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How long can a car overheat before damage?

Modern engines are very reliable and robust. We generally take it for granted that our cars will be trouble-free and cope with the demands of everyday life.

So, how long can a car overheat before damage? To find the answer to this question, read on to learn more. However, there are a few things that can cause engine damage so serious that it can become uneconomical to repair the vehicle. One of these is overheating.

The simple answer to how long a car can overheat before damage is caused is not long at all. To understand why we need to appreciate what is going on inside the engine.

Why do we need to keep an engine cool?

Fuel is burnt in order to produce the power required to move the car forward. The burning of this fuel produces heat energy which rapidly expands within the cylinders and is transferred via pistons connected to the crankshaft through the transmission to ultimately move the car forward.

A great deal of heat is produced, in fact, most of the energy or heat released from burning fuel is absorbed into the cylinders and engine block.
The components involved in this process get extremely hot. Metallic components will expand and contract as they are heated and cooled, and if too much heat is applied then they can permanently distort and even melt.

Consequently, without a way of regulating the temperature, or cooling these components, serious engine damage will occur if these temperatures persist for long enough.

This is what the cooling system is designed for, and within most cars is centered around liquid coolant circulating through the engine block and a radiator to dissipate heat.

Why do cars get hot?

A car can overheat for any number of reasons, from faults in the cooling, fuel, exhaust and ignition system to simply being overworked for prolonged periods.

The context around how the car was being used prior to overheating will usually hold the key.

What are the symptoms of overheating?

As your car starts to overheat you may notice some of these problems:

  • The temperature gauge rises rapidly or being within the red warning area. For modern cars, there may also be a warning message.
  • The engine may run rough and may lack power compared to normal
  • You may notice a burning smell
  • You may notice coolant leaks
  • There could be steam coming from the engine bay

What is the fastest way to cool down a car engine?

The fastest way to cool down an engine which has started to overheat or seriously overheated is to shut the engine off and if safe to do so open the bonnet (hood) of your vehicle to allow extra air to circulate through the engine bay.

There will be a reason why the vehicle has overheated, so continuing to drive only risks major engine damage.

Can I pour water on my engine to cool it down?

Never do this. Not only is it ineffective but the sudden temperature change can cause metallic components to crack causing even more engine damage.

How do I know if my engine is damaged from overheating?

If your car has severely overheated to the point of engine damage it may not run well or at all if you attempt to restart it.

If your vehicle has seriously overheated then the best course of action is to avoid starting or driving and get it towed to a qualified mobile mechanic to thoroughly investigate for any damage.

How do I stop my car from overheating?

Problems can happen at any time, but the best way to prevent overheating is first to ensure you keep your car regularly serviced since your coolant will be checked and any issues identified before they can develop into serious issues.

Avoid overloading your car by towing heavy loads or driving inappropriately.

Top Tip

Never open a radiator cap when a car is even slightly warm let alone hot and overheated. A cooling system works under pressure because this raises the boiling point of the coolant (coolant must be liquid to work effectively). If you open the radiator cap of a hot or even warm engine, this pressure is immediately lost and the coolant will instantly boil into steam in less than a second, likely spraying you and anyone in the area with boiling hot coolant leading to potentially horrific injuries.

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