Radiator – Common engine overheating causes and consequences.

Radiator - Common engine overheating causes and consequences.
Radiator - Common engine overheating causes and consequences.

Your car radiator, allows your engine, to operate within a “normal” temperature range; of about 195 to 220 degrees F.

But, as efficient as today’s engines are; they still waste a lot of the heat energy they produce.

Above all, the most common problem, a car radiator falls prey to is, clogging; (both internally and externally) as well as, all the possible leak locations.

So, the average gasoline engine, is only about 22 to 28 percent efficient. Ironically, the hotter an engine runs, the more efficient it becomes. But, there’s a limit, because aluminum pistons and heads, can only get so hot; before they soften and melt.

Radiator - Overheating, Causes, Consequences And Maintenance
Melted Piston

The same goes for cast iron. Engineers have been tinkering with exotic ceramic materials and metallic-ceramic alloys; in an attempt to build high-temperature, super efficient engines. They’ve realized some significant gains, but, ceramics are still too expensive for everyday applications.

So, How Hot Is Too Hot

Temperature Gauge Reading Too Hot
Temperature Gauge Reading Too Hot

A relatively constant operating temperature, is absolutely essential for proper emissions control, good fuel economy and performance.

A 50/50 mixture of water and ethylene glycol antifreeze in the cooling system, will boil at 225 degrees. A radiator cap rated at 15 psi will, increase the boiling temperature, of a 50/50 mixture, up to 265 degrees.

Piston-to-cylinder clearances are much tighter, to reduce blow-by for lower emissions. Valve stem-to-guide clearances are also closer, to reduce oil consumption and emissions. Plus, many engines today, have aluminum heads with overhead cams. Such engines don’t handle higher than normal temperatures well. As a result, they are very vulnerable, to heat damage. That’s why, anytime temperatures climb beyond the normal range; the engine is running, in the danger zone.

Consequences, Of Your Radiator, Overheating

If the engine overheats, the first thing that will happen is, a gasoline engine will start to detonate. The engine will ping and start to lose power, under load. Because, the combination of heat and pressure, exceed the octane rating of the fuel. If the detonation problem persists; the hammer-like blows, may damage the rings, pistons or rod bearings.

Overheating can also cause, pre-ignition. Hot spots develop inside the combustion chamber; that become a source of ignition for the fuel. The erratic combustion can cause detonation; as well as engine run-on, in older vehicles with carburetors. Hot spots, can also be very damaging and burn holes, right through the top of pistons.

A blown head gasket, can also be a result of overheating. Heat makes aluminum swell, almost three times faster, than cast iron.

Radiator - Overheating, Causes, Consequences And Maintenance
Blown Head Gasket

The resulting stress, can distort the head and make it swell, in areas that the are hottest. Like those between exhaust valves, in adjoining cylinders. Also, areas that have restricted coolant flow, like the narrow area that separates the cylinders. The typical aluminum head, swells most in the middle, which can crush the head gasket. This will cause a loss of torque in the gasket, allowing coolant and combustion leaks to occur.

Overheating, Is Also A Common Cause Of, OHC Seizure And Breakage

If the coolant gets hot enough to boil; it may cause old hoses or an age-weakened radiator to burst. Pistons may swell up and scuff or seize in their bores, causing serious engine damage. Exhaust valve stems, may stick or scuff in their guides. This, in turn, may cause valves to hang open; which can damage pistons, valves and other valvetrain components. Finally, if coolant gets into the crankcase; you can kiss the bearings and bottom end of the engine goodbye.

Cylinder Head With Broken Camshaft
Cylinder Head With Broken Camshaft

Never ignore a warning lamp or gauge, showing a high temperature reading. Advise your customers to stop driving at the first sign of overheating. Turn the engine off, let it cool down, and try to find and fix the cause; before risking further travel.

Common Causes, Of Car Radiator Overheating:

  • Low coolant level.
  • Loss of coolant (through internal or external leaks).
  • Poor heat conductivity, inside the engine; because of accumulated deposits in the water jackets.
  • A defective thermostat, that doesn’t open.
  • Poor airflow, through the radiator.
  • A slipping, fan clutch.
  • An inoperative, electric cooling fan.
  • A collapsed, lower radiator hose.
  • An eroded or loose water pump impeller.
  • Even a defective, radiator cap.

Heat always flows, from an area of higher temperature, to an area of lesser temperature. The only way to cool hot metal, therefore; is to keep it in constant contact, with a cooler liquid.

So, the only way to do that is, to keep the coolant in constant circulation.

As soon as the circulation stops, temperatures begin to rise and the engine starts, to overheat. The coolant also has to get rid of the heat it soaks up; while passing through the block and head(s). So, the radiator must be capable of doing its job; which requires the help of an efficient engine cooling fan. Finally, the thermostat must be doing its job, to keep the engine’s average temperature, within the normal range. Consequently, if the thermostat fails to open; it will effectively block the flow of coolant and the engine will overheat.

What To Check, When It Comes To Maintenance, Of Your Radiator:

Thermostat Issues

Always Replace The Thermostat If The Radiator Overheats
Always Replace The Thermostat If The Radiator Overheats

Because, severe overheating can often damage, a good thermostat. So, if the engine has overheated, replace the thermostat. The hose should not feel uncomfortably hot, until the engine has warmed-up and the thermostat opens. If the hose does not get hot, it means the thermostat, is not opening.

On newer vehicles with computerized engine controls, the wrong thermostat; can prevent the computer system from going into closed loop. Resulting in, major performance and emission problems. Because, the engine failed to reach its, normal operating temperature.

Cooling System Leaks

Loss of coolant, because of a leak, is a common cause of overheating. Possible leak points include:

  • Hoses.
  • Radiator.
  • Heater core.
  • Water pump.
  • Thermostat housing.
  • Head gasket.
  • Freeze plugs.
  • Automatic transmission oil cooler.
  • Cylinder head(s) and block.

Make a careful visual inspection, of the entire cooling system. Next, pressure test the cooling system and radiator cap.

Cooling Fans

With mechanical fans, a faulty fan clutch, causes most overheating problems. With electric fans, check to see that the fan cycles on, when the engine gets hot. If the fan fails to come on, check the fan motor wiring connections, relay and temperature sensor. Try jumping the fan, directly from the battery. If it runs, the problem is in the wiring, relay or sensor.

Water Pumps

Any wobble in the pump shaft or seepage, would call for replacement. The wrong pump, may also cause an engine to overheat. Some engines with serpentine drive belts, require a special water pump, that turns in the opposite direction.

Belts And Hoses

Check belt tension and condition. A loose belt that slips, may prevent the water pump from; circulating coolant or the fan from, turning fast enough. Recommend new hoses, if the old ones are over 5 years old. Sometimes a lower radiator hose will collapse, under vacuum at high speed. This can happen if, the reinforcing spring inside the hose, is missing or damaged.

Car Radiator

Radiator - Overheating, Causes, Consequences And Maintenance
Clogged Radiator Fins

The most common problems radiators fall prey to are; clogging (both internal and external) and leaks. Dirt, bugs and debris, can block air flow through the core. As a result, reducing the radiator’s ability, to dissipate heat. Internal corrosion and an accumulation of deposits; can likewise inhibit coolant circulation and reduce cooling. A good way to find clogs is to use; an infrared thermometer, to “scan” the surface of the radiator.

Back flushing the cooling system and/or using chemical cleaners, can remove rust and hard water scale. When refilling the cooling system, be sure you get it, completely full. Air pockets in the head(s), heater core and below the thermostat; can interfere with, proper coolant circulation and cooling. You may have to temporarily loosen a heater hose, to get all the air out of the system.

Excessive Exhaust Back Pressure

A clogged catalytic converter, is usually the culprit here. But, don’t overlook the possibility, of a crushed pipe. Check intake vacuum at idle. Finally, if it reads low and continues to drop, inspect the exhaust system.

Retarded Or Over Advanced Ignition Timing

May also contribute, to detonation and preignition.

Dragging Brakes

So, a caliper that’s sticking or a parking brake that isn’t releasing; may be making the engine work too hard.

Keeping Tabs on the Heat

So, one tip is to look for, heat tabs on the engine. While OE engines do not have them, remanufactured engines; usually have the tabs installed by the rebuilder. So, heat tabs are designed to melt, if the engine has overheated. Consequently, overheating indicates lack of customer care, and often voids a manufacturer’s warranty.

OE Problem Or User Neglect

Overheating problems, which generally fall into the categories of either; user or technician responsibility include the following:

  1. Older copper and aluminum radiators, tend to get clogged.
  2. Thermostats, either installed improperly or sticking closed.
  3. Failure to replace older or failing pumps or install a new pump properly.
  4. Heater core leaking, a common problem.
  5. Coolant leaks from either hose connections or from the cylinder head, due to overheating.
  6. Bad radiator hoses or belts.
Adding New Engine Coolant
Adding New Engine Coolant

Car owners frequently, don’t maintain their cooling systems, as well as they should. So, every two years or 30,000 miles coolant should be replaced. Also, the mixture of antifreeze and water, should always be 50/50. A mixture with more than 50 percent antifreeze, will cause the coolant to not perform properly. And, with less than 50 percent, the engine can freeze and crack.


So, a radiator is important because, it is the only way your engine, vents heat during operation. Finally, the most common cause of radiator malfunction, is physical damage.

Thank You !