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How to keep a cool head when your engine is overheating

A car overheating can be a scary experience, but not if you understand what the causes are and know what to do

Car trouble can put a serious damper on any trip, especially if the problem leaves you stranded.

A car overheating can be a scary experience, but not if you understand what the causes are and know what to do, says Motor Industry Workshop Association (MIWA) chairperson, Dewald Ranft.

As a proud affiliate of the Retail Motor Industry Association (RMI), MIWA offers expert tips to motorists to help understand what’s happening when white smoke (steam) starts billowing out from under the bonnet and the temperature needle climbs into the red.

“For as long as there have been cars on the road, motorists have been dealing with engines overheating, so you are by no means an isolated case if this is your car,” Ranft says.

“People are quick to believe the problem is major because smoke coming from the engine and the smell of boiling coolant makes it appear this way, but it isn’t always the case.

“The good news is that most causes of an engine overheating are inexpensive to fix. There are some exceptions, a blown head gasket being one of the more major repairs for an engine overheating,”

DO the following if you notice your engine is overheating:

  • You need to pull over and cut the engine as soon as possible. Until you can pull over safely, turn the air-conditioner off to lower stress on the engine and turn the heater on to help disperse heat away from the engine. Also open all windows.
  • Pull over when it is safe to do so and let the engine cool down for about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge.
  • Check the coolant levels and top up if the level is low, which should help unless the coolant hose is blocked, or your vehicle has a broken radiator fan or water pump. The car’s manual will help you locate the coolant reservoir.
  • If you feel it is not safe to drive or are unsure about topping the coolant up yourself, call for roadside assistance and get your car to an accredited workshop where technicians can perform a diagnostic test to check the car’s cooling system, including the radiator and engine.
  • If you are driving yourself to a workshop, ensure the engine has cooled down sufficiently before restarting the car.

DO NOT do the following:

  • Panic. You need to pull over safely and switch the engine off as soon as possible, so keep a cool head.
  • Keep driving. This could cause major damage, even if you are able to reach a workshop on your own.
  • Open the bonnet immediately. Pop the bonnet from inside the car but don’t try to open it. It will take a good 20 to 30 minutes for the engine to cool down sufficiently without you burning yourself when you touch the bonnet. Check your temperature gauge before opening the bonnet.

If you top up with coolant and it solves the problem, this does not necessarily mean it is fixed. Don’t ignore the issue, especially if it recurs, Ranft says.

“An experienced and reputable workshop technician can get to the root of the problem and help you nip it in the bud before it becomes a massive expense.

“Typically, an engine overheating is caused by an issue with the cooling system which has trapped the heat in the engine compartment instead of letting it escape. This could point to a cooling system leak, faulty radiator fan, clogged coolant hose or broken water pump,” he explains. Ranft says they are finding when customers bring their cars in for a service that the reservoir water bottle is often old and has lost its transparency. This makes it difficult to check coolant levels. It is a simple thing to check and replace if necessary.

“Whatever the cause is, an overheating engine is not something you can ignore. If you do, it could lead to serious engine problems that can put a big dent in your pocket.”