Dealing With Roadside Emergencies

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by Eric Peters

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I know cars – and how to fix cars (sometimes)… but my wife doesn’t.

Probably a lot of families are “mixed” like this. It does my wife no good to know I know how to fix This or That (or at least, where to start looking) if I happen not to be with her when the car stops running. Hence this quick run-through. I wrote it mainly for her – but figured it might be helpful to people out there, too:


First, always pay attention to the temperature gauge (most new/recent model cars have gauges rather than lights). This way, you’ll notice the engine is running hot before it actually overheats. Make a mental note of the normal reading for your vehicle when it’s fully warmed up, after about 15 minutes of driving. Then be on the lookout for abnormal readings. If the needle seems to be edging closer and closer to “H” (or the red area), the time to take action is right now – before the needle actually gets to “H” or into the red zone.

Reduce your speed (eases the load on the engine) and immediately turn off the AC (same reason) and turn on the heater – which is actually a mini-radiator. By turning on the heater (fan on high) you will help the engine dissipate excess heat. If the needle begins to stabilize – or goes down – you may not need to pull over right way, but you should reduce speed and start looking for a safe place to stop. Because overheating is not normal; there is some underlying problem – low coolant, for example – that caused the high temperature reading. You need to find out what it is before resuming normal travel.

When you find a safe place – ideally a place such as a service station, where supplies and help will be available – pull over and stop the engine. You can raise the hood and check the coolant recovery tank – usually, a whitish-looking plastic tank off to one side of the radiator and clearly marked – to see whether the level is low. But do not attempt to open the radiator cap until the engine has cooled down (at least 15-30 minutes) and only if you’ve had someone who knows how show you how beforehand. It is imperative to put a heavy rag over the cap before you begin to twist it loose – applying downward pressure as you turn, and turning it out only just enough to safely release any pent-up steam and pressure. If you haven’t done this before, find someone who has – and let them do it for you. You can be severely burned by hot – and pressurized – coolant/steam blowing out of the radiator.

If the coolant level is low, that’s the likely reason for the overheating. But now you need to find out the reason for the leak. The usual culprits are: The radiator itself, one of the hoses that brings coolant to (and from) the radiator, a leaking heater core (more on this in a moment) or, a dying water pump. Look for drizzling greenish fluid (sometimes orange-red in newer cars with “long life” coolant) and signs of wetness around the radiator and hoses. If you find them, probably, you have found your problem.

Hoses can be (usually) easily and fairly cheaply replaced with basic hand tools, right by the side of the road. A mechanic is not necessary – just someone who is handy and knows a little about cars. In an emergency – and if the leak is fairly minor – a hose can sometimes be temporarily patched with duct tape or electrical tape.

Radiators typically get replaced rather than fixed nowadays – because they tend to be made of plastic and so are throwaways. Removal and installation will probably require a mechanic – or at least, a pretty competent handyman type.

Dying water pumps – this is the part that circulates the coolant through the system, much like a human heart circulates blood through our bodies – often have what are called weep holes, which do as it sounds: They weep coolant, which you should be able to see. The water pump is typically mounted on the front of the engine, so look for dripping coolant in that area. If it’s leaking, it is probably dying – and must be replaced. This can be a complicated job that will require the skills (and tools) of a mechanic.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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