What Does a Radiator Do?
Modern combustion engines produce heat as they run. A vehicle’s radiator cools the engine and prevents it from overheating, which can result in extensive damage to the car. The engine uses coolant to absorb heat, and then it transfers the coolant to the radiator to cool down. Once the coolant has distributed the heat through the radiator, it is sent back to the engine to start the process over. Sometimes the radiator doesn’t do its job. If a car chronically overheats or if a faulty radiator is suspected, it may be time to take it to a professional auto repair shop to diagnose and fix the problem. Here are a few signs that a car’s radiator is clogged or needs replacement.
Symptoms of a Clogged or Bad Radiator
When a radiator is clogged or not working correctly, the engine overheats. Overheating can result in extensive, irreversible damage to the engine if not taken care of promptly.
High Temperature-Gauge Readings
A properly working radiator keeps an engine from overheating. If the temperature-gauge reading on the driver display indicates that the engine is operating at higher temperatures than usual, something is wrong with the radiator. Make sure to carefully monitor the temperature of the engine, especially if the needle is in the “red” zone. Newer vehicles may display the temperature digitally and warn drivers if the engine is running too hot. Keep in mind that your vehicle can overheat, even in the winter! Check out our post on common automotive issues during winter to learn more.
Typically, engines run between 195 and 220 degrees Fahrenheit. Occasionally a car will run a bit hotter during summer months, but if the engine is consistently running hot, the radiator may be clogged. Radiators get clogged due to rust, internal deposit buildup, or from debris getting stuck in the radiator. Clogged radiators cannot correctly cool an engine down, and it’s essential to clear out the source of any clogs to protect the engine.
If a radiator rusts, it can become clogged due to rust buildup. The clog can cause tiny cracks and holes to develop on the housing or cooling fins in the radiator. If this happens, small drops of coolant may appear on the driveway. Radiator rust is usually due to low-quality coolant or the addition of tap water instead of distilled water in the coolant mix. Tap water has more contaminants than distilled water. Additionally, radiator flushes must be done regularly to avoid permanent rust damage to the radiator tank.
Coolant leaks, even seemingly insignificant ones, can illuminate the low-coolant light on the driver display. If the leak is not fixed as soon as possible, the radiator may malfunction, resulting in an overheated and damaged engine.
Most vehicle coolant is bright green or yellow. A functioning radiator and coolant system will allow the coolant to flow freely through the radiator and coolant passages. However, if the radiator has built-up internal deposits or sludge, the coolant will discolor. The easiest way to check the coolant is to look at the coolant overflow tank. If the coolant seems to be a rusty or oil-like color, the radiator likely needs to be flushed.
Contaminated coolant is thicker than it should be and does not easily flow throughout the vehicle’s cooling system. Contaminated coolant can clog the radiator and result in the engine overheating. If the vehicle’s coolant is suspected to be contaminated, it should be flushed immediately. If the vehicle’s transmission cooler is located within the radiator and begins to leak, the transmission fluid may combine with the coolant. This combination can result in even further damage to both the transmission and engine.
Blocked Radiator Fins
Thin fin tubes run across the front of a radiator to cool the hot coolant. As the car operates, the radiator fan pushes air from outside onto the fins to lower the coolant’s temperature. If the fins are blocked by outside debris such as bugs, leaves, or dirt, the coolant cannot cool as much as it needs to. Most vehicles have enough access to the radiator fins that they can be cleared with a garden hose’s spray nozzle. Just wash off any debris blocking the front of the radiator. If removing the blockage does not fix the issue, the car may need to be taken into a professional auto repair shop for diagnosis.
Bent or Damaged Radiator Fins
Airflow in the radiator can be blocked by debris, but it can also be blocked by bent or damaged fins in the radiator. Something as small as a rock can bend or damage the fragile radiator fins. It’s even possible to damage a radiator fin by using too much water pressure when clearing debris from the radiator. If enough fins are damaged on the radiator, the engine can overheat. Be sure to have new radiators installed by a professional, or, at the very least, someone with experience. Improper installation of new radiators can result in extensive damage to the fins.
Passenger Side Heat Not Working
A vehicle’s cabin heater works by passing hot coolant through the heater core. A blower fan blows that warm air into the cabin. However, if the radiator is clogged or if coolant is leaking, not enough coolant goes to the heater core. If the passenger area of the vehicle’s cabin won’t warm up properly, it’s possible that the car’s radiator needs work. It’s also possible that the car’s thermostat is faulty, but a reputable mechanic should be able to diagnose and fix the problem.
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