A leaking radiator can be cause for concern especially if you’ve never dealt with this kind of situation before. To put it plainly you can drive a car with a leaking radiator, but you shouldn’t. If you have to drive with a leak, keep the drive as short as possible preferably to a safe location where you can diagnose and access the severity. There are serious dangers to driving with a leaking radiator that can affect you and your vehicle.

So let’s break down the signs, effects, and solutions of a leaking radiator.

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Table of Contents

Radiator Leak Symptoms

There are a few tell-tale signs that point to a radiator leak. You may experience one, some, or all of these symptoms depending on the severity of the leak and how long you have been driving. If you experience even one of these, it’s important to pull over and check. Park in a safe spot and turn off your engine to allow it to cool down.

Rising Temperature On Your Dashboard

When you lose coolant your vehicle will naturally have less capacity to cool down. Most cars will have a temperature coolant gauge that tells you if your car is running at the optimal temperature. Generally, the needle should be in the middle of the dial, if it’s going up that’s an indicator you may have a leak.

Some cars don’t have a gauge and will only warn you once your car has already begun to overheat. This is less ideal because you can’t see the temperature rise but most manufacturers will program the car to turn on the light before damage is done.

Fluid Leak In/Underneath Engine Bay

The most obvious detection of a coolant leak is seeing the fluid underneath the vehicle. You should under no circumstance see coolant outside of the vehicle. Coolant comes in many colors now including, green, red, pink, purple, blue, orange, and yellow.

Generally, you’ll be able to see what color fluid your car takes just by opening the hood. The coolant tanks are clear generally, allowing you to see the color. In case you can’t tell by looking, a quick google search with your vehicle’s make, model, and engine will tell you.

A general note on leaking coolant; some cars are fitted with an undertray that doesn’t allow fluid to escape easily so it might collect inside the engine bay. The undertray seals off the engine bay so you will have to look inside with a flashlight perhaps if you suspect a leak.

How to know if your car has an undertray? A quick peek underneath the car from the front; if you don’t see your engine and just a giant plastic piece, you have an undertray.

Steam From Engine Area

Steam from the engine bay is also a significant sign of a possible radiator leak. If you see steam you want to pull over immediately and turn off the engine. Steam is water in a gaseous state, so that means fluid is hitting hot sections of the engine and evaporating.

Loss Of Power/ Stall

If you’re losing power and beginning to stall you’re likely seeing the other symptoms, mentioned above, as well. This is the point at which you’ve probably lost a significant amount of coolant and have overheated the engine. Damage has likely been done and may require additional repairs.

If you are experiencing a loss of power and/or stalling. Pull over immediately and allow your car to cool down!

How Far Can You Drive on a Radiator Leak?

Driving with an actively leaking radiator is really not recommended. Depending on the severity of the leak, stopping might be the only safe option. If you must drive there are a few tricks you can use in order to prevent further damage to your car. These methods are not a replacement for fixing your radiator, however, only to move short distances.

Temporary Fixes On The Move

There are some things you can do immediately in order to slow down the effects of the radiator leak. They might just buy you that little extra time you need.

Turn The Heater On As High As It Can Go

The heater in your vehicle cycles coolant through a heater core to blow warm air through the cabin. The heater core is a heater exchanger, so by turning on the heat in the car you allow the remaining coolant to work more efficiently.

Basically, the coolant that’s left can work better at cooler your engine down by shedding access heat faster. It can buy you a little more time if your leak isn’t too severe.

Try To Get To A Place That Sells Coolant

If you don’t have coolant with you, your first priority should be to get to a place that has it. Make sure you get the right coolant for your car, if you don’t know it, get a universal mixing one. Be sure to get a coolant mixture, it should say 50/50 antifreeze and water. Antifreeze alone can damage your cooling system.

After some time you’ll understand the rate at which your coolant is leaking. Try to pull over and fill as often as possible while you’re driving. If you can’t find any coolant, distilled water will work in hurry and places like Walmart have that. If you’re really in a jam just regular water will do as well but it can have contaminates. Just remember water alone won’t cool as efficiently so this is definitely only for emergencies.

Is A Leaking Radiator Dangerous?

A leaking radiator is dangerous for several reasons. Not only is the fluid itself harmful, but the act of hot coolant leaking can also create more dangerous scenarios if left unchecked.

Coolant Is A Hazardous Chemical

Coolant is made up of mostly 3 things, water, dye, and ethylene glycol otherwise known as antifreeze. Ethylene glycol is a dangerous chemical that can be fatal to humans and animals. According to the National Library of Medicine, ingesting ethylene glycol can cause cellular damage and organ failure.

While humans may not be ingesting coolant from a radiator leak, animals might. This is compounded by the fact that antifreeze actually tastes sweet. The dye in the coolant also might be poisonous, so it is especially important to clean up coolant spills.

Overheating Engines Can Stall Out Causing Accidents

As we mentioned before a stalled engine is the result of an engine that has overheated from a radiator leak. If this happens to you at highway speeds this could cause a potentially fatal wreck, causing harm to you and others.

Even at lower speeds in congested areas, sudden losses of power can cause you to do harm to people and property.

Overheating Engines Can Cause A Fire

firemen spraying on flaming vehicle, drive a car with a leaking radiator

In severe cases overheating engines can lead to fires. Very hot components can melt rubber fittings on fuel lines and plastic sheathing on electric wires. The mixing of electrical and fuel in the engine bay can create a spark igniting fire.

Bare electrical wires can cause sparks of their own, causing a fire. All stemming from a leaky radiator. That’s why this is one problem that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Can You Fix A Leaking Radiator Yourself?

If you’re a DIY kind of person and the engine hasn’t overheated or seized you certainly could tackle this job in the driveway. Not many tools are required but proper disposal of the discarded coolant is. Collect and dispose of the coolant by dropping it off at a mechanics shop or recycling center. Do not pour it down the drain!

If you feel comfortable with this crack on, otherwise take it to a shop and let them handle it. Sometimes the cause of the radiator leak isn’t obvious so some troubleshooting might be required.

Determine The Cause Of The Leak

To find the exact cause of your leak you need to add a UV light detectable dye into your coolant system. This will allow you to pinpoint the exact location of your leak without playing an hours-long guessing game. Unless your leak is really obvious like a hole in the radiator, this step is a must. You can find this leak detection kit on amazon, or in your local big-box auto store.

Some leaks are easier to fix than others. Hoses and clamps leading to and from radiators can get old and brittle with age. After a time they lose their ability to create tight seals on connections, and in the case of rubber hose pipes might give out entirely.

If the radiator is cracked, damaged, or plugged up, there are two ways to go about fixing it. Temporary fixes and permanent fixes.

Quick fixes

The most popular quick fix for leaky radiators is stop leak products. Some products work very well and others not so much. It’s really best to read reviews for any product you’re considering and if they work in your situation. Remember these products are generally meant as a stop-gap measure to get you to a place where you can permanently fix your leak.

Permanent Fix

A permanent fix is generally the right way to approach things. Figure out what the cause of the leak is and replace the broken part. Hoses and clamps aren’t very expensive and don’t take much time to do.

Radiators themselves can get costly so it’s worth deciding whether or not the car is worth the value of the fix. Similar to what we discuss in our article on whether it’s cheaper to replace a transmission or the car, big fixes on aging cars are worth running the numbers.

In Sum

A leaking radiator is a serious concern and should be taken care of with immediacy. Good thing is that most of the time the fix is simple to do and won’t break the bank. So, is tackling a leaking radiator something you would attempt?

As an Amazon Associate We earn from qualifying purchases. Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc, or its affiliates.

We might receive commissions if you click on our links and sign up/make purchases. However, please know this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try to keep things fair and balanced to help you make the best choice for your needs. Thanks.

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