An engine running hot can ruin your car’s powertrain. By using the guidance below, you can help keep things cool if it gets a little too hot under your car’s hood.
Driving just a quarter-mile with an overheated engine can cause lasting damage, so it’s important to make sure you’re prepared to handle this situation every time you get behind the wheel. Plan to always have the following supplies on hand:
- Engine coolant: One of the most common causes of engine overheating is low coolant level. By keeping a bottle of it in the trunk, you’ll be able to refill the reservoir when needed.
- Towel: You may need to unscrew your car’s radiator cap if your vehicle overheats, and it can get extremely hot. Make sure to take extreme caution, as your car’s cooling system is pressurized, which will cause hot coolant to spray out of the radiator if the cap is removed while the engine is still hot. Once the engine cools down, using a towel to remove the radiator cap ensures your hands are protected.
Watch the Temperature Gauge
In its advanced stages, engine overheating can cause a copious amount of smoke under the hood. But before it gets to that point, the water temperature gauge will provide you with a warning of what’s to come. If it creeps into the red portion of the instrument or shows higher-than-normal temperatures, you likely have an overheating problem on your hands.
What to Do if Your Car’s Engine Overheats
- Turn off the air conditioning. Your car’s engine generates heat as it provides power, and the harder it has to work, the more warmth it will produce. If the air conditioning system is being used, it can place added strain on the engine. This can worsen an overheating situation, so turn the air conditioning off to help preserve the motor.
- Crank up the heat. Turning up the heater to full blast will help pull heat away from the car’s engine.
- Pull over if the problem persists. If the car continues to overheat, find a safe location and pull over. Then turn the engine off right away. Find a shady area to park in, if possible, as this will help prevent the sun from making things even hotter under the hood.
- Carefully pop the hood. If you can open the car’s hood from the driver’s seat, do so immediately after pulling over. If you need to physically lift it, wait until the engine is completely cooled. Doing so will prevent you from being injured by the steam. It usually takes about 30 minutes for an engine to cool off after it’s overheated. You can also use the car’s engine temperature gauge to give you a sense of how things look under the hood.
- Check coolant levels. Your car’s owner’s manual can help you locate the coolant tank. Using a towel to remove the cap, check the radiator to see if it’s low.
- Add coolant, if necessary. If levels are low, add coolant to the radiator. Check under the car for leaks after pouring it in. If there is a severe one, call for roadside assistance. If not, replace the tank’s cap, start the engine and drive to your destination, but keep a close eye on the temperature gauge to make sure overheating doesn’t recur.
Acting quickly at the first sign of an overheating engine can prevent lasting damage, and save you from needing repairs. Being prepared and informed on what can go wrong is the best way to stop your car’s engine from overheating.
Check out all the heating & cooling parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on your engine running hot, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
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I'm a writer and editor who's a regular contributor with the New York Daily News and Carfax, and my content has appeared in over 20 publications. I've written content that covers industries such as automotive, medical, insurance, healthcare, real estate, plumbing, pest control, dental and hospitality.