What to do when your car overheats

A car’s engine can overheat for several reasons, but it’s usually due to a problem with the car’s cooling system. Don’t ignore an overheating engine because doing so could result in permanent damage.

There are three important signs that your engine is overheating: 1) The dashboard engine temperature warning light is on, 2) there is smoke or steam from the engine; or 3) there is a strange burning smell coming from the engine.

“If your car starts to overheat while driving, pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so. If you continue driving with an overheating engine, you could do permanent and/or costly damage to the vehicle,” says Barend Smit, Marketing Director of MotorHappy, a supplier of motor management solutions and car insurance options.

As soon as you notice the car is overheating, take the following steps:

1)      Turn off the engine

Don't ignore the signs that your engine is overheating. Turn off your engine as soon as possible. It may take up to 15 minutes for the car to return to its normal operating temperature. In the meantime, don't attempt to open the hood. Remember that a pressurised cooling system operates at above boiling point, and may cause serious injury to you. 

If you have access to Roadside Assistance, it is a good idea to contact your service provider now. Many Service Plans and Maintenance Plans include roadside assistance.

2)      Power up the heater

Switch on the heater. This might seem counterintuitive, but it cools down your car engine. The heater will pull the warmth away from the engine and into the car. If this works, the temperature warning light on your dashboard will turn off and you can try drive the car again. Ideally, head straight to a professional so they can inspect the vehicle.

3)      Check for a leak in the cooling system

Some problems with radiators are not technical and can be easily identified. Make sure your automobile engine is cooled down completely, and check for any coolant leaks in the hoses and radiator of your car.

4)     Add coolant

Once you have completed your inspection (and have not found any leaks), move on to filling the coolant. Top off the coolant to the maximum level to prevent further problems. However, if a coolant line is clogged or the root of your problem is a damaged radiator fan or leaky water pump, this step will be ineffective. Important: Only open the hood of the car once the engine has cooled down – this could take at least 15 minutes. Remember that surfaces will still be hot.

5)     Take your car to a reputable workshop

Even if you’ve added coolant and the car is running smoothly, take your car to a reputable workshop for a thorough inspection to avoid an expensive engine repair. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge as you drive. If the temperature begins to creep up again, pull over and wait for the engine to cool again.

“Repairing a car’s cooling system is an unexpected cost that most South African households are unprepared for. However, an Extended Warranty through MotorHappy covers major mechanical components for most car brands, including the vehicle’s cooling system,” says Smit.