What to Do When Your Engine Gets Hot?

car engine hot

Overheated Engine – A closer look

One of the most nerve-racking experiences while driving is to see that little red arrow on your dashboard creep up and up. What does it mean? Your engine is getting hot, but can you still drive the car? Is your car about to explode?

You might be thinking – I’m not an auto mechanic? What can I do?

Well, you don’t have to worry about your car exploding, but immediate action is required to prevent your car from having a complete and total breakdown. You see, when that red arrow on your temperature gauge moves too far to the right that could mean several things.

One: Your engine is getting too hot because there is a lack of coolant fluid reaching your engine.

Two: Your car’s thermostat is broken, and the temperature switch isn’t reading properly.

Three: There could be a problem with the water pump. It could be damaged, or a gasket has broken down.

Now, if you’re not a car guy that’s not a knock to your masculinity. Knowing how to fix cars is a skill that technicians get paid good money for and everyday gentlemen pick up with practice and patience.

Some people see their temperature gauge going up and simply don’t know what to do next. So, here are some troubleshooting tips and some vital information that can save you time and money.

Troubleshooting While Driving

If you’re driving in your car and you start to notice that your temperature gauge is steadily heading into the red zone, don’t panic. You can simply pull over immediately and call a mechanic service like AAA or OnStar. They’ll send someone out to your location that has the expertise to properly evaluate your problem.

If you don’t have a mechanic service that you can call, that’s fine. In most cases you’re quite capable of handling this problem yourself. First, you should open all your car windows to increase circulation of air and turn off your air conditioner. Now your vehicle isn’t working so hard to keep itself cool.

Keep an eye on that gauge. Did it stop creeping on you or is it still steadily moving to the right? If it’s still moving, then you need to find a safe place to pull over. You can usually buy yourself some time with the windows down and air conditioner off, at least enough time to find a convenient location.

Now that you’ve pulled off the road, turn the car’s engine off and pop the hood. Don’t open it, just pull your hood release switch and let the engine cool down a bit on its own. After about 20 minutes you can start to get under the hood and address your overheating issues.

Here’s a little lesson on locating certain parts in your engine. If you are standing directly in front of the hood, the flat piece of equipment that is closest to the front grille is the radiator. It’s got a cap on top.

The radiator holds coolant fluid and/or water. The radiator sends coolant fluid into your engine assembly so that the engine doesn’t overheat from all the mechanical action of the pistons. About half of the action of the engine is transferred directly into thermal energy. Without coolant fluid, the engine would burn itself out.

Related: What You Should Know About Winter Tires

IMPORTANT: never take the radiator cap off a hot, running engine. It can spray hot, toxic coolant fluid everywhere and seriously ruin your day.

PRO TIP: You should always keep a jug of coolant fluid in your vehicle. You never know when you might need it, or you might need to assist another motorist with this same problem. You can find coolant fluid at any large supermarket or automotive specialist shop.

If you look to the side of the radiator, you’ll notice a plastic jug. You might have two plastic jugs under your hood. One is for windshield wiper fluid and the other is a reservoir for your radiator. This is called a coolant recovery tank. You don’t need to add coolant directly to your radiator. You can add it to this secondary tank and the overflow tube will draw water into the radiator.

So, fill the coolant recovery tank to the fill line. You can use coolant or just water. Now, you should get down on the pavement and look underneath your vehicle. What you’re looking for is a leak. Sometimes, there could be a crack in the radiator (big problem), a stuck thermostat (medium problem) or the tube that sends coolant to the engine has worn down or come loose (minor problem).

In any case, there is little to nothing that you can do on the side of the road if you have a coolant fluid leak. If the leak is minor (just a few drops) and you have enough water or coolant fluid on hand, then you can limp your way home or to the nearest mechanic shop. Just keep an eye on that temperature gauge and repeat the steps above as needed.

overheated car engine

Adding Coolant Didn’t Cool the Engine

Your overheating issue might not have anything to do with the radiator or a coolant leak. One of the most frustrating causes of engine overheating is a broken thermostat. This can cause that temperature gauge to give you false readings. One minute it’s hot, the next minute it’s cold…just like your ex, right?

The thermostat has a sensor that controls the flow of coolant to the engine. Now, that sensor can get stuck. In fact, it’s one of the most common mechanical problems in vehicles, even relatively new ones. When the thermostat is stuck in a closed position, your vehicle will overheat super-fast.

You can usually tell if you have a thermostat issue by watching the temperature gauge very carefully. The temperature gauge might read cool and then rapidly jump to the hot side. It might even drop again, leading you to believe that you’re tripping, and nothing is actually wrong with your car or truck.

In this case, you should replace the thermostat immediately. It’s a relatively inexpensive part and a straightforward procedure for a mechanic to replace it. If you take your car in for a professional replacement, don’t let the mechanic jack up the price. Replacing a thermostat is no big deal. It should only cost about $200 unless you’re pushing a high-performance vehicle.

Oh no, it’s the water pump!

The water pump is responsible for circulating coolant through the engine once the thermostat has cleared it for release. It’s a vital component to your engine’s health and proper operation. Without a working water pump, coolant wouldn’t move through the engine at all.

Troubleshooting a broken or faulty water pump is a bit tricky. One way to do it is by opening your car’s hood and listening to the engine while it’s idling. I know, that sounds like some car whisperer hocus pocus, but it can really help.

What you’re listening for are groaning or grinding sounds coming from the engine block. Now, if your radiator was cracked or a tube was loose, you wouldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary. However, if the water pump is malfunctioned then you’ll hear these strange squealing sounds coming from your engine block.

This is a problem that only a highly skilled auto mechanic or someone who is well-versed in their own vehicle’s maintenance should try to tackle. You shouldn’t try to drive your vehicle if you think you might have a faulty water pump. Just get it towed to your home or nearest auto mechanic.

Summing it Up

When your vehicle starts to overheat a sense of panic can overtake you. Bells are going off that you’ve never heard before, your engine is hesitating, and steam is coming out of your hood. Hell, you’re sweating bullets yourself.

You should watch the temperature gauge very closely. Is it rising steadily? Is it jumping around erratically? These can be important clues as to the cause of your overheating problem. You should keep some spare coolant fluid or water in your vehicle just in case you need to refill the coolant tank.

If the temperature gauge spikes up drastically, then stop immediately and turn off the engine. If it rises gradually, then you can limp your way to a safe and convenient location, but never drive too far on a hot engine.

Check the overflow tank and see if it’s low on coolant fluid. If you can, top it up and check underneath the vehicle for any sign of leaks. If you notice a squeaking noise coming from your engine, then get it towed and looked at by a professional mechanic.

Hopefully, this information will help alleviate some of your stress when you see a rising temperature gauge. If you know what to look for, if you’re well-prepared, and keep a cool head, then you don’t have much to worry about.

If you are looking for more car maintenance tips and how to keep it running optimally, consider the book, “Repair Your Car” by Motorbooks (see Amazon).

Remember, always be safe and drive hard.

About Freddy Blackmon 60 Articles
Freddy Blackmon is a freelance writer and journalist who has a passion for cars, technology, and fitness. Look for articles on these topics and more. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.