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Why is My Vehicle Overheating?

If you find yourself on the side of the road with your engine billowing steam, you’ll certainly want to know why your vehicle’s overheating.

Plenty of things can lead to your car overheating. However, diagnosing the cause might be difficult if you’re not an auto technician.

That said, we’ve come up with a few reasons that might be a little easier to figure out. Pull over and keep your cool while we examine ways to prevent your car from overheating and what to do if it does.

Let’s get started!

What Are the Signs My Vehicle is Overheating?

Overheating engines are a real drag when you’re on a trip. But, if you catch it quickly enough, you can save yourself from costly engine repairs or the need to purchase a new car. 

If you notice your car losing power, check the temperature gauge on the dashboard. If the needle is moving towards red, your engine is overheating. You may also see a warning light indicating that your car is experiencing trouble.

In addition, engine noises, unusual smells or steam, and smoke are telltale signs of an engine overheating. Pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Pro Tip: Is your pesky check engine light on? Use these tips on How to Easily Reset Your Check Engine Light.

Man repairing after car overheated
Nothing can kill a road trip faster than an overheating car engine.

Common Reasons For Vehicles Overheating  

A vehicle’s engine might overheat for several reasons. Most issues are related to an obstacle or failure preventing coolant from traveling to the radiator to release heat.

Some problems are quick fixes, such as refilling your antifreeze. However, other issues may cause permanent damage if they’re not addressed by a professional.

Below are common factors that can cause a car to overheat.

Cooling System Failure

The most common cooling system problems fall into three categories, overcooling, high heat, and noise. 

The fourth problem is the internal engine overheating. This is serious and can result in burned valves, scuffed pistons, or rings.

A cooling system failure is one of the worst things that could happen to your engine. If you don’t take immediate measures, you risk damaging your vehicle’s engine permanently.

Such damage may include a blown head gasket, a cracked block, or a seized engine. If this happens, a costly replacement is often the only solution.

Not Enough Oil

Burning smells from your engine could indicate that your oil is low. While it isn’t likely the primary source of the problem, depleted engine oil can contribute to overheating. 

Engine oil helps the cooling process and prevents excessive heat build-up. It also keeps parts of the engine lubricated and reduces friction and vehicle overheating. 

It’s a good idea to always keep an extra quart or two in your car or RV. And proper maintenance, including regular oil changes, can help you prevent this issue.

Bad Belts or Hoses 

The cause of many overheated engines can be traced back to belts or hoses that don’t work properly.

The belts and hoses in your vehicle are critical to the cooling, air conditioning, and charging systems. Belts transmit power from the front of the engine to the air conditioning, fans, and other electrical components. Accordingly, the hoses carry coolant to and from the engine, radiator, and heater.

Regular checkups of belts and hoses can help ensure your car stays cool and runs for many miles. 

Bad Thermostat

As with any part of your car, the thermostat can fail and damage the engine. The thermostat regulates coolant and helps keep your vehicle’s engine from overheating. So, if this part goes out, the coolant will not be able to pass through the system.

You may have a bad thermostat if you notice unusual gauge readings, changes in cabin temperature, coolant leakage, or strange noises from the engine compartment.

If this happens, get to a mechanic quickly and have this addressed.

Radiator Issues

Radiators help to reduce heat from the engine by decreasing coolant temperatures. 

A malfunctioning fan may reduce your radiator’s ability to remove heat. A failure here can cause extreme temperature increases.

Additionally, driving with insufficient levels of anti-freeze may cause radiator failure. If the coolant levels are low, refill the radiator with new fluid. 

Make sure to use a 50/50 mix of anti-freeze and water. If you’re unsure where the reservoir tank is or how to refill it, refer to your vehicle owner’s manual. We suggest checking your vehicle’s coolant and oil levels at least monthly to avoid overheating.

Faulty Water Pump

Your engine’s water pump is essential to your car’s cooling system. Its job is to control the flow of coolant through the whole system. When your water pump is compromised by corrosion or contamination, the pump may stop working correctly. 

If you hear a growling or whining noise, it could be the fan. If not addressed, the water pump may seize up, resulting in more problems, especially if the pump is belt-driven.

A leaking water pump doesn’t provide proper coolant circulation and can also keep the heater from working. Additionally, if the pump is leaking, you may see a puddle of coolant under your car or a film on the engine. 

What Should I Do if My Vehicle is Overheating?

If you’re in an overheated vehicle, do not try to drive farther. 

If it’s not possible to come to a complete stop in a safe area, continue slowly to a safe place. Keeping the vehicle moving at low speeds will help the motor to cool naturally. 

But, don’t leave the engine running while stopped, as it may worsen the problem. So, pull over when you can and turn the vehicle off. Don’t try to open the hood of your car until it has cooled down. Allow up to 30 minutes for the motor to cool and the system to depressurize.

Turning the heater on high may help to pull additional heat away from the engine. Additionally, rolling down the windows helps dissipate heat.

If you can, call for service or roadside assistance. Even after it cools down, unless it was an obvious problem that you were able to resolve, it’s best not to drive your vehicle.

Pro Tip: Protect you car engine by discovering Should You Warm Up Your Engine Before Driving?

A smoky car engine overheating
When in doubt, call a mechanic to get your car engine fixed fast.

Vehicle Overheating? Keep Calm and Call a Mechanic

We know it’s frustrating and scary to see smoke coming from under the hood. However, overheated engines are something many of us will run into, especially RVing across the country.

Most of the time, the solution is a simple and low-cost repair. Unfortunately, people often take their cooling system for granted, leading to more extensive and expensive repairs.

Regular maintenance checks can help identify problems early and prevent permanent damage to your vehicle. And if your vehicle does overheat, don’t panic. Just pull over and run through our list of issues above. Then take it to a mechanic as soon as you can.

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