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Helping engine keep its cool too

As temperatures soar, the risk of being stranded with radiator problems rises. Now may be time for a checkup.

August 20, 2003|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

If you've ever had the misfortune of seeing clouds of steam billow from your vehicle while driving on the freeway or stuck in city traffic, you know what a nightmare it is when your car or truck overheats.

Although it can happen anytime of the year, the chances of getting stranded with radiator problems are far greater during the summer. With temperatures soaring into the high 90s and low 100s this season, motorists should make sure their radiators and cooling systems have been maintained properly to reduce the risk of overheating.

The National Radiator Service Assn. recommends that drivers have their vehicles' cooling systems -- particularly their radiators -- checked by a mechanic at least once a year, spokesman Michael Corwin said. Neglecting such care can lead to unexpected problems and breakdowns that can be expensive to solve.

Most people don't do all the necessary diagnostic work to keep their vehicles running cool, said Rose Colmar, president of 1-800-Radiator, a Benicia, Calif.-based supplier of radiator parts.

"Usually people realize they have a problem when it is too late

"We've been getting about 5,000 calls a day from around the country, many from the Los Angeles area.... Their vehicle is overheated, they have a radiator problem or their radiator is already dead," Colmar said.

As Corwin noted, a "car's engine generates enough heat to destroy itself," so it's important that the cooling system -- including the radiator, thermostat, fans and hoses -- is working adequately.

Motorists should never mix different kinds of coolants, Corwin said, even if they happen to be the same color, because they can negate each other or gum up the engine.

Older vehicles are most at risk for cooling system problems, according to the radiator trade group.

Aging vehicles also have had greater exposure to debris and to salt from ocean air, as well as to road salt and other chemicals that can break down the metal in a radiator core. Dirt or grime can cause poor air flow through the radiator, Corwin said.

Overheated vehicles can pose serious safety risks. UC Irvine's regional burn center recently hospitalized three people in one week for serious burns when their vehicles overheated and they were blasted by hot steam as they removed radiator caps.

If the temperature gauge shows that the vehicle is hot and steam is coming from under the hood, experts say, you should immediately pull over and turn off the engine. But do not touch or attempt to remove the radiator cap until the vehicle has cooled for at least one hour, experts say.

"People can get burned easily," Corwin said. "If you open up that cap, you are going to get a blast of hot steam and probably a mixture of coolant and fluid that could be heated to well over 200 degrees."

Idling in congested traffic can cause your vehicle to overheat even when temperatures are below freezing, he added.

Mechanics say there are a few simple ways to keep your vehicle cool in a traffic jam, including tapping the accelerator to reduce the engine heat and turning on the heater to draw heat away from the engine to the inside of the vehicle.

To keep your car's cooling system working properly, the radiator association recommends having a mechanic check the thermostat and radiator pressure. The group also suggests having a pressure test to identify external leaks to the cooling system parts, including the radiator, the water pump, engine coolant passages, hoses and the heater core.

Also, have your mechanic do an internal leak test to check for gasoline leaking into the cooling system. A visual inspection of all cooling components should be done as well. Have power flushes done regularly and refill the radiator with the manufacturer's recommended coolant concentration.

And have the engine fan checked to make sure it's running properly.


Jeanne Wright responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail:

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