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Top 5 Signs of Failure in Radiators, Coolers,

and Related Components


The radiator is an integral part of a car's cooling system. It cools the coolant, which is a substance used
to absorb the heat from the engine, using water and cool air from outside the system. Without this
important component, the engine would eventually overheat, and the pistons would break, causing
permanent damage. Therefore, it is imperative that car owners deal with broken radiators before that
happens. Radiator damage is not always obvious, but car owners can look for some key signs that signal
trouble.

Relevant Components

The radiator is the most important part of a vehicle's cooling system. However, a number of
other parts connect it to the engine and support its basic functions.
Part Description Purpose

Radiator Looks like a metal block Cools hot coolant from


with grates the engine

Hoses Rubber piping that Connects radiator to the


connects to different engine and coolant
parts of the system reservoir

Water Pump Pump attached to the Pumps coolant into the


end of the bottom hose system
and coolant reservoir

Thermostat Temperature gauge Regulates coolant flow


attached to the pump

Fan Looks like a fan Blows air into the


attached to the front of radiator
the radiator

Fan Switch Small switch attached to Controls the fan


the fan

Cracked or leaking hoses are common culprits when it comes to cooling system problems.
However, broken fans, pumps, and thermostats also cause overheating and require frequent
maintenance checks.

Signs of Failure

In general, leaks and overheating are the most noticeable signs of failure. However, simple
leaking hoses and loose parts can cause both problems, and it is important to pay attention to
other indicators of failure.

1. Leaking

One of the most obvious signs of a radiator problem is a puddle of liquid forming beneath the
engine when the car is not in use. Leaky radiators require immediate attention, as they can cause
serious damage. The fluid that leaks out is toxic to humans and animals. Radiator coolant fluid
looks green or red in color and is slimy in texture. Other types of fluids under the vehicle are
signs of different problems.
2. Overheating

Because the radiator's main job is to keep the engine cool as it runs, even minor overheating is a
major sign that something is wrong. The problem is usually just a simple leak, but overheating is
sometimes a sign of bigger problems, and it is important to investigate the problem.

3. Drop in Pressure

If the radiator has a lot of corrosion, it produces lower pressure levels than normal. Radiators
should produce 10 PSI to 12 PSI. If those levels are lower, a problem exists. Car owners can use
pressure gauges to determine the pressure. These devices fit on top of the radiator cap and gauge
pressure as the engine runs.

4. Low Coolant Levels

If the coolant levels are low, the radiator probably has a leak. Coolant naturally depletes over
time, but sudden drops in the coolant level are not normal. Car owners should check hoses and
connections to make sure everything is tight. If those parts look like they are in order, the system
could have a hole somewhere.

5. Rust

Rust on or around the radiator indicates a leak or corrosion. As the liquid leaks, it heats up and
causes the metal to rust.

Preventing Failure

When possible, it is very important to prevent radiator failure before it happens. A couple of
basic maintenance practices work well to keep corrosion and cracking from occurring.

Deal with Bent Fins

The metal fins on the radiator allow air into the cooling system, and the air works with the fluid
to cool the engine. If the fins are bent, they block air from entering, and that causes overheating.
Although small blocked areas are not likely to cause problems, large areas need attention. Car
owners can straighten fins using radiator combs to prevent damage.

Replace Coolant Regularly

Coolant levels run low over time, and the fluid also gets dirty after repeated use. Dirty coolant
causes corrosion. Radiator fluid also serves as antifreeze and keeps the radiator and hoses from
cracking in cold weather. Drivers who have a lot of mileage on their vehicles or live in hot
climates should change their radiator coolant once a year. Drivers in average climates can wait
every two years to change the coolant.
How to Buy Radiators and Related Parts on eBay

In most cases, repairing radiator problems involves replacing parts. eBay offers an excellent
selection of radiators, hoses, fans, and water pumps, and you can also find great deals on coolant.
It is important to buy the right parts for your car model because cooling system parts are not
interchangeable. Run a specific search for the part you need along with your car make and
model. For example, search for " Mazda Miata radiator" instead of just "radiator." You can
then use search filters to get more specific results. Read all descriptions carefully before buying
to ensure parts are compatible with your car.

Tags:

radiator

coolant

water pump

radiator fan

radiator hose

Cars have come a long way from their roots as steam-powered horse carriages, but the internal
combustion engine will always have an Achilles heel; overheating. It doesn’t matter how old
your car is, all cars are susceptible to overheating, especially out on the race track where they can
run at wide-open throttle for a long, long time. Nobody likes to see that temperature gauge start
creeping up, as it could indicate any number of engine issues from a leaky radiator to a blown
head gasket.

[quote align=”alignright” width=”200″]For such a simple-yet-integral part of an engine, there


seems to be a million and one things that can go wrong with a radiator.[/quote]

A good mechanic always starts by checking the simple stuff first, so for the purposes of this
article we will focus on diagnosing a busted radiator. Much of what we discuss here can be
applied to a broad spectrum of motorsports, as well as non-racing endeavors. When it comes to
pushing an engine to its absolute limit though, there are few events as demanding or brutal as
circle track racing.

The Common Cause Of Corrosion Is You

The obvious first step to diagnosing a busted radiator is a visual check, inspecting for leaky
hoses, loose fittings, and so on. Sometimes finding a leak requires running the engine; other
times it can be done by just looking under the car. Checking and tightening all the connections is
a great first step, but a leaky radiator is usually just a symptom of a deeper problem, and
diagnosing why your radiator is leaking is a job best left to the experts.

That’s why we turned to Jason Danley of Speedway Motors to fill us in on some of the most
common issues when it comes to diagnosing a damaged radiator. “The biggest things with
radiators are internal corrosion and leaks, damaged fins and a clogged radiator,” says Jason.
Radiator damage can take on many forms, though the two most obvious issues are corrosion and
bent fins.

“On passenger cars the biggest issue with radiators is that people don’t change their coolant
enough, or at all. What it will do is actually corrode the inside of the radiator, blocking passages
and restricting the water, preventing the radiator from passing water through the passages to cool
it. I’ve actually seen that corrosion break loose from the radiator and spread to the water pump,
intakes, and even the engine block,” says Jason.

If the corrosion goes unchecked, it can even eat away at parts of the radiator and cause small
holes that will only get bigger over time. These small holes can be difficult to find via visual
inspection, so Jason recommends using a pressure checker. “Auto parts usually have these, and
you just put it in the place of a radiator cap and make sure your cooling system is holding the
pressure it is designed for,” says Jason. “The pressure depends on the car and the radiator
manufacturer, though it is common for radiators to hold between 10 and 12 PSI.” Again though,
that number depends on the specific radiator.
Depending on the age of your car and the condition of the radiator, corrosion may or may not
necessitate a replacement radiator. If you want to keep your radiator in good condition though,
the simple thing to do is replace the coolant every now and then. “The general rule of thumb is to
change it every two years at least,” explains Jason. “If you’re putting a lot of miles on whatever
you’re driving, you’ll want to do it more often.”

If you do find yourself with a leaky radiator caused by corrosion, you may consider using one of
the many magical fluids claiming to stop leaks. “Those will work on pinholes on a radiator, or
something like that,” says Jason. “The big thing with that is every time you change the fluid, you
have are going to lose that stop leak, so you have to reapply it. And if you use too much, it cold
plug up the system, preventing water from flowing through the radiator.” As we’ll see later, it is
also important to ensure that you’re not causing a chemical reaction with whatever additive you
put into your radiator.
Bent and busted fins like these can causing serious cooling issues.

The Funny Thing About Bent Fins…

Another common problem, especially among home mechanics (yours truly included) is the issue
of bent fins. Radiator design hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years, save for switching the
tanks from a top-to-bottom setup to a crossflow (side-to-side) setup. In all radiators, hot water
from the engine flows into the radiator, and then passes through a number of narrow tubes with
fins on either side. Air flows over these fins (either from forward motion or pulled through by the
fan) which dramatically increases the ability of a radiator to shed heat, allowing the water inside
to drop as much as 30 degrees before going back into the engine block.

As important as these fins are, they are also extremely delicate, and sometimes us home
mechanics have the bad habit of banging and shoving parts like the radiator into place. This can
bend and damage the fins, which is never a good thing. “Any time you bend that fin, it will
prevent the air from going through the radiator,” says Jason. “This will in turn effect how it can
cool. Small rocks can bend fins, or if you hit a bird or debris on the road. If you’re into driving
off-road, mud or dirt can get into those fins too, blocking the air the same as a bent fin would.”
Jason recommends giving your radiator the occasional blast of water to blow out debris that
collects over time.
A close-up of what bent fins look like. While a few bent fins are nothing to worry about,
anything larger than the size of a baseball could dramatically reduce the ability of a radiator to
shed heat.

[side_column title=”AFCO Dual-Pass Radiator” align=”alignright” width=”200″]


To compliment our crate engine in our project car, we ripped out the stock radiator that was
consistently failing us and outfitted it with a brand new dual-stage AFCO radiator. Beyond
cooling though, what are the advantages of upgrading a radiator?

 100% TIG welded with no epoxy.


 All Aluminum design allows us to take a little unneeded weight off the nose of the car.
 The dual-pass allows water to stay in the radiator longer for additional cooling.
 100% pressure tested before it leaves the factory.
[/side_column]

If you have bent fins though, don’t get too worried just yet; a few bent fins here or there isn’t the
end of the world, or even your radiator. “If you have some decent-sized areas, like baseball-sized
or larger, that could greatly affect the way the radiator cools,” says Jason. Even if you have a
large area of bent fins, chances are your radiator can still be saved so long as the cooling tubes
themselves aren’t pinched. “Most auto parts stores sell or loan what they call a radiator comb,
which is used to straighten the fins back out. Unless the fins are broken, you should be able to
straighten them out.

Digging Deeper Into The Cooling System

Dirty and corrosive coolant, loose hoses, and bent fins are common causes of an overheating
engine, but sometimes the problem is deeper than the radiator itself. In maintaining our “Fix the
simple stuff first” theme, it’s time to start looking outside of the radiator for overheating issues.
“You have to make sure that the water is flowing through the engine,” explains Jason. “Stuck
thermostats will impede that flow, as well as a blockage a radiator hose. It could also be a sign of
a broken water pump.”

“A lot of cars these days are equipped with electric fans. A pretty good sign that you have a fan
problem is if your car overheats while you’re sitting on the grid or under caution, but while
you’re moving the temperature stays down,” says Jason.

If you’ve gotten this far, but are still having cooling problems, the issue could be one of the most
dreaded engine malfunctions known to mechanics the world over; a blown headgasket. For the
average passenger car, a blown headgasket is a problem that can be ignored for a quite a while.
For serious racers though a blown headgasket could mean a whole lot of damage to the engine,
including the radiator.
Replacing a head gasket is a lot more involved than replacing a radiator, or thermostat, and so
you want to be sure that that is really the problem. “If you do a pressure test on the radiator, and
it doesn’t hold pressure, that could be a sign of a blown head gasket,” explains Jason. “If you’re
losing coolant but don’t know where its going, you could have a blown head gasket. But you’re
going to want to run further tests, like a cylinder leak down test first. If you’ve got coolant in
your oil, it is a pretty good sign you have a head gasket.”

The Football Blowout Issue

But what if you check to ensure the radiator isn’t leaking, the thermostat and water pump is
working, and you fix the broken head gasket, but the system is still not cooling right? That blown
head gasket may have damaged your radiator more than you know. As Eric Saffell over at AFCO
Racing explains to us, excessive internal pressure can be a very big problem. “The case I want to
talk about is a racer who sent us back his radiator due to a cooling issue,” says Eric. “Naturally
you want to make sure that the thermostat and water pump are working, and that the radiator
itself isn’t leaking. This case that all checked out.”
The left side of this radiator is what a core should like; the right side has been “blown up” by
excessive internal pressure caused by a leaking head gasket.

However, if an engine loses a head gasket, all of that compression (in the cylinders) has to go
somewhere,” Eric explains. “If the engine is leaking on the compression stroke, that compression
is leaking into the water cooling system. The capillary tubes, which are wide and very flat, can
be deformed by this pressure, taking on an almost football shape, pointed on the ends by rather
thick in the middle.”

“What happens,” says Eric. “Is that the pressure essentially crushes the fins, restricting airflow
through the radiator. In that instance, you’ll have a particular section of the radiator, or in a
worst-case scenario, almost the entire core of the radiator, and you’ll see all the fins look like
they’ve been smashed. A quick check for this is to drain the radiator of all the fluids, take it out
of the car, and hold it up to the light. If you can’t see look through the radiator, you want to do a
more thorough visual inspection.”

“In this case though, you could see that the whole core itself was swollen in a football pattern.
The common thinking is if a radiator isn’t leaking, it’s fine,” says Eric. “We’ve probably seen
this more in circle track applications, but with power adders becoming more commonplace in
drag racing we’re likely to see this happen more often there as well. You know when guys lift
the head, they don’t think they’re damaging the radiator or cooling system, but in this case a lot
of damage was done, and the only solution was to replace the radiator completely. If you had a
pressure checker in the cooling system, you’d definitely see a spike in pressure in the cooling
system in cars where this happened.”

Chemistry In Your Coolant

As of late, Eric has also seen the increasing use of cooling additives in the radiator. Back in the
day, a lot of radiators were made from brass or copper, but today radiators are more and more
made from aluminum. These metals all have different properties, and mixing and matching can
be corrosive. “Sometimes you’ll have guys who find an old bottle of radiator additive and they’ll
add it without thinking, causing a chemical reaction within the radiator that can eat away at the
internals. It will eventually find a place to create a pinhole or a series of pinholes.” To avoid this,
just make sure whatever stop leak or cooling additive you use is designed for an aluminum
radiator (if that is what you’re using…which you probably are.)

Corrosion is a silent killer, and can be caused by anything from old, dirty coolant to improper
additives, or even a poorly-grounded ignition system. Bent fins don’t help much either.

Another problem? Electrolysis. “When the ignition system isn’t properly grounded, the electrical
current can run through the chassis and through the radiator,” says Eric. “Electrolysis can cause
rapid corrosion through an electrochemical reaction in aluminum radiators. You can actually
measure the electrical current in the chassis and the radiator.” The easiest way to check for
electrolysis is to hook up a test light to your radiator while turning on the car and making sure
you ground your ignition system properly.

For such a simple-yet-integral part of an engine, there seems to be a million and one things that
can go wrong with them. But if you start off your diagnosis with the simple stuff, chances are
you can save yourself a whole lot of time and frustration. Sometimes though a leaky radiator is a
symptom, rather than a cause. This guide should help you get through some of the agony and
irritation of fixing an overheating problem, and hopefully next time your radiator springs a leak
you’ll be better prepared get it back to working order. And big thanks to Jason Danley and and
Eric Saffell for helping us put this article together.