The majority of vehicles on the road run on an internal combustion engine. As the name suggests, those engines generate a lot of heat. A vehicle’s cooling system helps these components remain at a functional and safe temperature to help keep your vehicle on the road.
What Components Make Up Your Cooling System?
The vast majority of vehicle cooling systems are based on liquid-cooling technology. The basic components of your cooling system include:
- Radiator: An aluminum unit located behind your vehicle’s front grille. A system of tubes forms its core, which houses the liquid coolant (see below). The tubes are covered in metal fins that increase the surface area and expose the heated coolant to the cooler air surrounding it, creating a cooling effect overall.
- Fan: Bolted inside the radiator is the fan. In older vehicles, it used to be mechanical, running non-stop off engine belts. In newer vehicles, it's electronic and only runs when needed. Heat sensors allow the fan to work even when the vehicle is idling in hot temperatures.
- Water pump: This pump drives coolant through the system using a centrifugal model and rotating impeller powered by engine pulleys.
- Thermostat: Keeps track of the temperature within the system and manages the flow of fluid.
- Overflow tank: An essential reservoir for excess coolant when heat expands the fluid in your system.
- Water: Mixed with pure coolant to form an effective coolant mixture.
- Coolant: A mixture of pure coolant and water — usually 50/50 measures of each component. Coolants come in different colors, sometimes denoting different brands, but all perform the same function. The main ingredient is ethylene glycol, which reduces the freezing point, increases the boiling point of water, and stops rust and corrosion.
- Belts, clamps, and hoses: These components act as connectors that hold everything together.
Why Your Cooling System is Essential
The cooling system cools the engine and related parts to prevent overheating and dangerous situations like engine fires. There are other issues your cooling system is working to prevent, such as:
Burned or Melted Pistons
Believe it or not, without proper cooling, it can get hot enough in the engine to melt holes into the top of the pistons. Pistons are hard to access without dismantling the engine and are therefore difficult and expensive to fix.
Head Gasket Damage
You might think these are just seals between the cylinder head and your engine, but they’re also costly to replace when they get damaged from an overheated engine.
Engine Block Cracks
The main structure of your engine is the engine block. Overheating can cause cracks in it that render it useless. Think of cracks in your engine block like discovering serious foundational cracks in your house. Engine block cracks mean the same bad news.
Engine Seizing Up
Too much heat in the engine can cause it to give up altogether, which is known as the engine seizing up. That can be very dangerous if you’re traveling on a busy highway.
Preventing this damage to your engine and generally keeping the systems in your vehicle running properly is why the cooling system is so critical. It’s also important to know what to do if you do experience engine overheating.
5 Top Symptoms of a Failing Cooling System and Their Solutions
The good news is that your cooling system is unlikely to fail without warning. Here are some typical warning signs to look out for:
Temperature Gauge Rising
This is usually the first sign that there are problems with the heating system. Take a rapidly rising temperature gauge as a call to action to do one thing: pull the car over and call your mechanic.
White Smoke from the Exhaust
Clouds coming from the exhaust are always a bad sign and usually indicate coolant burning in the engine. That could mean a possible internal coolant leak (see more below for more on coolant leaks).
Smoke from the Hood
Another visible sign is smoke coming from the hood of your vehicle. Like the rising temperature gauge, take this as a sign to stop immediately because you might blow a head gasket. It could even lead to a cracked engine block.
Coolant is typically a bright-colored and sweet-smelling liquid. If you notice any pools of coolant in your garage or on your driveway, then you may have a leak. Leaks left unattended will always lead to disastrous results.
Low Coolant Levels
Take a look in your radiator when the engine is cool and check the coolant level against the indicator marker. If it’s running low, then you can top it up with a coolant/water mix. If levels are dropping fast, then you may have a coolant leak.
How to Better Care for Your Cooling System
Here are some tips on preventing overheating and any unnecessary damage from happening to your vehicle:
- Tip 1: Keep the radiator cap on as tight as possible, but remember that touching it while the engine is still running or has just been turned off is a burn risk.
- Tip 2: Don’t let coolant levels fall too low. Check your radiator regularly.
- Tip 3: Flush the cooling system according to your owner’s manual specifications.
- Tip 4: Keep up with all regular maintenance of relevant cooling components.
If you’re experiencing problems with your cooling system, get in touch with your mechanic or another nearby auto shop as soon as possible. These problems can’t wait!
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AAMCO has more than 50 years of experience diagnosing, servicing, and repairing more than 20 million vehicles. Customers rely on us for:
- Quality repairs
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AAMCO Centers of Southern California and surrounding areas represent trust, quality, and value. If you’re having cooling system trouble, call us today!