The sun’s out and the warm weather feels nice on your skin. You’re ready to head out on an adventure in your car but your plans are foiled as you see what looks like steam or smoke coming from your engine. Uh oh. Time to pull over. If you find yourself in this situation, here’s what to do when your car overheats and what may cause it.
Why your car may be overheating
If your car is overheating, it’s likely you have an issue with your engine and its cooling system. Your car’s engine can get extremely hot, with combustion chamber temperatures going up to a scorching 4500 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of that, all the cooling systems need to work properly to divert the heat away from the engine. So what happens when a car overheats? It could be one of the following:
- Your cooling system isn’t working properly, which may be caused by a leak
- Defective water pump
- Insufficient amount of oil
- Clogged or worn out hoses or belts
- Radiator issues
If you suspect your car is overheating, you want to stop it quickly as it could permanently damage your engine.
How to know if your car is overheating
There are some telltale signs you should be aware of if you think your car is overheating. These include:
- Check engine light is activated
- There’s an odd smell coming from your engine, which can be a sweet aroma if your coolant is leaking or burnt if there is oil leaking
- Steam which can appear to be white smoke rising from the hood of your car
- The temperature gauge for your engine reads “H” or is in the red (can vary by car, so check your owner’s manual)
If your car is showing any of these signs, below is what to do when your car overheats and what to avoid.
What to do when your car overheats
If your car is oozing steam and smoke, it can feel alarming and dangerous. While scary, try to remain calm. Here are some tips for what to do when your car overheats.
Step 1: Pull over
If your car is overheating, the first thing you want to do is to pull over. If you’re on the highway or on a busy street, it may be difficult, but get off at the next exit or onto a shoulder (if it’s safe) and turn off your car so you stop using the engine. To allow your engine to fully cool off, keep the car off for at least 15 minutes.
During this time, look at the temperature gauge for your engine and hopefully, it moves away from “H” or red as it begins to cool. To get the issue checked out, call roadside assistance if that’s an option or a friend or family member who can help.
Step 2: Turn off the air conditioning and run the heat
If you can’t pull over right away and your air conditioning is on, turn it off. Then, run the heat. It can seem counterintuitive but having the heater on can take some of the heat from the engine and reroute it. While it may mean the inside of your car is hotter, doing that can help limit the damage to your engine.
Step 3: Review your coolant levels
As noted above, your car overheating may be due to a coolant leak. Once you’re pulled over safely, review your coolant levels. If the coolant levels are low and you have some coolant on hand, add some coolant to tide you over until you get to the root of the issue.
This step may help but if your car is overheating because of a hose or radiator issue, it won’t be the band-aid you need in this situation.
Step 4: Turn your car back on and drive to a mechanic
After allowing your car time to cool down after 15 minutes or more and adding coolant, turn your car back on and head to a mechanic. If your gauge indicates more overheating, you may need to pull over again and get a tow to safely fix your car.
What to avoid if your car is overheating
Having white hot smoke or steam coming out of the hood of your car feels ominous. You don’t want to make it worse, so here’s what to avoid if your car is overheating.
Ignore the issue
When you’re driving, you’re typically headed somewhere unless you’re going for a joyride. It’s inconvenient to deal with an issue like your car overheating and you may want to ignore it and continue driving. Pro tip: don’t. If you want to salvage your engine and maintain your safety, you want to stop driving ASAP.
Not getting it checked out
Using the steps listed above, you know what to do when cars overheat. But adding coolant or pulling over is a temporary fix. Even if things improve after that, you want to address what’s really happening and fix the issue. Not getting your car checked out after it overheats is a definite don’t.
Avoid panic driving
If you see smoke coming from your car, it can feel scary. But avoid panic driving as it can compromise your safety. Don’t excessively speed or change lanes too quickly in an attempt to pull over.
Don’t open the car hood right away
When you’re safely pulled over, it’s natural to want to assess what’s going on and check your engine. But you don’t want to open the car hood right away and risk being burned. As recommended, wait 15 minutes and check the gauge beforehand so you don’t put yourself in danger.
How to prevent your car engine from overheating
Dealing with an engine that’s overheating can feel like flirting with disaster and something you want to avoid at all costs. To prevent your car from overheating, regular car maintenance is key. You can:
- Maintain coolant levels
- Get a coolant flush
- Do regular radiator check-ups
- Perform routine car inspections
Maintenance can lead to prevention, which is always easier and more cost-effective compared to treating an issue.
The bottom line
What happens when a car overheats can feel scary if you’re behind the wheel. Taking the steps above, you can know what to do when your car overheats and take appropriate action. As part of your car safety, make sure you have appropriate car insurance coverage. Metromile offers roadside assistance and pay-per-mile coverage, so you pay based on the miles you drive. You pay for gas by the gallon, why not pay for insurance by the miles you drive? Grab your free quote with Metromile today.
Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer, podcast host of the Mental Health and Wealth show, and author of Dear Debt. She’s a cat mom to two jazzy cats, Miles and Thelonious, an amateur boxer, music lover, and needs coffee to function.