Autos 101: What puts the "Cool" in Coolant?
Having some basic auto knowledge is important for everyone, not just gearheads. Knowing a thing or two about what’s under the hood and how your car functions will make you a safer, more confident driver. This article examines the brightly colored liquid that keeps your vehicle running at homeostasis: coolant.
As an online resource to learn about basic auto maintenance, along with common problems and how to fix them, the kind folks at Web2Carz are sharing the following article with AskPatty readers. Please feel free to read the original Autos 101 at Web2Carz.com.
Your car’s cooling system is crucial to keeping your vehicle running smoothly. Its primary function is in the name — it keeps the engine from overheating. But, it also helps the engine heat up quickly to its ideal operating temperature. This temperature will vary among different makes and models, which is why there are several different kinds of coolant to put in your car. And coolant that’s used for steel is going to corrode aluminum, which is why it’s critical to make sure you use the right one.
“Coolant comes in every color of the rainbow,” explains Audra Fordin, owner of Great Bear Auto Repair and Auto Body Shop in Queens, New York. “I think it’s the most important fluid, because it regulates the temperature of your car, kind of like your circulatory system,” she added. The cooling system passes fluid through pipes and passageways in the engines, absorbing heat as it goes and cooling the engine. Small irregularities with your coolant could turn into huge (and expensive) issues if left unresolved. “It will clog up the core, the radiator, and the heater cords like a little beehive, so as the chemical breaks down and makes rust and contaminants start to fill up in there, it will restrict the flow like a coronary,” said Fordin. Problems with your cooling system also have a trickle-down effect, so maintaining your coolant will save you some headaches.
[AskPatty insert: While some technicians may suggest changing the radiator fluid annually, performing an automotive coolant flush and fill each year may be overkill. Jay Buckley, Technical Training Director at Prestone, says the typical coolant change interval is five years or 100,000 miles on most vehicles; some vehicles can even go as far as 150,000 miles depending on the original coolant and the manufacturer's specifications. However, Buckley stresses, "it's important to perform this service at whichever interval comes FIRST, before the corrosion inhibitors expire." Keeping the coolant fresh helps prevent corrosion and assures that the coolant has the proper boiling point and protection. According to Buckley, it's most important to not exceed the recommendations in your owner's manual, because "Once corrosion starts, it's hard to stop."]
If you run low on coolant and your car overheats, you’re going to have burnt transmission fluid and motor oil, or, worse, crack your head or blow a head gasket. You want to be careful not to overfill your coolant either, because once the liquid heats up, it expands, so filling it to the brim could cause an overflow that will damage the engine.
The first step is knowing which type of coolant your car takes. Consult your owner’s manual to know which color you have and stick with it. If you lift up your hood, the coolant reservoir is always located next to the radiator, and has a hose leading into it for overflow. Always make sure that your engine has cooled off before you open a radiator or reservoir cap. There are minimum and maximum lines for your coolant reservoir. If the coolant level is below the minimum line, then you need to add some. Use a funnel, and fill it up to just below the maximum line. Again, be careful not to fill it up too much, because the liquid will expand when hot.
[AskPatty insert: Keep in mind that, while it's no big deal to top off with a splash out of the jug, you don't want to just pour in an entire bottle of coolant. According to Prestone, "We recommend that you use between a 50% and 70% concentration of antifreeze. At least 50% is necessary to give the adequate amount of corrosion protection, as well as freeze/boilover protection. However, we do not recommend more than 70% antifreeze. This would cause restriction of the heat transfer capabilities, corrosion protection, and freeze protection."]
Fordin also founded womenautoknow.com, a website aimed at educating and empowering females of all ages about their vehicle. She offers workshops and tutorials to explain basic auto maintenance to get women in-tune with their cars, making them more confident owners.
[AskPatty insert: It’s been so hot in Los Angeles lately that actor Wil Wheaton was joking about the sudden heatwave on Twitter, saying “I bet if you get people to RT the hashtag #damitishotinla it will raise awareness and solve the problem right away.” Well, retweeting the #damitishotinla hashtag may not actually solve the problem, so click here to read some useful tips to help keep your car from overheating and #BringBackOurCools.]
Lindsay Prossnitz, Web2Carz Staff Writer
Lindsay is a born-and-raised Midwestern girl, whose earliest automotive memories include riding in the rear-facing jump seat of a metallic blue '92 Ford Taurus station wagon, waving obnoxiously to strangers at stoplights. She started "driving" at the age of nine, sitting on her dad's lap and steering (sort of) through her grandmother's rural neighborhood. (Relax, there was no traffic.)
Lindsay is now a Web2Carz staff writer, covering a variety of topics and sure to keep you on the edge of your seat!
Cooling system diagram courtesy of the National Automotive Radiator Service Association