As temperatures rise outside, our support team at RESCUE see many complaints coming in about an overheated engine. While the best option is to not drive further and have it checked by one of our expert mechanics (who will diagnose the exact issue and recommend the next step), there are a few things you can do at that critical moment to ensure that you prevent long-term damage to your vehicle.

Remember to ensure your personal safety first. Pull over to a safe location nearby and turn off the engine. Following this, you can follow these steps:

  1. Do not open the hood until the car has completely cooled or the temperature gauge has moved from hot to cool. When you see the temperature gauge creeping into the red or a notification light glowing, immediately turn off your air conditioner. The AC puts a lot of strain on your engine.
  2. Check the coolant level in the radiator. Have a look at the owner’s manual if you are unsure where the coolant reservoir tank is. Engines typically overheat because the coolant’s low, so topping it off will usually solve the problem. Failing that, water will also temporarily do the trick.
  3. Make sure the radiator cap is cool before opening it. Slowly twist it off with a towel and beware of any hot steam. If needed, fill coolant to the top of the radiator. Put the radiator cap back on.
  4. Be sure the upper or lower radiator hose and any of the heater hoses have not been blocked, disconnected or burst.
  5. Restart the engine. Carefully monitor the temperature gauge. If you see it crossing the optimal mark, turn the engine off.
  6. Once the engine has cooled, check the coolant tank. It’s usually a translucent plastic tank near the radiator. If the coolant tank is empty, you may have sprung a leak. Take a quick look under the car. If you notice a drip or puddle, chances are the coolant tank is leaking.

If you do have a leak, carefully open the radiator cap. Place a cloth over the radiator cap to protect your hand, and tilt the cap away from you as it opens. Refill the cooled radiator with your spare coolant or water. Do not pour cold water into a still-hot radiator — it could cause the engine block to crack due to the sudden change in temperature. If you absolutely have to add water while the engine is still warm, pour slowly while the engine is running in neutral or park.

Note that most cars require a 50/50 mix of coolant with water to prevent overheating, so you won’t be able to drive indefinitely with nothing but water. If you don’t have coolant on hand when your car overheats, make sure to add a comparable amount of coolant as soon as possible.

If the coolant tank is full, the problem may be electrical or mechanical in nature, in which case a tow to the nearest service station will be required. A leaking hose, worn or broken fan belt, bad water pump, or malfunctioning thermostat may be the culprit.

Being in traffic when your car begins to overheat can make the situation that much more stressful. But it’s important that you let your cooler head prevail and follow these tips:

  • If you’re stopped in traffic, put the car in neutral or park and rev the engine a bit. This will encourage water and air flow through the radiator, helping to cool it.
  • If you’re in stop-and-go traffic, aim to creep rather than alternating between braking and accelerating. Braking generates a lot of friction, which will only turn up the heat.

It’s not common for modern makes of cars to overheat, and it’s never a good thing, regardless of your vehicle’s age. If you find that your car often gets a little hot under the hood, it’s probably an indication of a larger problem, so consult a trusted service station.