Overheating engine

Overheating Engine? Here’s What It Is and Why It Happens

Your engine is one of the most important components of your vehicle, so any problems with it must be taken seriously. This is especially true with engine overheating, which is a fairly common engine complication. Since an engine running too hot can quickly lead to significant internal components damage, it’s important to take action as soon as the problem is detected. To prevent expensive repairs, knowing how to identify an overheating engine, and how to correctly handle the situation is always the key. To help you with this, we’ve created this post covering what an overheating engine is, the most common signs and causes as well as what you need to do to fix your car while saving as much money as possible.

What Is an Overheating Engine?

For most people, when hearing about “engine overheating”, the first thing that might come to mind is a car catching on fire. While this can happen, it is quite rare and usually means that your car has other issues as well, most probably related to the fuel injection system. Instead, an overheating engine simply means that it’s operating hotter than it should be.

Most car engines are meant to run at around 200F, which means that anything significantly above this is an issue. Your car engine needs to stay in this range to maintain optimal performance, emissions output, and fuel economy. 

As you drive, your engine will naturally generate heat. But as long as it stays in the normal operating range, the heat is quite easily managed by your vehicle’s cooling system. However, if for some reason your coolant’s temperature was to increase beyond a certain threshold, the coolant would start boiling.

And this when you have an overheating engine condition!

Overheating can happen for a multitude of reasons. From a faulty water pump or a leaking cooling system to a blown head gasket and a defective thermostat. In fact, pretty much any component in your car’s cooling system going bad will lead to an engine overheating condition, to one extent or another.

Most Common Signs of Engine Overheating

Being able to quickly identify the condition and reacting accordingly is not only your best bet to prevent the need for expensive repairs, but it’s also the safest way to make sure you don’t damage your engine beyond repair. Depending on how high the operating temperature is, an engine can only run hot for so long. Driving while the needle is in the red will usually only last a couple of minutes until the pistons seize into the cylinders. And once that happens, the engine is pretty much done. Some might say that it’s always possible to rebuild and overhaul the engine but, with most entry-level, family cars, the cost of a used engine is usually cheaper.

Luckily, it’s not very hard to notice an overheating engine.

Temperature gauge

On your car’s dashboard, there are multiple gauges. Near your fuel meter, there is usually another gauge that monitors the engine temperature. On a car that runs properly, it will begin at zero and gradually increase and stay in the middle of the meter as you drive your car.

When an engine starts to overheat, the needle will go over the normal range and sometimes even in the red zone. If you notice anything above the halfway mark, then overheating is likely. While this is the “easy” method, it isn’t the only way to detect engine overheating.

Visual signs

For example, steam coming out from under the hood or the front of the car is usually a clear indicator. On the other hand, overheating is not the only reason why steam might be created. Water, oil, or coolant on the exhaust system could also cause the same condition, for example.

A boiling water sound coming from the overflow tank is also a pretty straightforward hint that something is not quite right with your cooling system. It’s also pretty common to detect a strong coolant smell on overheating engines. When the coolant starts to boil, it will sometimes flood out of the overflow tank and spray onto the exhaust manifold, producing a thick white smoke and a burnt coolant smell.


Lastly, as keeping on driving with an overheating engine will usually result in seizures, the engine might become less responsive and sluggish. That usually means that the engine is on the verge of seizing.

And that’s not good at all!

What Causes Engine Overheating?

Now that you know what an overheating engine looks like, it’s helpful to understand the most common causes. Engine overheating causes can vary, but it typically points to an issue with your cooling system. As we mentioned above, your cooling system is responsible for keeping your engine at a proper temperature. As soon as one of the components like the thermostat, water pump, or radiator cap becomes faulty, the coolant will either stop circulating or the system will not be properly pressurized anymore. When it happens, the engine’s operating temperature will start to rise uncontrollably.

Other factors can also come into effect and cause engine overheating. This includes having a leak, incorrectly mixed or dirty coolant, a leaking radiator, cracked hoses, and cut drive belts.

What to Do With an Overheating Engine

Understanding what causes an overheating engine and how to detect such a condition is certainly important. However, knowing what to do when it happens matters even more. Driving a car with an overheating engine is an incredibly bad idea. 

As soon as you detect or even suspect that your engine might be overheating, the first thing to do is to quickly pull over to the side of the road. Turn off the engine but leave the key in the ON position to allow the radiator fan to keep blowing air through the radiator to bring down the coolant’s temperature down as soon as possible. You should also turn off the AC system,  if it’s on, and switch the heat on instead. This will help direct some of the heat away from your engine.

Once you’re parked safely on the side of the road, wait for the temperature to come down. While you’re waiting, consider opening the hood if it isn’t too hot to touch. Be careful of any steam that may escape! Once the engine has cooled down a bit, check your coolant levels and add some if you are running low.

Look under the car and see if you can notice any sign of coolant leak. If a big leak is found, there’s nothing else to do than to call for a tow truck.

Whatever you do, give your car at least 15 minutes to cool down before starting it again. When you get back on the road, keep a close eye on your temperature gauge and pull over if it gets too high again. At this point, you should be heading to a repair shop above anything else. You simply can’t continue driving your car in this state.

What to Avoid With an Overheating Engine

While knowing what to do is critical, you should also know what to avoid because there are a few mistakes you can make. Some of this is common sense, but it’s sometimes hard to think clearly when your car has a major issue. 

For starters, keep a cool head because at least something will be cool. You don’t want to panic and make a driving error resulting in an accident. Collect yourself and find a safe place to stop.

Once you’re pulled over, don’t open the hood immediately. That’s something you should do eventually, but give your car a few minutes before doing this. After it’s open, make sure not to touch the radiator cap because opening it will spew hot coolant everywhere.

Another significant mistake is pouring cold water into your engine’s cooling system in the hope of preventing further damages. The sudden change in temperature can cause the engine block to crack.

As a final suggestion, don’t neglect to get your car fixed. An overheating issue won’t go away on its own and it isn’t something you can ignore. Failing to address it will cause your engine to fail and this will be far more costly than addressing the root issue. Car maintenance can be frustrating and bring unexpected costs, but it’s a necessary evil of driving a car!

How to Prevent Your Engine From Overheating

The key to saving money on expensive repairs is always regular maintenance. Keeping your car properly maintained is the easiest way to prevent your engine from overheating in the first place. 

One major maintenance area to focus on is flushing your coolant and making sure it is always topped off. You should also remove debris from your radiator and ensure the radiator cap is functioning properly. Also, check your drive belt and make sure that it’s in good condition. Tending to these three components will go a long way toward preventing engine overheating!

Closing Thoughts

Engine overheating is a serious problem that requires prompt action. Failing to handle the situation properly will cause more issues which will, in turn, cost a lot more to repair. Of course and as usual, troubleshooting and repairing the problem yourself will always save you significant money. However, before attempting to repair or replace one of your engine’s cooling system components, make sure to get your hands on your car’s repair manual. Doing so will allow you to use the manufacturer’s recommended troubleshooting and repair procedures. Not only will you save time but it will also ensure everything is put back in order and using the right torque specifications. 

About Ren R

Ren R
Loves cars and helping others learn how to take care of their own vehicle. Drives a Honda Accord and enjoys every second of it!

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