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Automotive ABCs: What Does a Car Radiator Actually Do?

what does a radiator do

The average cost to repair or replace a car engine ranges between $1,000 and $4,000. When the temperature rises outside, your car is working overtime to stay cool. Your car naturally produces a lot of heat while driving. Other factors like sitting idle and having proper fluids can affect how hot your car runs, too.

The radiator plays a fundamental role in keeping your car cool. If you can learn what it takes to keep it running smoothly, you can protect your engine from blowing.

You should be able to check on your radiator and its fluids, just like your oil. The radiator is a key component in a network of cooling for your car’s engine. Before we can understand what a radiator does in your car, we need to look at the entire system.

Refer to this guide if you feel your car is ever running too hot.

The Engine Cooling System

The engine generated from the motor is based primarily on the pistons constantly pumping to convert fuel into energy. This happens thousands of times per minute, which creates lots of heat. The engine’s cooling system’s job is to transfer that heat away from the core.

There are multiple points of exhaust on an engine that help transfer heat away. Oil also plays a key roll in reducing the amount of friction, which in turn reduces the heat the engine outputs. Keeping your oil clean and topped off is one of the top ways of preventing a car from overheating.

Besides air moving in and around the motor to exhaust heat, special coolant is used to transfer heat. This is where the radiator comes into play.

What Does a Radiator Do?

A special mix of coolant is pumped through your engine to take the heat away from it and “radiate” it out. These fluids are much more effective at absorbing heat than air. The coolant moves from the engine to the radiator to be cooled back down.

Coolant inside the radiator is evenly spread over a large surface area where air is funneled over. The front of the car receives the highest airflow and the radiator’s metal fins can quickly disperse the heat. Some car radiators have an additional fan that moves air out of the car, which is good when sitting idle.

The coolant gets recycled back into the engine, where the whole process begins again. This happens fairly quickly, too, as coolants quickly change states and shed heat through pressure cycles in the radiator.

Parts of a Radiator

To better understand why a radiator is so effective, let’s see how each component works.

The Core

The most obvious and visible part of the radiator. The core is the big metal block on the front of your car behind the grill. This is where all the air is funneled into while you are driving. Some cars have giant three-core radiators, like SUVs and trucks, while others can have just one.

Pressure Cap

On the top of your radiator is a metal valve cap. It usually has a warning label telling you not to open while the engine is hot. This is because the coolant is kept under high pressure. So, if you open that valve up while it’s hot, you could get a face full of scalding steam.

Overflow and Inlet Tanks

The engine needs a lot of coolant to keep a constant supply of it flowing. Because of this, the radiator needs additional storage tanks to move coolant to and from the engine. You should check inside them periodically to make sure the levels are good and the coolant is clean.

Dirt and debris can cause clogs and prevent the radiator from properly cooling the engine.

Transmission Cooling

This last part of the radiator’s components is often overlooked. The automatic transmission of a car produces a lot of heat. Therefore, it needs coolant to constantly remove heat built up. This is usually done by the same radiator unless it is a heavy duty vehicle that has a separate radiator just for it.

Transmission coolant is actually on its own separate line, even if you have a single radiator. Transmission fluid keeps it cool and lubricated, so it cannot be substituted for regular coolant.

Trouble with Overheating

Usually, your first warning sign that your car’s cooling system is failing is on the temperature gauge. If the needle dips into the red, you should get a “Check Engine” light. If there’s a leak somewhere, your first indicator will probably be a “Low Coolant” check light.

If you don’t see either of these warning signs, your car could get hot enough to start boiling the radiator fluid. This is where you see the ominous steam coming out the roof of the car. Unless you’re simultaneously running the AC at full blast, you will probably feel the heat in the cabin, too.

If your car constantly struggles with overheating or low coolant, you’ll need to get it checked for leaks. When the temperatures outside reach triple-digits, you’ll need to be careful, of course. If the weather is normal, then it could be the thermostat, a belt, or a water pump issue.

Calling a Professional

If you suspect your vehicle is overheating or see an indicator we’ve mentioned, check the pressure cap. Wait until the car is cooled down completely, then try to unscrew the cap. If you’re not getting any pressurized air escaping, then the gasket on the cap is no good. This means the radiator fluid isn’t cooling at maximum efficiency.

What does a radiator do when the coolant isn’t pressurized? Well, it burns through it much quicker. It’s about as efficient as running water through the engine to cool it.

You shouldn’t put any more miles on a car with an overheating problem. Get it repaired ASAP.

For more information on getting your car checked out and repaired, contact us for a free consultation. We’re the radiator experts. We can save you a lot of time and money by quickly finding the problem and preventing further damage to your vehicle.