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Keeping Your Cool Essential Steps for Dealing with an Overheated Engine (2)
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BDR Automotive

Keeping Your Cool: Essential Steps for Dealing with an Overheated Engine

Your engine may have lost its cool, but you need to keep yours! Drive carefully until you find a safe place to pull over.


Engines can overheat for several reasons. Something has gone wrong with the cooling system and heat is not escaping the engine compartment. The coolant (antifreeze) may be leaking, a radiator fan may not be working properly, a water pump may have broken, or you may have a clogged coolant hose.

Whatever the reason, an overheating engine can cause serious damage. Here’s what to do and what not to do…

Immediately after the engine overheats  

Turn off the air conditioner. This reduces stress on the overheated engine and cooling system.

  1. Turn up the heat. This helps draw heat away from the overheated engine.
  2. Find a safe place to pull over and shut off the engine. Release the hood. However, allow the engine to cool for at least 15 minutes before opening the hood. You risk being burned if you open the hood too soon. Wait until the gauge is in the normal range or the warning light is out before opening the hood.
  3. Locate the radiator fluid reservoir. This is usually a white tank. Inspect the fluid level on the side of the reservoir. The level should be between the low and full marks. If the level is below the low mark, add more coolant (when the engine has cooled down!) 
  4. If you do not have coolant to top off the reservoir, Call AAA or BDR Automotive. Inform them of the coolant level and ask them to bring coolant to your location.
  5. Wait at least 30 minutes and then carefully restart the engine. It typically takes this long for the engine to cool down completely. Drive to the nearest repair shop, keeping an eye on the gauge. If the vehicle begins to overheat again, pull over and call for a tow.

Don’t continue to drive to your destination.

Your overheated engine may be running but it needs to be looked at. You risk permanently damaging the engine and incurring expensive repairs if you keep driving. 

Tell-tale signs of an engine about to overheat.

  1. You may smell leaking radiator coolant (antifreeze) which emits a sweet odor.
  2. Steam that looks like smoke may be seen coming out from under the hood.
  3. The engine temperature gauge moves to HOT (H) or into the red zone. (Vehicle symbols vary; familiarize yourself with your vehicle’s temperature gauge by consulting the owner’s manual.) The “check engine” or “temperature’ light on the instrument panel of your vehicle will come on.

Preventing an overheated engine.

Your engine’s cooling system is controlled by the vehicle’s thermostat. It keeps coolant circulating through the engine and radiator. This reduces heat levels and protects against corrosion.

If the cooling system isn’t functioning properly, the engine temperature gets too hot. Proper maintenance of the cooling system is the answer to optimizing performance and long life of your engine while helping to prevent overheating.

Check the coolant level

Every few months or before you embark on a long road trip, check the level of the coolant in the radiator reservoir. Check your owner’s manual to determine when you need to replace the coolant. When it is time to do this, your automotive technician will:

  • Completely drain and dispose of the used radiator fluid.
  • Fill the radiator and reservoir with fresh coolant that meets or exceeds your manufacturer’s specifications.
  • Inspect the engine’s cooling system’s seals, gaskets, and hoses for wear, and leaks.
  • With your OK, replace any parts that need replacing.

The best way to reduce the risk of irreversible engine damage is to have regular coolant (antifreeze) flushes and replacement. Staying current with radiator maintenance and routine inspections will go a long way to fixing potential radiator or engine issues before they become worse on-the-road situations.

If you have questions about getting your vehicle road ready, or if you want to make an appointment to have BDR Automotive give your car or truck a pre-vacation maintenance check, call 508-429-4720 or schedule an appointment online. Let us service your vehicle for your next road trip.

Jarred McGee
Jarred is not only an amazingly competent and capable technician, he is a confident leader and source of incredible knowledge. Known for being a tireless and dedicated technician, he is always friendly and professional, always willing to go the extra mile to ensure BDR customers leave with peace of mind about their vehicle. Jarred attended Mass Bay Community College where he earned his Associates Degree in Automotive Technology. He went on to receive a Toyota T-TEN Certificate while working in Toyota’s dealership system. Jarred has also worked at an auto-body repair shop that specialized in complex high-end vehicles such as the Tesla.

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