Most cars are equipped with warning lights and a pressure relief valve, so if your engine starts to overheat, you’ll probably get advance warning before it damages the engine. But don’t keep driving. Important steps to follow when the warning light flashes are:
1. Pull over.
2. Turn off your engine.
3. Call for help.
That’s it — stop there. “Don’t even think about touching the radiator cap while you’re waiting for a tow truck,” Schreck says. “The cooling system is highly pressurized. Just loosening the cap a little can set off a geyser of hot coolant.” “Also, there’s nothing you can do from the side of the road,” says Conkling. “Your car needs to be towed to a professional.” If towing to an auto shop is not an option and you have no choice but to take matters into your own hands, consider following these steps:
4. Wait until the engine completely cools — at least 30 minutes.
You might be able to speed up the cooling process if you can pop the hood with a latch located inside the car cabin. But, do not touch or attempt to open the hood until the engine is completely cool.
5. Check the coolant/antifreeze reservoir.
Typically, this reservoir is a translucent plastic tank near the radiator. If it’s empty or low on fluid, and you’ve allowed time for the engine to cool, refill the tank with new antifreeze.
6. Check hoses for leaks or blockage.
Chances are, if the coolant tank is completely empty or you spot a drip or puddle on the ground, you’ve got a leak.
Yes, you need to know how your engine’s cooling system works
Technically, here’s what’s happening: Heat from your engine is absorbed by coolant (think: antifreeze), which the engine’s water pump pushes to the radiator, where it cools and is recirculated back to the engine.