Summer is in full swing, or at least, that is what they tell me. So far this summer has seemed more like a warmer, muggier version of springtime. We have had more rain than sun, and while perfect weather has never been Ohio’s strong suit, this year seems to have been worse than most so far. I would imagine this summer’s weather would make a Washington or Oregon resident feel right at home. Despite the lack of sun, and even the relatively low temperatures we have experienced, I wanted to touch on the importance of your car’s cooling system. In this article, I will explain what it is, why it is important, how it can affect your engine and transmission, and how to keep it maintained.
If you have ever opened the hood on a car that has been running for more than a few minutes, or stood too close to an exhaust pipe, you know that cars generate heat; very large amounts of heat. This heat comes from the burning of gasoline in the engine, and from friction of metal part moving across other parts. Moving parts generate heat from the engine, to the transmission, and even in other parts of the car such as axles and shock-absorbers. Heat is unfortunately a byproduct of all the forces a car has to deal with. While some heat buildup can be a good thing, as it operates your car’s heater, and a warm engine can run more efficiently than a cold one, too much heat can cause premature wear on parts and can result in catastrophic failure of your engine, transmission, and more. In short, heat can be the number one enemy for your car’s vital systems.
Today’s cars and trucks produce more power, run more efficiently, and do more than cars could ever dream of years ago. While some older cars and many motorcycles can get away with just adding fins to an engine and let air keep it cool, the vast majority of engines need a cooling system to help keep temperatures down. These cooling systems use liquid to carry heat away from critical components and shed that head as quickly as possible.
Though cooling systems can vary from one vehicle to the next, most all of them operate in much the same way. Engines are designed with passages for liquid coolant to pass through. This liquid coolant is a mix of water and a synthetic component, antifreeze, which helps keep the water from boiling or freezing. Water is a very efficient coolant, but requires the antifreeze to protect against temperature extremes, and to help lubricate and prevent corrosion on cooling system components. Consult your owner’s manual or Cincinnati Transmission Specialists, Inc. if you have any questions about what coolant your car should be using.
If coolant just stayed in the engine and never moved, it would quickly heat up to the same temperature as the engine and not do any good in keeping heat down. In order to keep the engine cool, the coolant needs to be constantly moving. To do this, engines have a component called a water pump that circulates the coolant throughout the cooling system. As the coolant flows through the engine, it gets rather hot from absorbing the engine’s heat. This heat still needs to go somewhere, and that is where the radiator comes in.
The radiator is a large flat heat-exchanger at the front of the vehicle. Hot coolant is pumped from the engine into the radiator where it circulates through small passages and is cooled by air coming in through the grille. The faster you are moving, the more air passes the radiator, and the more efficiently the system works. However, we are often stuck in traffic or have to move slowly many times. To offset this, most cars have fans, either electric, or driven by the engine, used to help pull more air through the radiator to cool the engine. In the winter, the cold air could prevent the engine from getting warm enough by allowing the coolant to get too cold in the radiator. Most cars have a valve called a thermostat, that stays closed and keeps coolant from circulating through the radiator until the engine is warm. Once the engine is at the proper temperature, the thermostat opens and allows coolant to flow through the radiator to keep things cool.
Engines aren’t the only part of your vehicle that needs to keep its cool. Automatic and CVT transmissions can generate significant amounts of heat as well, and need to keep cool. Most vehicles with automatic transmissions have a cooler built into the radiator that is a separate set of tubes, and transmission fluid is pumped through this cooler to help keep temperatures in check. Some vehicles, such as trucks and SUV’s with towing packages, will have an additional cooler, which looks like a small radiator, to cool the transmission fluid even further.
Your cooling system is fairly simple, but is extremely vital to your car’s function and reliability. In addition to keeping your engine and transmission away from the brink of disaster, coolant is actually routed to a small radiator called a heater core to keep your toes warm in the winter. To keep your engine cool and toes warm, here are a few things you can check to make sure your cooling system is in good shape:
Check that your coolant levels are full and the coolant is clean. Be sure to do this when the engine is completely cool, as coolant operates under pressure and can cause burns. Most cars have coolant in the radiator, which should be completely full at all times, and in an overflow tank, which should have hot and cold marks. If your coolant is low, it could indicate a leak which can cause problems. If it is low, top off with the appropriate coolant and see Cincinnati Transmission Specialists for further diagnosis.
Coolants can come in different colors, ranging from green, to blue, orange, red or pink. All of them should be brightly colored and see-through. If they look dirty or dark, it could mean you are due for a flush and change. If the coolant is thick, milky, or cloudy, it could indicate that the coolant is mixing with engine oil or transmission fluid and needs to be checked immediately. In that case, DO NOT DRIVE the vehicle, and contact Cincinnati Transmission Specialists, Inc. immediately to get the system checked out.
Temperature Gauge or Light
Most cars have a temperature gauge on the dash. If the cooling system is operating properly, this gauge should read at or slightly below the middle after the car has warmed up. If your temperature is staying above or below the middle, you may have a cooling system issue and should have us check it out. If your temperature starts getting significantly high, you should shut off the engine immediately, and contact us here at Cincinnati Transmission Specialists, Inc. to address the issue before it results in engine damage. If you don’t have a gauge, but see a warning light for high engine temperature, you need to shut the car off and consult us for further diagnosis and repair.
Is your car leaving puddles under it when parked? A leaking cooling system can cause engine or transmission failure and should be addressed immediately. If you see puddles or leaks that look or smell like coolant, please see us as soon as possible to help prevent damage to your vehicle. As well, please clean up the spill appropriately, as coolant is highly toxic, but smells and tastes sweet and can attract children or pets who might ingest the toxic fluid.
Because the heater in most cars draws its heat from the cooling system, it can be an indicator of poor cooling system performance. If your heater fails to get warm, it could indicate a blockage or other issue in your cooling system. As well, if it gets excessively hot, or leaks coolant or steam into the car, this could also indicate an issue that needs attention immediately.
A NOTE OF SAFETY
Dealing with the cooling system can have hazards. This is why we recommend letting us to the work for you, to keep you safe. When checking on or addressing the cooling system, only do so when the engine is OFF and COMPLETELY COOLED DOWN. Your cooling system operates under pressure, and stays around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Opening the radiator cap or any other part of the cooling system can result in you being sprayed with a geyser of boiling-hot coolant and can cause sever burns and other injuries. Please be careful, or better yet, leave it to the professionals.
In addition to the risk of burns, there are other hazards. Electric fans found on most cars can kick on without warning, even with the engine turned off. This can be hazardous and can result in injuries from the spinning fan blades. Always steer clear of the fan blades. Also, most antifreeze and coolant is extremely toxic, and can kill pets and children. Unfortunately, coolant also smells and tastes sweet, and looks like Kool-Aid. To prevent accidental poisoning, clean up any spills immediately, and keep unused coolant sealed up and out of reach of children and pets.