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Trip-Saving Tips for Preventing an Overheated Car

If you haven’t experienced it, I’m sure you have passed someone who has: You’re on vacation, the car is packed to the gills with all you need to make a home away from home, it’s 97 degrees outside, and the humidity is thick and heavy. You notice the car’s temperature gauge is creeping higher than it normally does. You feel your heart begin to race and beg your car not to overheat now.

It’s a weekend and the road is jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. If the car overheats you’ll have to pull over make multiple phone calls and wait for a tow truck to take you to a garage. Being a weekend, you know it’s highly unlikely a garage will be open. Who knows how long you will be stuck in some dinky little town, and you may get taken advantage of, and the icing on the cake is—this is your vacation! You will be wasting precious vacation time getting the car fixed.

If you ever get into this situation there are some tricks you can do to help prevent having to pull over in a place you’d rather not:

  • Turn off your air-conditioning and keep it off. The A/C makes the engine work much harder than normal and you want to lighten the load of your poor, overtaxed engine.
  • Open your windows up all the way, turn the heat on high, and switch the control to the vent. I know this sounds like a crazy thing to do when it’s so hot outside, but turning the heat on all the way pulls the heat off the engine and hopefully you will see your temperature gauge begin to drop. The unfortunate side of this trick is that all the heat is going to blow right at you into the cabin of your car.
  • If the temperature gauge continues to climb, you want to pull over before the gauge goes into the red, before steam rises out from under your hood, or before that red warning light comes on. Once you are into the red zone, you want to pull over right away, turn off the engine, and call for help.
  • NEVER, NEVER, NEVER remove the radiator cap until the engine has thoroughly cooled! The coolant in the radiator is under pressure and you could get seriously burned if it sprays out at you. Be patient! Let it cool down so that you can touch the engine without burning your fingers. This will take about forty-five minutes to an hour.
  • If the radiator is low on coolant, you can add straight water in this emergency. Check when you add the water to see if it comes out of a hose or the radiator right away. If there is a big leak, call a tow truck. You can’t drive the vehicle without some type of coolant running through the radiator or you will kill your engine.
  • If you do add water and this saves the day, you will still need to get your car checked out for leaks and have a proper antifreeze/water mixture added to the coolant system. You don’t want to repeat the problem.

  • If the radiator is full of coolant there’s not much else you can do, except call a tow truck and have a professional mechanic check it out. There are a number of different reasons a car will overheat. The most common one is a worn-out radiator hose or broken fan belt. It could also be the radiator, the thermostat, radiator cap, recovery tank, malfunction of the cooling fan, or something as simple as a clamp coming loose on one of the hoses.

I highly recommend that you have your trusted mechanic give your car a trip check before you head out on the road. They will inspect all these components and more to ensure your car will be safe and reliable on your vacation. If your shop does not offer a trip check or you don’t have a regular mechanic, here is the list of what should be checked out before you head out on your holiday. 

Trip Check Inspection
1. Test drive and note any obvious problems. Test shocks and struts, test clutch for proper free-play and slippage, test transmission shifting, steering looseness or pull, brake action and pulling, test brakes for lock-up, check e-brake for lever adjustment and lock-up. Check operation of heater and A/C for proper fan operation, air distribution, and output of temperature. Check CV joints. Are speedometer and cruise control working?

2. Is vehicle due for any scheduled maintenance that needs to be completed? Oil change, 30-60-90k maintenance, timing belt job?

3. Inspect all five tires for wear and proper inflation. Inspect jack and tire tools.

4. Inspect all front-end and steering components for wear and alignment problems. Inspect CV boots for damage or noise.

5. Inspect for loose or binding U joints.

6. Test power steering system for leaks or binding.

7. Inspect exhaust for leaks or loose mountings.

8. Inspect all belts, hoses, and clamps. Check coolant hoses for soft spots, especially where they bend (note: hoses should be replaced every four to five years).

9. Inspect cooling system for corrosion and proper coolant mixture (note: the cooling system should be flushed every two years or 24,000 miles). Check thermostat.

10. Inspect for any debris clogging radiator or condenser.

11. Test cooling fan system.

12. Test air conditioning system for proper air delivery and temperature.

13. Test heater system for proper air delivery and temperature.

14. Inspect wipers and washers. Blades should be replaced as needed. Aim nozzles.

15. Check all lights and turn signals for proper operation. Aim headlights if needed.

16. Inspect for any fluid leaks in engine, transmission, power steering, and differentials. Check condition of fluids.

17. Check starting and charging system. Check condition and age of battery. Inspect and clean terminals and cables. Test battery’s power with special load tester.

18. Visually inspect brake pads and shoes. Check fluid level and make sure emergency brake cables are not frozen.

It’s best to make your appointment two weeks before you’re scheduled to leave on your outing. This gives you some leeway if the shop is busy or if they need to order a special part that needs replacing in your car.

Remember, giving your car a trip check is the key to keeping it safe and reliable when you’re on a break from your routine, escaping the daily grind, retreating from life to rest and relax on the vacation that you so greatly deserve. 

By Amy Mattinat for AskPatty