As winter approaches in Chicago and across the Midwest, you may start seeing local auto repair facilities advertising specials on cooling system inspections, flushes and repairs. To some that may seem strange. Cooling system specials in the winter? Don’t be puzzled; just think of it as a cooling and heating system service. There’s a good reason for this.
The cooling system’s main purpose is to regulate engine temperature to prevent overheating and serious engine damage, but it is also an integral part of the interior heating system which keeps you toasty on the way to work and helps to defrost that inch of ice from the windshield after it breaks yet another scraper.
The coolant or anti-freeze is the fluid that is circulated around the engine to draw off its heat. It flows to the radiator for cooling which keeps the engine at optimal operating temperatures. As the name implies, anti-freeze is chemically designed to resist freezing in very cold temperatures. The strength of the fluid depends on the mixture ratio of anti-freeze and water. If the solution becomes diluted it can freeze which can cause engine damage including damaged cooling system components or even something as catastrophic as a cracked engine block.
That same coolant also flows through the heater core which allows the heat from the engine to be drawn into the cabin or up to the windshield by the blower motor and a series of doors controlling the direction of air flow hence the relevance of servicing your cooling system in the winter.
The following are just a few common signs to watch for that should lead you to the shop before you end up on the side of the road:
- If you notice your vehicle is running at a higher than normal temperature (around 200 degrees Fahrenheit), you may be low on coolant fluid or have a restriction in the cooling system. If the fluid level is low, the vehicle should be inspected for leaks. A restriction can be caused internally by deposits or corrosion building up inside the cooling system components or externally in the form of a kinked hose or damaged radiator fins. (For reference, 200 degrees Fahrenheit is a general number and can vary by model.)
- If you notice your windshield fogging up whenever you turn on the defroster, you may have coolant leaking into the cabin through the heater core. If so you may also notice elevated engine temps and lower than normal cabin heat. Additionally, the defroster also uses the air conditioning system to remove moisture from the heated air. If your vehicle temperature seems normal and your coolant is at the proper level, you may want to include an A/C system inspection when you go to the shop for your cooling system inspection.
- A more serious and obvious symptom, if your engine is overheating and you feel no heat through the vents, you have lost your coolant and may have a serious engine problem. Pull over and get off the road immediately.
A simple inspection or system service can prevent problems like the ones listed above. Most manufacturers have suggested intervals for flushing the cooling system with new fluid listed in your owner’s manual. Following these guidelines will help ensure the health of your vehicle’s cooling and heating system and keep you off of the side of the road.
If you would like more information on preparing your vehicle for winter weather, check out these articles on tires and the fuel system.