you suspect a problem get off the road as soon as possible.

For me, these are the two main indicators that my engine is overheating.  As a side note, most people imagine steam billowing out from under the hood.  Yes, this may happen, but not in all cases. Also, if you are at the point of steam coming out from under the hood, break down is imminent.  This indicates that your coolant has boiled over or you have a significant leak and your car is ready to stop running.

There are other telltale signs that your car is about to overheat or is having an issue with the cooling system.  These signs you can’t really tell while you are driving, but more of an observation when you are outside of your car.

Hot hood.  Yes, your hood is normally hot because it’s right above the engine, and it’s not the most scientific method. You should be able to hold your hand on the hood for 10 seconds. If you can’t do this, it may be an indicator that your engine is running hotter than it should be and you may want to have it looked at, before a serious problem develops.

Okay, we’re going to get real deep on you for this one. If you see a puddle of green fluid on the ground underneath the front of your car; don’t drive; you have a coolant leak.  Therefore, your engine is more likely to overheat, because you have no coolant.  Now you must get your car to the mechanic to determine where the leak is coming from.  It could be from the radiator, the hoses, the water pump, the reservoir tank, etc. My point is that is could be coming from any number of places and you need to have it repaired.

A thumping noise.  From what I have read this would indicate a bad thermostat. The thermostat regulates the flow of coolant through the engine.  If the thermostat gets stuck; the coolant gets trapped. When the coolant cycles through the engine and the superheated coolant hit the trapped cooled down coolant, it produces a thumping sound.  I have never heard a thumping sound, but this was reported by several mechanics.

So, if you have any of these issues with your car. Be cautious, you may be in danger of your car overheating.  Sometimes though we are caught unawares and our engine starts to overheat, let’s take a look at another common question people have…

How long can you drive an overheating car? And Will an Overheating Engine Explode?

So, the worst-case scenario has happened.  You are out on a trip or commuting around town and your car engine overheats.  How long can you drive before your car stalls and/or you damage your vehicle?  I could not find a definitive answer to this question, other than it depends on the vehicle and the type of material the engine is made of. 

Most people agreed that a few minutes driving with an overheated engine did not cause significant damage to their vehicle.  When I say a few minutes, I mean 2-3 minutes tops. As indicated previously, the safest thing to do is get off the road and cool the engine down as soon as possible.  Significant damage can be done to your engine when it is overheated.

 Some people are concerned that their car engine will explode if it overheats.  This will not happen, your car engine will not combust if it overheats. It will either melt or warp and both options are very bad.

Your engine can withstand quite a bit, but it does have its limits.  When the metal in your engine gets superheated, its shape gets distorted and your engine will 1) have significant damage or 2) not run at all.  If it makes you feel any better though; it will not turn into a fireball of death because of overheating.

How long does it take for your engine to cool down?

Remember that the normal operating temperature for an engine is 195-225 degrees, so it only takes a matter of moments for your engine to overheat.   Now if you find yourself with an overheated engine, how long does it take for it to cool down?

It will take some time for it to cool down to a safe level.  The recommended time to wait was at least 30 minutes before your engine was back to an acceptable temperature again.  There is not much you can do in the meantime.  If you happen to have coolant with you, don’t try to add it while the engine is hot.  Wait the thirty minutes and even then proceed with caution and only if you know what you are doing. 

Final Thoughts

Now you know what to do if your car begins to overheat. Remember the indicators of an overheating engine such as the temperature gauge moving toward the red, a funny smell, a thumping noise if you have any of these indicators proceed with caution and remember the steps to follow if indeed your car is overheating. 

 As with all things remain calm it’s not the end of the world but get yourself in a position where you be able to get off the road safely. Remember you don’t have very long 2 to 3 minutes at the top for your engine shuts down so keep an eye on your gauge try to get off as quickly as possible.  Don’t forget to turn off your AC and turn on your heater.  

Yes, it’s probably summertime and you are going to sweat, but it may be enough to get you to a safe spot to pull off the road.  If you know your car is prone to overheating, it may not be a bad idea to carry some extra coolant around with you; it may be enough to get you home.  Hopefully, you will be slightly more prepared to deal with this emergency if it happens.

Safe travels…










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