Is it Okay to Drive with a Radiator Leak?

woman looks under hood at steam from radiator leak
Is it safe to drive with a possible radiator leak? Here's how to spot a leak and what to do about it to keep your engine from overheating.

Is it okay to drive with a radiator leak? The short answer is no. That’s because the radiator keeps your engine cool. A radiator leak means your car is losing coolant. And that means your engine could conceivably overheat.

A car engine gives off lots of heat. In a water-cooled engine (as opposed to air-cooled), the coolant reduces engine heat as it circulates through the engine block and back again. Without this system, your engine would overheat and melt and your car would be out of commission. For this reason, a radiator leak is a serious issue that signals a malfunction of this important cooling system.

If you suspect your radiator has a leak, it’s definitely better not to drive. If the leak occurs while you’re driving, you may see steam rising from the hood. Check the temperature gauge on your dashboard to see if the temperature is rising to critical levels. Pull the car over and carefully open the hood, keeping your face turned away as the hot steam escapes. As you allow your car to cool down, call your mechanic, describe what you see, and ask for advice.

Radiator Leak: Signs to Watch For, What to Do:

  • Coolant comes in different colors, most often green, pink, or orange. Should you see fluids on the floor of your garage, under your car, you may just have a radiator leak. The fluid may have a sweet smell. These are signs of a leaking radiator. Should you notice such colored, sweet-smelling fluid near your car, it’s time to speak to your mechanic and schedule an inspection of your radiator, for leaks.
  • A radiator leak means leaking coolant. When levels of coolant drop, the low coolant light will come on. This light, in particular in combination with a rising temperature gauge not only indicate a radiator leak, but an engine that, as a result, is about to overheat.
  • Is your vehicle seemingly overheating all the time? You probably have a radiator leak. If you see that your car is beginning to overheat, try turning on the heater as high as it goes. This should transfer some of the heat away from your engine. If your temperature gauge stays high in spite of this measure, it’s time to pull over. Keeping your face well away, open the hood to allow your car to cool down. Do not open the radiator cap, as your face may get sprayed with dangerously hot fluid, something that has the potential to be fatal. Call your mechanic to tell them what you see and ask for advice.

Radiator Leak Repairs

Many radiator leaks can be repaired by a good mechanic. Sometimes the leak can be sealed. In other cases you may need to replace the radiator altogether. Remember that the more you continue to drive with an active radiator leak, the greater the damage to your engine, which may mean a more expensive repair.

The upshot: It is definitely NOT okay to drive with a radiator leak, if you can possibly help it. Pull over, open the hood, and let your car cool down, but if you can’t, turn the heat up high to pull the heat away from your engine. In any event, get that car to your mechanic ASAP, before the situation worsens and melts your engine.



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