Auto Academy: 6 Ways to Stop Your Engine From Overheating

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Datsun Z
Datsun Z | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

Many have experienced the unfortunate story of driving down the interstate one afternoon, suddenly noticing your engine temp gauge starts to spike, and faster than you can say “hot tamale,” you’re on the side of the road with your hood popped and cell phone in hand. A few years back, Liberty Mutual Insurance gave a great rundown on the dangers associated with engine overheating issues, along with possible problems that could cause a car to crank up coolant temps.

Although the feature didn’t touch upon a multitude of other variables, the basics are well highlighted as most drivers are clueless as to the science behind melted cylinder heads and cracked radiator cores. An overheating engine is a dangerous and completely avoidable catastrophe, and while compromised components can be the culprit a lot of the time, negligence is a real risk as well.

Here are a few of the most common reasons for overheating:

  • Lack of lube: Low levels of engine oil can cause all kinds of overheating issues if you aren’t careful, with permanent internal damage possible (and likely) for those who run on empty.
  • Low coolant levels: The same stuff that keeps your engine block from cracking in the cold also guarantees that overheating doesn’t occur in summer, so play it safe and keep an eye on that reservoir tank fill line.
  • Bad fans and ruined relays: On most cars, a cooling fan (or two) kicks on when sitting at a standstill for a while, or if the air striking the radiator is not doing a sufficient job of lowering temps. If these fans or the relays controlling them malfunction or are damaged somehow, underhood heat levels can rise when the vehicle is not in motion.
  • Not enough pressure: All cooling systems require a certain amount of pressure in order to work properly. When things like pressure cap gaskets wear out, water pumps fail to spin, or corrosion buildup causes blockage issues, multiple areas of the engine can become vulnerable and may warp or break.
  • No control: Just like the electrical device on the wall in your house, a car’s thermostat controls the entire engine cooling system, and can cause all kinds of overheating issues if it gets stuck or is somehow compromised.

Regardless of which of these symptoms your car may be showing, remember to never open the radiator cap if your car overheats; the entire system is under pressure and scalding hot fluid can spew everywhere if that lid gets unlatched. Here are six tips for beating the automotive heat, all of which will also help you protect your ride for the long haul.

1. Lots of coolant chemicals

Flex-a-Chill coolant additive
Flex-a-Chill coolant additive | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

While some old school mechanics like John Schweitzer tend to refer to this stuff as snake oil, others swear by it, and with class Champion race cars like Mel White’s 1966 Mustang running coolant additives like Flex-a-Chill from FAL, we tend to favor the latter of the two opinions. Simply explained, this unique additive doubles the wetting ability of water, allowing superior heat transfer compared to glycol-based antifreeze, all while cleaning and lubricating water pump seals.

These additives are specifically designed to protect aluminum engine components and radiators from electrolysis, which corrodes parts from the inside out and can cause blockage if contaminates such as calcium and magnesium develop. By adding a bottle of these “bubble busters” to a cooling system, improved contact allows better heat transfer, and can lower coolant temperatures by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Water soluble and inexpensive, tossing a single bottle of this elixir in with 12-16 quarts of fresh coolant will not only make your engine run cooler, but it will help ensure that it lasts longer as well. Just be sure to check that it is compatible with your recommended anti-freeze first, because some of these solutions do not mix well with Dex-Cool.

2. Change will do you good

Add antifreeze
Add antifreeze | PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil via Facebook

Radiator flushes are a strongly recommended and often overlooked aspect of vehicle maintenance in cars, and according to some manufacturers should be conducted annually. Since draining the radiator only removes about 50% of the anti-freeze in a car’s cooling system and leaves the majority of contaminants that have built up, any new anti-freeze added thereafter will mingle with the old and merely “relocate” whatever sediment was left behind. By flushing an engine with four to five gallons of pressurized anti-freeze, you can guarantee that all of the old stuff gets removed along with any buildup hidden inside. While you’re at it, you might as well change your engine oil, transmission fluid, and rear differential juice, as they also help keep temps low by eliminating unnecessary friction.

3. Wrap it up right

Turbo blanket
Turbo blanket | DEI via Facebook

It may sound like a silly backyard quick fix, but wrapping key underhood components with something like DEI’s  Cool Tape is a surprisingly effective approach to keeping heat from frying an engine. Flexible and super strong, these self-adhesive thermal insulating tapes are capable of protecting against 2,000 degrees of radiant heat, and are typically made from an aluminized material that’s been bonded to a woven glass fiber heat resistant matting. Ultra-lightweight and easy to install, this golden heat reflective solution is great for wrapping wires, cables, hoses, fuel lines, and air intake charge pipes, thus earning it high marks with race teams. Want to keep your engine running even cooler? Opt for some thermal exhaust wrap and a turbo blanket and you will keep the hot side of your motor from leaching into the rest of the engine bay.

4. The old thermostat swap

Thermostat | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

When a thermostat gets old and begins to stick, your engine is denied the cooling flow rates that help guarantee heat gets exchanged adequately. By swapping out an old thermostat with a performance version that opens up at a lower temperature, you can circulate anti-freeze faster by merely upgrading to a better design. Inexpensive and easy to replace, this is a great Stage 1 upgrade for anyone looking to lower engine temps.

5. The sprayer approach

Intercooler sprayer
Intercooler sprayer | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

For all the turbocharger and supercharger fans out there, keeping an intercooler refreshed means your engine will be more efficient and powerful. By adding a spray kit that soaks the intercooler’s aluminum core with the flip of a switch, drivers can significantly reduce the charge temperature of the air going into the engine, and thus negate a lot of the heat soak associated with forced induction motors. Just be sure to always use distilled water, as it will not cause corrosion within the folds of the fins nearly as quickly.

6. High flow may be the only way to go

FAL radiator
FAL radiator | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Our final of the day is a bit extreme, but if your radiator is kaput and you want to hold onto your ride, desperate times call for overkill options. By swapping in a fatter, dual core radiator (or better yet, a dual-pass radiator), you expose the coolant within a car to more surface area, which translates to better cooling. Throw in a couple Flex-a-Lite fans to promote even more air movement at standstills, as well as every other cheat on today’s sheet, and you have a cooling system that can successfully beat the heat any day of the year!

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