- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

To anyone who has ever driven our midsummer construction-plagued highways, it's a familiar sight: a car in the breakdown lane, the hood up, steam pouring out from the engine, steam pouring out of the driver's ears. Such a scene is repeated mile after mile in summer traffic jams as cars drop out of highway travel lanes like flies.

There are things you can do to lessen your chances of joining the breakdown club. If your car does overheat (even the best of cars do every now and then), there are things you can do to keep the repair bill somewhere below the national debt and more in the range of a fast food dinner for a family of four.

How hot is it?

The explosions taking place inside your car's engine produce temperatures in excess of 2,500 degrees. That's enough heat to melt steel, which happens to be what your engine is likely to be made of. What you have under the hood of your car is a mini Dante's Inferno.

Fortunately, cars are equipped with cooling systems that maintain the proper temperature range and keep your engine from melting down. (This is an especially convenient feature if you are expecting to use your car repeatedly.)

A liquid called coolant, a mixture of water and antifreeze, is stored in the radiator. The proportion of water to antifreeze can be found in your owner's manual. Often it's a 50-50 ratio, unless you live in Dead Horse, Alaska, (or any other exceedingly cold climate) where you may need as much as 70 percent antifreeze. More than 70 percent antifreeze diminishes the protective properties of the coolant.

An ounce of prevention

Each week check to be sure there is plenty of coolant in your recovery tank. If the coolant level is low, wait until the engine is cold and top it off. Note: Never add coolant to a hot engine. Hot coolant could burst out, and the escaping steam could burn you.

Each spring you'll need to get a maintenance check of your cooling system. An experienced professional should pressure-inspect the entire system, including the fan, water pump, radiator, thermostat, and radiator cap. Loose belts should be tightened, and worn belts and hoses replaced.

Your coolant should be clean and a weird yellow-green color. It could even have a reddish color. But if it looks more like it came out of the black lagoon than the Blue Grotto, it's time to get the system flushed. This procedure should be done every two or three years (unless you have extended wear coolant), regardless of what the coolant looks like.

When all else fails

Even a well-maintained system can be overtaxed by long traffic tie-ups in hot weather. Or, you may have to deal with a broken fan belt, hose, or water pump at any time no matter how well you maintain your car. If your engine temperature light goes on, or the temperature gauge starts to rise, there are several things that you can do to avoid problems.

First, turn off the air conditioner: it makes the engine work harder and hotter. Then, turn on your car's heater. This action will draw some of the heat from the engine into the passenger compartment, and may keep your car from overheating. (Of course, now your body will overheat, but dry-cleaning your dress is usually cheaper than rebuilding your engine.)

If all these strategies fail and your car still overheats, it's time to get it off the road to safety and get the engine cooled down. Never let your car overheat or it could cost you a bundle in repair bills.

Slow-moving traffic in summer can cause even the healthiest cars to overheat occasionally. As long as the coolant level is restored and the car does not overheat again, you probably don't even need to see your mechanic. But should the car continue to overheat, you probably have a more serious problem. Proceed to a service station, stopping any time the car begins to overheat and let it cool down again. This maneuver takes time but if you don't spend the time, you will spend the money. Driver's choice.

Assuming the coolant level is maintained and the other cooling system parts are in good working order, you and your car both happy as clams drive merrily on your way. All it takes is a little tender loving care to make this driving dream a reality.

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