The radiator is the core component of your car’s cooling system. Without it, your car would quickly overheat, which would, in turn, cause the engine to seize. In the winter, it’s also the cooling system’s job to heat up the car’s interior. Without a radiator, the heating system would only blow cold air. With time, it’s not uncommon for radiators to rust and start leaking. A lack of maintenance may also allow debris to collect into the radiator and clog some of the coolant passages, greatly reducing its efficiency. When it happens, you’ll probably need to replace your radiator. While the cost of replacing a radiator might be quite high, there are some tricks to keep it as low as possible.
Replacing a radiator is not a difficult job to do at home, as long as you have some basic auto mechanic knowledge and basic tools. However, some people may not be comfortable in attempting to replace a radiator by themselves and may prefer to have the job done at their local auto repair shop. To help you make an informed decision and decide whether you want to replace your radiator yourself or not, we’ve created this article outlining the cost of replacing a radiator DIY-style vs. the cost of having it done by professionals.
When is it Time to Replace Your Radiator
Knowing the signs of a bad radiator will help you to determine when you need to replace it. There are a few things you should look for to determine if your radiator is going out or simply needs to be maintained.
The most common sign of a faulty radiator is an engine running hotter than usual. This increase may be gradual or sudden. The most common reason for radiators to fail is because of sludge and dirt collecting in the radiator. The radiator is made of small passage allowing the coolant to flow and the smallest debris can easily obstruct them. Once enough passages are clogged, the radiator will lose its efficiency to cool down the coolant and the temperature of the engine will rise.
Be warned, though. an engine running hotter than usual doesn’t not automatically means that the radiator needs to be replaced. Other faulty components, like a faulty thermostat or a clogged heater core, for example, might also cause the exact same symptom.
Other signs include radiator leaks. Usually, the leak will be where the welds are located, namely on the sides or top of the radiator. Since the radiator is placed at the front of the car, it’s quite frequent for rocks to hit the radiator and cause leaks.
Finding Radiator Leaks
If you suspect your radiator may be leaking, the easiest way to test it is with a pressure tester. Simply install the tester and apply the recommended pressure. If you are not sure what pressure should be applied, take a look inside your car’s repair manual. Once done, place a big piece of cardboard under the radiator and wait a couple of minutes. If the pressure in the system drops, there’s a leak somewhere. If there’s a leak, you should normally be able to see coolant dripping somewhere.
Take a look at the cardboard. If you can see small drops of coolant, it may give you a good indication of where the leak is. Inspect the radiator around the welds and check carefully between the fins. If you find a leak, your radiator will need to be replaced. But because the cost of replacing a radiator might be a bit expensive on some vehicles, it’s sometimes possible to have it repaired instead.
The Cost of Repairing a Radiator
If the radiator on your car is super expensive or if there’s only a small leak caused by a rock, it might be a better idea to have it repaired instead of replacing it. There’s no need to replace a radiator which is still in good condition. In that case, a repair shop specialized in radiator repairs might do the trick for you.
Radiator repair shops can take your radiator apart to clean and repair it. Most of these repair shops are so specialized that they can also create new parts from scratch and re-weld old radiators. This is especially useful if you own a classic car or a vehicle with discontinued parts.
However, this service might not come cheap. Furthermore, radiator repair shops are sometimes hard to find these days. If you are lucky enough to find one near where you live, having your radiator repaired might costs between $125-$250 depending on the type of radiator your car uses. When a repair shop completes this service, it is almost like having a new radiator.
Unfortunately, most modern vehicles today use plastic and aluminum radiators. These types of radiators usually cannot be repaired and must be replaced as a whole. Plastic radiators simply can’t be taken apart and welding aluminum requires specialized equipment and will probably cost more than a new aftermarket radiator. Older cars that used brass and copper radiators are the only type that can reliably be patched and repaired when they start to leak.
The Cost of a Replacement Radiator
The most common place to look for a new radiator is aftermarket auto parts stores. The parts they sell are usually comparable to what the dealer offers with a lower price tag. Obviously, the cost of a new radiator depends on the type of radiator you need. Older cars using brass and copper radiators may be able to find aftermarket products to replace old, leaky, and damaged radiators for as little as $150.
On the other hand, the older a car gets, the harder it is to find parts for it in auto parts stores. As a general rule, you’ll have no problem finding parts for your car at the local part store if it’s 15 years old or younger. Luckily, it’s not uncommon for aftermarket stores to still keep in-stock parts for older cars than that if they were big sellers.
Evidently, the cost of your radiator will depend on the kind of car you drive. Pickup trucks use bigger radiators and luxury cars simply use more expensive components. If you drive a common passenger car, the cost of the radiator will be much less.
To give you an example, an aftermarket market radiator for a 2008 Toyota Yaris is about $80 while the same grade radiator for a 2008 GMC Sierra 1500 will cost about $115. On the other hand, the same type of radiator for a 2008 Porsche 911 can easily reach over $200.
OEM is an abbreviation meaning “original equipment manufacturer”. These parts usually come directly from the dealer and are the exact same thing as what was installed in your vehicle when it was produced. Whether OEM parts are better than aftermarket ones is a debatable subject and every auto mechanic has its own opinion on the subject. Some people prefer to only install OEM parts while others only consider them as expensive counterparts to aftermarket ones. It’s really up to you at that point.
It’s important to know that they’re usually more expensive than aftermarket parts, though. Using the same example as before, a radiator for a 2008 Civic would cost $125. It’s important to point out here that both the aftermarket and OEM radiators for a Civic are made by the same manufacturer, Denso. It’s safe to say that both are exactly the same thing, if only that the dealer takes a bigger profit margin.
The same logic applies to the 2008 Sierra with an OEM radiator priced around $185. For the Porsche 911, it’s even worse. A factory radiator will come with a hefty price tag of $310. As said before, choosing between an aftermarket or an OEM radiator is a question of taste. It will really depend on the budget of the car owner.
Many performance companies sell aftermarket radiators designed for performance applications. If you plan on tuning your car in the future or if you pull heavy loads regularly with your truck, replacing your radiator with a performance model might be a good idea. Performance radiators usually provide a better cooling efficiency which will help keep your car at the right temperature at all times.
Summit Racing, for example, sells two different radiator models for the 2008 Honda Civic. The first model is pretty much a standard radiator and costs only $61, which is even cheaper than it’s aftermarket counterpart. You could also select a Mishimoto model for $250.
The same rule applies to most other car model but if you plan to buy a performance radiator for Porsche 911, brace yourself, it won’t be cheap!
If, on the other hand, your car is kinda old or you simply don’t have the budget for a cheap aftermarket radiator, you could even buy a used one from your local junkyard or online. A used radiator for a 2008 Civic shouldn’t cost more than $40 from a junkyard. However, especially in that case, you might be better just buying the cheap Summit Racing option at $60.
It’s important to remember that even the best used part possible is still a used part. And, if your radiator started to leak because it was rusted, it’s pretty likely that one coming from a car just as old as yours might also be as rusty as yours. Junkyard parts are especially useful if your radiator is exceptionally expensive or really hard to find in auto part stores.
Classic car rebuilders and ’90s sport-compact fans may sometimes find interesting, hard to find parts by calling junkyards or by searching online. It will obviously take a lot of work and a little bit of luck to find what you need, in good enough shape to be worth the money.
The Cost of Labor
Professional Radiator Replacement
The labor rate will depend on the kind of shop where you bring your car to have the radiator replaced. Dealers usually charge over $100 an hour while independent auto repair shops often charge significantly less than that. If your car is still under warranty, it might be a good idea to have your radiator inspected at your local dealer first. A radiator is usually covered by your car’s warranty so they should replace it free of charge (if they don’t find a good excuse not to do it).
If your car is not covered by the warranty anymore, I’d suggest bringing it to a trustworthy mechanic working in an independent shop instead. Their rate is usually more affordable and the service is often better too. Obviously, this is only my own opinion and that also depends on your repair shop. Not all cars are created equal and that is also true for repair shops. Find a good one and once you’ve found it, stay there. Building a good relationship with your mechanic is often the best way to get the best deal possible.
DIY Radiator Replacement
Needless to say that if you can replace your own radiator, you should definitely do that. Not only will you save on the labor cost but you’ll also save on the radiator’s profit margin. When bringing your car to any kind of repair shop, you’ll rarely be able to choose the exact replacement radiator model. The shop will usually order what their supplier is offering without shopping around too much. They’ll also take a 20%-30% cut on the part.
In all cases, choosing, ordering, and replacing your radiator yourself is the safest way to make sure you get the most bang for your bucks.
When you make the decision to replace your radiator, you should be prepared to tackle some other jobs at the same time. If your car is a bit old, it’s always a good idea to replace the radiator hoses when you replace your radiator. It is also a good idea to replace the thermostat at the same time. These components all work together to provide proper cooling for your car.
Radiator hoses can cost between $5 and $85 or more, depending on the vehicle’s cooling system configuration. A thermostat typically costs around $20 but can be much more expensive and sometimes quite complicated to replace.
The heater in your car also uses the engine coolant to produce hot air. If your radiator is severely corroded, rusty, or full of dirt, your heater core is probably damaged as well. Replacing it or at least flushing it might be a good idea before installing back everything and testing the repair.
These are small costs to add in when replacing your radiator, but they are also very important to take into account when estimating the cost of replacing a radiator.
We’ll never say it enough. Your best bet to prevent any costly repairs is regular maintenance. No matter the kind of vehicle you drive, it’s highly suggested to read your car’s owner manual to find out what service the manufacturer recommends. Cars and trucks that spend a lot of time in dusty and dirty conditions may need to flush the radiator more often. Different coolant needs to be replaced at different intervals so make sure you know when yours is due.
You should also keep the cooling fins clean in your radiator. When the fins become clogged, the radiator has to work harder. Dirty cooling fins can quickly cause a radiator to fail. To clean them up, you can blow the fins out with compressed air. You could also use a pressure washer to do the same thing. However, you should be careful if you decide to shoot pressurized water into your engine compartment. A high-pressure water spray may damage sensitive electronic components and sensors.
Keeping a close eye on the condition of your cooling system can save you lots of money on emergency repairs. Overheating is a leading cause of engine failure. Many of today’s modern engines are built with aluminum and simply cannot tolerate excessive temperatures. Maintaining your cooling system is much cheaper than replacing or rebuilding an engine.
Keeping Your Radiator Clean
Many people change their oil on schedule, knowing that doing so keeps their car running for years to come. But, most car owners never think about their radiators until there is a problem. Cleaning your radiator is not difficult, and you can even do it at home. It will cost you less to clean your radiator than replacing it.
Auto parts stores sell lots of products intended to help you clean and flush your cooling system. These chemicals can help to remove deposits, rust, scale, and different types of corrosion from inside your radiator. If you choose that route, be aware that some of these products are pretty nasty and cause environmental harm if not disposed of properly.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to reduce pollution and save money while keeping your radiator clean. Did you know you can make a solution at home to clean your radiator? All it takes is a gallon of vinegar and a little time. Start by draining your cooling system and pour in a gallon of vinegar, and top off with distilled water. Start the car and run the engine until it reaches normal operating temperature. Then, let it cool down and drain it again. You can continue to repeat this process until the water comes out clean. Keep in mind that you should use clean vinegar and water each time. Nonetheless, the cost of a couple of gallons of vinegar is still lower than the cost of replacing a radiator.
When you are satisfied with the results, you will need to replace the antifreeze. You should consult your car’s repair manual for the proper type of coolant for your car. Most manufacturers recommend a 50/50 coolant and distilled water mixture but, just in case, make sure you have the right information first.
How Much Does a Professional Radiator Flush Cost?
A repair shop will charge between $50 and $200 for a professional radiator cleaning. The service typically takes an hour or two. A good thing about having a professional radiator repair shop perform the service is that they will conduct a pressure test afterward to makes sure the system is pressurizing correctly.
Sometimes, professional service reveals other problems that can lead to a big repair bill. It is not uncommon to find problems with the water pump, hoses, or thermostat when performing a pressure test. It’s still better to know there’s another problem with your cooling while your car is in the shop than finding out while on the road and getting stranded somewhere because of a blown radiator hose.
To Sum it Up
Replacing a radiator may sometimes be quite expensive but it’s simply not something you can leave and forget. Omitting to replace a leaking radiator will only do more harm than good. However, replacing it yourself will save you a lot of money in the end. In all cases, make sure you get your hands on a good repair manual. A good quality repair manual will tell you what parts must be removed to get the radiator out of your car and the correct procedure to do it. You will likely have covers and fan shrouds that also must be removed.
As with most other mechanic work, having a manual to guide you not only speeds up the repair but will also ensure that you don’t forget something in the process. Simply remember to shop around before buying a replacement radiator and you should be able to keep the cost of replacing your car’s radiator as low as possible.