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Keep Your Cooling System Cool

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author photo by Peter D. duPre April 2008

Although most people generally welcome the warm days of summer, it can mean disaster for your car. Warm-weather driving places an extra strain on the cooling system and unless it is operating at peak efficiency, that extra stress can mean overheating.

Just because your vehicle isn't experiencing overheating problems now doesn't mean the cooling system is okay. Cooling system components-radiator, radiator cap, coolant, recovery tank, hoses, clamps and drive belts-receive a lot of wear and tear. According to Nick Gulli, marketing manager of replacement products for Goodyear's Engineered Products business, overheating can occur at any time of year, especially during warmer weather.

"Overheating caused by a faulty fan belt or a broken radiator hose can give motorists problems in the fall and winter, though summertime sees the most problems," says Gulli.

"Almost nine out of ten radiator hose and fan belt failures create an emergency situation," adds Gulli. "They frequently happen far enough away from home that they increase both the cost and inconvenience of repairs, as well as ruin a family vacation."

Under the Weather
Drive belts, fan belts and hoses are vital parts of the cooling system, transferring engine power to the alternator, air conditioning compressor, radiator fan (on older vehicles), water pump and other items. When a belt failure occurs, power cannot be transferred to these components; the resulting battery discharge and/or overheating can leave you stranded.

Hoses transport thousands of gallons of hot, pressurized coolant through the radiator every hour and serve as shock absorbers between the engine and the cooling system connections, preventing them from possible damage. When a hose fails, boiling coolant bursts through the fissure and without this vital cooling, the engine overheats.

So why do hoses and belts fail more often than other components? Heat. Under-hood temperatures during summer driving often exceed 280 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat from within the cooling system and under the hood breaks down the coolant, hoses and belts, putting a strain on the water pump and clogging radiator and engine passages with impurities and debris that cause corrosion. When enough degradation occurs, any additional stress-such as low speed, high rpm driving (as when towing uphill)-may cause overheating that can result in major engine damage.

Check It Out
To avoid expensive and troublesome repairs, Goodyear and Gulli suggest taking your vehicle to a qualified service center and have the cooling system checked for potential problems. Apart from inspecting the belts and hoses for wear and tear, the technician will check the coolant for acidity and its ability to withstand low temperatures without freezing, as well as the integrity of the overflow tank. He will also check the thermostat and pressure test the system to make sure it is in good working order.

Have the belts and hoses checked every six months or so. While you can take the vehicle in for these checks, it's easy to do at home. No tools are required. With the vehicle parked and the engine off, simply lift the hood and check the hoses for cracks, bulges, splits, hardness or sponginess. Give them a squeeze between your thumb and forefinger. They should feel firm and pliant. Any hose that feels hard, brittle, spongy, mushy or looks swollen should be replaced, as should rusted, sprung or distorted clamps holding them in place.

Drive belts generally last longer than hoses, but they don't last forever. Check for chunking, splits, cracks, or fraying and have them replaced every 40,000 miles or two years, regardless of appearance. The two-year rule is important because many of the new-composition drive belts don't show any signs of wear until they fail.

Have the tension checked when the belts are inspected. Incorrect tension is the main cause of belt failure. A loose belt will slip, become glazed, and won't drive the water pump or alternator. You could end up with an overheated car and a dead battery.

Belts that are too tight usually crack on the underside and eventually break. Tight belts put extra stress on the water pump, alternator, and air conditioning compressor, causing them to wear prematurely. To check belt tension, simply push down on the belt with your thumb. (Make sure the engine is off.) The belt should flex about 3/4 of an inch. If it moves less or more than this, get it adjusted.

Coolant, a mixture of ethylene glycol and water, breaks down with age, picking up impurities and becoming diluted. Have it changed every two years or 24,000 miles to ensure it is in good condition. If you do the job yourself, take care not to spill any. Coolant is toxic and will pollute the water table. Take used coolant to a recycling center.

Cool Tips
Here are a few additional tips to help keep your car and your temper cool:

  1. Keep a spare drive belt, gallon of coolant, stop leak and vinyl tape in the trunk for emergencies.
  2. If the car is running hot, turn off the air conditioner, open the windows and turn on the heater. It may be uncomfortable, but it will help cool the engine.
  3. Turn off the air conditioning when climbing long hills, especially if towing.
  4. If you own an older vehicle or frequently drive in dusty conditions, get the engine steam cleaned. Baked-on grease and dirt keep engine heat in, making the cooling system work harder.

Peter duPre has been writing about cars and car care for over 30 years. He has authored automotive technical manuals and been published in numerous automotive magazines.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Keep Your Cooling System Cool - Autotrader