Welcome to Goof of the Month: our monthly dip into the world of automotive cluelessness, fearing for the worst, and stories about the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.
Today, not a single story – but a recap of several timely stories from some of our regular commentators. The theme? Sometimes, us humans do (or forget to do) things that cause our rides to lose their cool – so here’s a look at some common mistakes that can cause things to overheat (in more than one way) on your summer travels.
Your vehicle has a gauge or warning light to warn you if the engine is overheating. Overheating is relatively rare, but it can be caused by a problem with the cooling system, added engine strain, or high temperatures – or something else entirely.
Instructions on what to do if your engine overheats can be found in your owner’s manual. You should be familiar with these before it happens – or you might wind up in John Kennard’s shop looking at a monstrous repair bill and a car that’s been quickly reduced to scrap value because of a blown motor.
“Driving with an overheated engine, even briefly, is bad news,” says Kennard, an automotive technician in Mississauga Ontario. “If your engine is overheating, you’ve only got moments to do something about it – and if you don’t act quickly and properly, you could ruin your engine.”
Kennard recalls one customer who came to his shop with a high-mileage Chevrolet Cobalt that wouldn’t start.
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“Turns out, the customer’s car overheated several times, but that was ignored,” he explains. “We figured that the overheating ruined the engine’s head gasket – and the customer kept on driving not knowing anything was wrong. Eventually, that head gasket allowed oil and coolant to mix, and that basically destroyed the rest of the engine. That’s why it wouldn’t start, and why it came here. The car was now scrap.”
Kennard figures that, at some point, this customer’s car had illuminated one or more warning lights, but that those were misunderstood and neglected.
“If you see a warning light on your instruments, your car is trying to tell you something important. It might be a minor thing, or something very serious, but you’ve got to be able to know.”
The gist? Know how to tell if your engine is overheating and what to do if your engine overheats, commit that to memory, and do that exact thing if overheating occurs.
Finally, if your vehicle has overheated one or more times in the recent past, you’re best to have its cooling system inspected by a professional before heading out of town on any family trips.
Overheating Occupants (Air Conditioning Problems)
Before heading out on summer travels, be sure to try the air conditioner in your vehicle on the hottest possible day, to assess whether or not it seems to be working as effectively as you expect. Does the A/C feel weak? Wimpy? Does it smell funny? Does it turn itself off after a few minutes?
Symptoms like these get many drivers bracing for expensive air conditioner repairs, but automotive technician Paul Kennaley reminds us that there’s a simple (and inexpensive) fix you may have forgotten all about:
“Cars nowadays use a cabin air filter that cleans the air your A/C or heater blows into the vehicle. You get fresher air on board and less dust and dirt into parts of the car’s climate control system. Cabin air filters even help fan motors last longer too.”
However, Kennaley explains, cabin air filters are also a common source of problems with A/C (and heater) performance, most often because many owners don’t know they exist. Many dealerships and lube-shops remind customers to change this important filter, but some don’t. And that reminder doesn’t get to folks who do their own oil changes and maintenance at home.
“We see plenty of shoppers who don’t even know their car has a filter for its climate control system,” he says. “Like any filter, the cabin air filter eventually clogs up and needs replacing.”
If your vehicle has a cabin air filter that’s badly clogged, then it’s restricting flow to the entire climate control system. In extreme cases, a clogged cabin air filter can even allow a buildup of ice to form on certain parts of the air conditioner system. This can result in water leaks into the vehicle cabin, an air conditioner that repeatedly turns itself off, foul smells, and even accelerated wear to system components.
Kennaley recalls a customer who visited his shop in a Mazda3, complaining of deteriorating A/C performance over the past year or so. Her problem? Plugged cabin air filters (the Mazda 3 uses two small filters instead of one larger one).
“The filters in her car were both original, and about two years past due to be replaced. They were plugged solid. Pretty gross, actually. Looked like a mouse may have even been trying to build a home in there at one point, too.”
In a few minutes, this particular customer was out the door with a small bill, and a properly performing air conditioner.