What To Do When Your Car Overheats

We’ve all seen it in the movies: steam pouring out a car’s engine while the driver frantically opens his the hood and stares in bewilderment at the smoke billowing out. While movies tend dramatize a lot of things, reality in this case isn’t too far off.

If your engine’s overheating, you may very well see steam coming from it. That or you may just see your engine temperature gauge creep dangerously into the “red zone.” Whatever the case, it’s important to know what to do if your engine overheats. If you happen to come across that situation, here’s what you should do:

Step 1 – If you see steam, pull over immediately

If you see any steam coming from your engine, then it’s surely overheating. The steam may not come out in plumes like it does in the movies, but if you see any traces of steam pull over right away.

Step 2 – Turn off the A/C, and turn on the heater

If you want to err on the side of caution, skip to step 3 below. But know that older cars can slightly overheat on hot days and may simply need a breather. If you’ve had the air conditioning on, turn it off and see if this helps. If that doesn’t do the trick, turn on your heater.

While uncomfortable, doing so transfers the heat away from your engine and into the car’s passenger compartment. If these measures don’t solve the problem, then you may have a more serious problem that should be addressed by a mechanic.

Step 3 – Pull over and shut off the engine

Find a safe place to pull over and shut off your engine. Make sure to shut off the engine immediately, as an idling engine can continue to overheat. At this point, if you don’t want to get your hands dirty and do some troubleshooting yourself, you should get roadside assistance.

Step 4 – Let the engine cool and then open the hood

Be careful here! Make sure you allow sufficient time for the engine’s hood and engine to cool off before raising the hood. Once you open the hood make sure to stand back when you do so – coming into contact with the steam can cause severe burns. One way to tell how hot the steam is, is to release the hood without raising it. This will give you a sense of the engine’s temperature.

Step 5 – Check the coolant levels

After you’re certain the engine’s cooled off, pop the hood completely open and check the coolant reservoir level (check your owner’s manual for the coolant reservoir’s location). The reservoir is usually made out of plastic and the coolant level should be visible below the reservoir’s cap. If the coolant levels are normal, then your engine may be fine. You may just have a faulty temperature gauge.

If there are no other signs of overheating, you can restart your engine and begin driving with caution. However, if the coolant is low or empty, you may have a coolant leak. If this is the case, getting roadside assistance is strongly advised, as fixing a coolant leak is a tougher job.

Step 6 – If you need to continue driving

Make sure your engine has cooled off. Then, using a rag or towel to protect your hand, remove the radiator cap. Normally, coolant is visible below the cap. But if your engine’s overheating, it’s likely depleted. Refill the radiator and reservoir with coolant. If you don’t have extra coolant, fill the radiator with water.

This should lower the engine’s temperature – but make sure to keep a close eye on the engine temperature gauge once you’re back on the road. If you see the engine’s temperature start to creep up while driving, you’ll need to pull over again and refill the radiator with either coolant or water. This is not a long-term solution, but rather a temporary fix. If this is the problem you’re facing, you’ll want to have a mechanic fix the issue as soon as possible.