6 Things to Do (and NOT Do) When Your Car Overheats

You’re out on a ride on a warm summer’s day when things start getting a bit too warm. Suddenly, steam billows out from under your hood, and the engine temperature gauge turns bright red! In this situation, it’s essential to know what to do when your car engine overheats.

Any car — no matter how new — can overheat for many reasons. Road debris could crack or loosen coolant lines, thermostats may malfunction, or vital cooling components could simply wear out. You never know when it’ll happen, so it pays to be prepared for engine overheating.

Read on to learn six things you should and should not do if your car overheats.

What to Do if Your Car Overheats

If you notice any signs that your engine might be overheating, you need to act quickly. You can seriously damage your car and put yourself and others in danger if you ignore the issues. Here’s what to do as soon as you realize your engine has overheated.

1. Turn the AC Off and Heater On

The first two things you should do when your engine is overheating might not be what you’d guess. But both of them are important for helping bring the engine temperature down.

When you notice your car overheating, immediately turn off the air conditioner. Sure, it blows cold air, but your engine components have to work hard to cool the air. Switching the AC off reduces strain on your engine and can help it cool off.

Next, set your heater to the highest temperature and turn the fan to maximum speed. It sounds strange, we know, but this is due to how car heaters work.

The heater blows hot air from the engine into the car’s cabin. It’s not ideal during a hot Virginia summer, but it can help vent the heat from the engine.

2. Pull Over to the Side of the Road

Once your AC is off and the heater on, don’t continue driving. Pull over as soon as you spot a safe place to do so.

Driving with an overheating car can seriously harm your engine components. It could even cause permanent damage that can’t be repaired. In such a case, you may have to buy a new engine — or an entirely new car.

3. Turn the Engine Off and Let It Cool

Once you’ve pulled over, you can let the engine run for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on the engine heat gauge — if it’s going down, the measures you’ve taken so far have started to cool the engine, and it may be worth letting them keep working.

But if the engine thermometer is still sitting in red, turn the engine off. Something has gone seriously wrong, and it’s best to turn the engine off and let it cool.

4. Check Coolant Levels

Once the engine has cooled, you should check the coolant levels. Your owner’s manual will tell you where your coolant tank is and how to check the liquid level.

In case there’s little coolant in the engine, you’ve found the likely reason your car is overheating. If you have a can of coolant in the car (a smart thing to keep in your trunk), you should add some to the engine. If you don’t have any additional coolant, you shouldn’t drive the car any farther and call a tow truck.

5. Inspect for Obvious Problems

While you have your hood open, check if you can notice any obvious signs of damage or problems. It’s probably not a good idea to poke around a hot engine too much, but certain signs could tell you why the engine overheated.

One of the most common causes of car overheating is a coolant leak. If you can see leaking coolant lines or smell an odd, sweet smell in the engine, it’s likely you’ve sprung a leak. But if you don’t notice anything obvious, don’t worry — your technician will find the problem.

6. Get Your Car to a Repair Shop

Any time your engine overheats, you need to get your engine inspected by professionals as soon as possible. Even short-term overheating may have damaged your engine components and could lead to serious issues down the line.

Even if your engine cooled down properly with a simple coolant top-up and seems to be working fine, you shouldn’t drive your car farther than the nearest car repair shop. And if your car keeps overheating no matter what you do, you absolutely shouldn’t even start it.

What NOT to Do When Your Car Overheats

It’s important to know what to do in case your car overheats. But it’s also just as vital to know what you shouldn’t do to keep yourself, your passengers, and other road users safe. If your engine overheats, here are the most crucial things to avoid.

1. Don’t Panic

Keep your head cool, even if your engine isn’t. It’s scary to suddenly see your car belch out steam and the temperature gauge jump up, but avoid any sudden swerving or slamming the brakes.

Slow down calmly and bring your car to a controlled stop at a safe pullout by the side of the road. If you’re stuck on a road with heavy traffic, leave the car through the doors facing away from the road to avoid jumping in front of other vehicles.

2. Don’t Keep on Driving

We mentioned it already, but this is a point worth repeating — do not drive any farther than you have to. Pull over and stop at the nearest safe place.

Running an overheating engine is dangerous. It could cause permanent damage and break the entire engine, or even cause it to catch fire. No matter how near your destination is, don’t push your luck.

3. Don’t Open the Hood Immediately

After you’ve stopped, don’t go and open the hood immediately. Due to the engine’s heat, it will likely be incredibly hot, and you may seriously burn yourself.

Let your car stand idle for at least 15 minutes to let the engine cool off. Keep checking the engine heat gauge on your dashboard and wait until it’s fallen to normal readings. When you do open the hood, touch it very lightly at first to make sure it’s no longer blazing hot.

4. Don’t Pour Cold Water into the Engine

It might be a tempting idea to throw some cold water on your engine if it’s still running hot once your hood is open. But don’t do it. You might cool down the engine, but you could also break it.

Pouring cold water over steaming hot metal could cause a thermal contraction reaction. This can crack and break the metal components. Cracked gears or casings will render your engine completely non-functional. 

5. Don’t Leave Your Car

Whenever you find yourself stranded by the side of the road, it’s essential that you don’t leave your vehicle. As long as it’s safe to do so, stick as close to your car as possible until help arrives.

If you wander off in search of coolant in a strange area, you could get lost. Additionally, tow truck crews and other rescuers may get to the car sooner than you think, and they won’t be able to find you.

You can move farther away from the road if it seems like traffic could put you in danger. But you should always stay within view of your car.

6. Don’t Delay Getting Service

If it’s clear your car isn’t going anywhere, call a repair shop or the police for help immediately. This way, you can move your car away from the roadside as soon as possible and won’t risk getting hit by passing traffic.

Even if your car turns on, don’t simply start driving as if nothing happened. Your engine may have been seriously damaged, so head straight to your trusted auto repair shop.

Signs that Your Engine is Overheating

It’s usually not very difficult to tell that your engine is running too hot. Naturally, you will feel the heat radiating from it, but you may not notice that in the driver’s seat. However, these three symptoms are telltale signs of overheating:

  1. Your engine temperature gauge spikes to the red zone or the “H” reading. Different cars use different symbols, but your owner’s manual will tell you how to read your heat gauge.
  2. Steam or smoke is rising from under the hood.
  3. You notice a strange smell coming from the engine. A sweet smell can indicate a coolant leak, while a burnt and acrid stench is most likely an oil leak.

Reliable Coolant and Engine Service in Chantilly and Warrenton, VA

Northern Virginia is a great place to live, but your car might disagree. Our hot and humid summers can raise the heat in your engine block incredibly high. Meanwhile, the cold winters could damage coolant lines or cooling systems.

Advanced Automotive has helped drivers around Chantilly and Warrenton, VA, prevent engine overheating for 35 years. Our ASE-certified technicians use the latest diagnostic and inspection tools to find out what’s wrong with your car.

In case you get stranded with a burnt-out engine, we can help you. We offer free towing within 10 miles of both of our locations, in addition to other towing services.
Book an engine repair appointment online today. You can also call our Chantilly shop at (703) 783-1409 or our Warrenton shop at (504) 353-6435.