Vehicle Temperature Control: How Vehicles Maintain Optimal Temperature

Vehicle Temperature Control: How Vehicles Maintain Optimal Temperature

Temperature plays a critical role in maintaining an engine’s optimal performance. Improper balance between hot and cold temperatures can affect the engine in many ways. Without proper regulation, the engine won’t be at its total capacity and will experience severe issues, like overheating. 

The engine’s cooling system, which is a network of components, maintains the temperature of the engine. 

In this guide, we’ll look at how vehicles maintain optimal temperatures for quality performance. Discover more about the engine’s cooling system, its importance, and the problems a car may face when the cooling system malfunctions.  

Key takeaways

  • A car’s engine features various vital components to help maintain the proper temperature and prevent issues, such as overheating. 
  • Various factors can cause an engine to overheat. These include low coolant levels, defective radiators, and leaks in the cooling system.
  • Several tell-tale signs can indicate if your engine is overheating, including dashboard indicator lights illuminating and smoke coming out from under the hood. 
  • Don’t panic if the engine overheats. Instead, pull over to the side of the road to address the issue.


Understanding a Vehicle’s Cooling System 

Generally, a car engine produces significant heat to run well. A gasoline-fueled engine generates temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, or 760 degrees Celsius, while driving. This high temperature can easily cause the engine to overheat. Thanks, however, to a car’s cooling system, an engine’s temperature is controlled and circulated for maximum driving capacity. 

The cooling system provides three vital functions:

  • Removing excess heat from the engine
  • Bringing the engine to the average operating temperature
  • Maintaining proper engine temperature

Various moving parts produce these functions inside the cooling system. Some of the crucial ones are listed below. 


The radiator is one of the most crucial components of a car’s cooling system. It’s primarily responsible for eliminating excess heat from the engine and circulating the liquid coolant throughout the engine. 

A coolant, commonly known as antifreeze, is a special fluid that helps maintain the engine’s temperature so that the engine can function optimally.

The radiator circulates the coolant to the engine, absorbing the extra heat. Once the coolant picks it up, the radiator exchanges it with the air outside the car. The cycle continues as long as the engine is running, ensuring that the engine remains at an optimal temperature for efficient performance. 

The radiator is typically made of aluminum. It’s located in front of the engine, often behind the grille. This device features various parts, such as the core, fins, pressure cap, inlet and outlet tanks, and radiator hoses, that are vital to the cooling process.

Water pump

The water pump is also vital to the cooling process. It’s responsible for pushing the coolant from the radiator into the engine and back, specifically propelling it through the engine block, heater core, and cylinder head to absorb heat.

Think of the water pump as the heart of the cooling system. Like the heart, this device circulates the coolant so the engine remains at an optimal temperature. Without the water pump, the coolant would remain stagnant in the system and wouldn’t absorb the excess heat, which could potentially damage the engine if left unchecked. 

While the water pump is mainly made of lightweight aluminum, some are built with cast iron. It’s typically located in front of the engine and driven by the serpentine belt. In some cases, water pumps are operated by the overhead cam timing belt. 


When you first start the engine, the temperature is generally cold. Therefore, the thermostat will use a valve to restrict the coolant flow since there’s no excess heat yet. Once the engine warms up, these valves will open up, allowing the coolant to move through the cooling system. 

Most cars have their thermostats mounted near the cylinder head’s water pump. This device is often connected to the upper radiator hose to let the coolant through the thermostat and the engine.

Pressure cap

The pressure cap, which is also known as the radiator cap, protects the hoses and the radiator from any damage caused by high pressure. Generally, the cooling system experiences high pressure because it expands from reabsorbing the hot coolant. Once it enters the radiator, the pressure increases since it’s an enclosed container. 

The pressure cap is a small mechanical device that helps regulate the pressure from the hot coolant in the radiator and other components of the engine. Aside from containing the coolant, the pressure cap keeps the system pressure at a certain level to prevent the liquid from boiling when it gets significantly hotter. It also allows the coolant to escape to a reservoir tank when it expands. 

Moreover, the pressure cap also prevents the cooling system from trapping air, which helps to avoid poor cooling and corrosion in various components.

Cooling fan

The cooling fan helps drive fresh air from outside the vehicle to the radiator. It provides additional and intensive engine cooling, especially if the temperature reaches 230 degrees Fahrenheit, or 110 degrees Celsius.

The cooling fan is very important because it helps remove the heat absorbed by the coolant. It automatically activates when the coolant gets too hot and automatically shuts down when it reaches an adequate temperature. Moreover, it provides air to the engine when the car is parked, as air can’t otherwise flow through the grille when the vehicle isn’t moving.

Heater core

Think of the heater core as a mini version of the radiator. This device transfers heat from the engine’s hot coolant to generate warm air to the interior of the car, producing comfortable temperatures during cold weather. 

The heater core contains various tubing, or heater hoses, and is also involved in the process of cooling the engine by carrying the hot coolant and putting it into good use. 

Overflow tank

The overflow tank is a relatively new device, so older vehicles and cooling systems don’t have them. It acts as a reservoir that holds the coolant and releases it into the system when the coolant level gets too low.

Aside from that, the overflow tank pulls the coolant back and holds it until the engine requires it again. This generally happens when there’s too much pressure in the cooling system. This also means that the overflow tank contributes to regulating the pressure in the entire cooling system.

Freeze plug

The freeze plug is a steel device that seals cylinder blocks and head openings. It’s created with special sand and molten metal, and is moulded to the shape of coolant passages in the engine block. 

The primary purpose of a freeze plug is to protect the engine from damage caused by freezing temperatures. Without them, the coolant may expand and pop out from the pressure in cold weather.

Engine Overheating Causes

Overheating is one of the most significant problems motorists may experience in their car’s lifetime. The cooling system and its many crucial components are vital to prevent the engine from overheating, but when these moving parts malfunction, an engine can overheat. 

Listed below are the most common causes of engine overheating:

The coolant level is low

The liquid coolant is crucial to keep the engine from overheating. It also lubricates all the moving parts it comes into contact with, like the water pump, cylinder, and piston timing. 

When circulated, the coolant helps pull heat away from the engine, so when coolant levels are low, this means that the heat will increase or expand. Plus, reduced lubrication leads to friction in all the engine’s metal components. When these things happen, the engine will overheat or completely stop working. Moreover, if the metal gets too hot, a piston can weld or moult into the cylinder, quickly destroying the engine.

Leak in the cooling system

When the coolant leaks from your system, maintaining proper temperature will be difficult for your engine, which could lead to overheating. Unfortunately, leaks could happen for a variety of reasons

For example, the water pump, which is connected to the radiator by a hose, is a crucial component that helps circulate the coolant throughout the system. If the connection becomes loose or corroded, a leak may happen. 

Other reasons could be that the radiator tubes have become old and corroded or the pressure cap has deteriorated and has worn out. If there’s a foreign object in the engine, it can also damage engine components and cause a leak.

Thermostat is malfunctioning

The thermostat plays various roles in the cooling system. It helps control the coolant flow, regulate temperature, and prevent engine wear or damage. 

The thermostat valve stays closed when the engine is just starting, preventing the coolant from circulating while the engine is still cold. When the engine reaches the optimal temperature required, usually ranging around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, or 93 degrees Celsius, the valve will open and release the coolant. 

A faulty thermostat will remain closed even when the engine is hot. When this happens, the engine will immediately overheat. 

A malfunctioning thermostat will also display a false reading. For example, even if heat is building up, it’ll tell you that your car’s temperature is normal. This issue, and the coolant not being released, will aggravate overheating, causing the vehicle to stall or emit smoke.

Broken water pump

Aside from leaks, a broken water pump can cause an engine to overheat in various ways. For one, the seal between the water pump and the engine block keeps the coolant from leaking and pushes the excess air out of the engine. If this seal is damaged or improperly installed, the coolant and the excess air will become corrosive. This could also produce air pockets inside the engine blocks, which can result in localized overheating. 

The water pump also features a pulley that’s turned by the engine’s drive belt. This device winds the pump, allowing it to push the coolant through the engine and back. Once this device becomes loose or wobbly, it will eventually reduce the water pump’s efficiency, causing it to fail.

Damaged radiator

If the radiator is damaged, there won’t be any other device to pull the heat from the engine and circulate the coolant. If that happens, the engine will generate higher-than-normal temperatures, causing it to overheat. 

The radiator is a delicate component of the cooling system. This means that various factors, such as severe rust buildup in the cooling fans, low-quality coolant, and worn-out pressure caps, can damage it.

Busted head gasket 

A head gasket is another important component of the engine that splits the engine into two parts: the engine block and the cylinder head. It plays a crucial role in sealing the engine’s combustion chamber to help build the appropriate compression needed to maintain power. 

While not necessarily a part of the cooling system, damage to the head gasket could affect the cooling system’s heat transfer. For instance, if the head gasket malfunctions between the cylinder and a water passage, it will let the exhaust gas into the cooling system. When that happens, the network will become more pressurized, which can lead to overheating.

How To Know if Your Car Is Overheating 

Various factors can cause a car’s engine to overheat. Fortunately, many tell-tale signs can help motorists determine if their car’s engine is overheating. 

Here are some of the most common signs to watch out for.

Observe the temperature gauge and dashboard lights

Most modern cars feature a temperature gauge on the dashboard. It’s an indicator designed to measure the temperature of your engine’s coolant, telling you if it’s cold, normal, or overheating.

Unfortunately, some drivers make the mistake of thinking that the indicator is telling them about the temperature outside the vehicle. This is why they miss out on the early signs of their engines overheating.

The temperature gauge is a straightforward tool. The meter ranges from hot (red) to cold (white). If the needle sits in the middle of the meter, it means that your car is at the normal operating temperature. Once the needle goes up to the red zone, it tells you that your engine is becoming dangerously hot and is close to overheating.  

You may also see a dashboard light resembling a thermometer above a wavy line, which is the coolant warning light. It tells you that the engine is overheating from the lack, or low levels, of coolant.

Listen to strange noises

When you drive your car with low lubrication, there’s more friction within the engine’s various components, which increases its chances of overheating. Fortunately, you can hear the friction occurring from inside the vehicle. 

If you hear clicking noises under the hood when your engine is running, it means that the metal parts are grinding together with little lubrication. 

You might also hear thumping noises when your engine is overheating, which indicates that the valves in the thermostat are malfunctioning, trapping coolant in the engine block until it becomes extremely hot. Once the cold coolant clashes with the superheated one, you’ll hear a loud thudding noise from under the hood.

Watch out for steam and smoke

Steam and smoke coming from the engine bay are typically caused by a problem in the cooling system. The engine overheats because its temperature rises above the normal operating rate, and the cooling system couldn’t control it usually because of a malfunction in its various components. When this happens, the extra heat makes the coolant boil, producing steam and smoke from the engine bay.

Focus on the odd engine smell

An overheating engine emits different odours that can indicate the origin of the problem. For instance, a burning plastic smell suggests that the plastic valves and rubber seals are beginning to melt as the engine overheats. A sickly sweet smell, on the other hand, is always associated with an engine coolant. If this is the odour you’re smelling, it means that the coolant could be leaking out of the cooling system.

There’s also a burning oil, or sulphur-like, odour. This is the most alarming smell you must watch out for because it means that your engine oil is already burning, and that your engine could catch fire if you don’t immediately address it.

Feel your driving performance

Your car will have various performance issues when your engine overheats. For example, when the engine’s temperature rises beyond its optimal range, vehicles tend to have poor fuel combustion, which can result in reduced power output. When that happens, acceleration will feel laggy, and the car’s fuel economy will be affected. 

Misfires also happen when the engine overheats. It’s when the combustion reaction doesn’t work correctly, and the cylinder doesn’t fire. This issue can result in rough idling and poor engine performance overall. 

Moreover, an overheating engine can also affect the transmission’s performance. Since the transmission relies on engine power to function properly, when the engine overheats, gear shifting will be more difficult.

What To Do When a Car Overheats

Once you’ve determined that your car is overheating, it’s important to know what to do next to help you assess and address the problem. Improperly handling such an incident could potentially cause various road accidents.

For example, if you don’t pull over on time, your car could suddenly decelerate and stop, increasing your chances of being involved in a rear-end collision. Unfortunately, in this case, even if a vehicle hits your car from behind, you might be liable for stopping abruptly. 

Your vehicle could also become a deadly obstruction in the middle of the road if it catches fire, posing a hazard for you and other motorists. That’s why knowing what to do when your engine overheats is crucial.

Here are some of the essential steps when dealing with an overheating engine:

Pull over to the side of the road

When you detect the early signs of an overheating engine, the first thing you must do is to pull over. Turn on your signal lights and carefully reach the next exit or shoulder. 

Once you’re on the side of the road, turn on your hazard lights and, if available, put a warning triangle at least 45 meters behind your vehicle. This way, oncoming traffic will know that your car has broken down and that they should avoid your car. 

Next, turn off your engine and allow it to cool off for at least 15 minutes. 

Turn off the air conditioning and turn up the heat

Turn off your air conditioner and run the heat if you can’t pull over immediately. This can help alleviate the excess hot air from your engine by rerouting it to the car’s interior. While this may make the cabin hot, doing so can help limit the damage to your engine. 

Check your coolant levels and add accordingly 

Meanwhile, after pulling over, check the coolant levels to see if it’s responsible for your engine overheating. If you find that it’s low and you have reserve coolant with you, add it until the amount returns to its adequate range. 

Take your car to a mechanic

If low coolant levels aren’t why your engine overheated, there could be a problem with the cooling system and its components, like the radiator, pressure cap, and thermostat. If so, you must take your car to a mechanic and have these parts replaced. 

If the problem persists as you try to drive to the nearest service provider, pull over again and call a tow truck to help you.

Learn your insurance coverage 

The good news is that if your car is new and this problem arises, your warranty will likely cover it. If not, checking with your insurance provider is best before you make any transactions. You might find that your insurance policy may cover this issue. 

There could also be cases where car manufacturers are liable for defective car parts, like engines. If this defect leads to an accident that results in severe injuries, you could file a case against them for compensation, especially if it’s a new car. Consulting a personal injury lawyer would be the best way to go so that you can build a strong case.

Pro Tip

When your car overheats, don’t panic. Many motorists tend to swerve or slam on the brakes when attempting to pull over, risking colliding with other vehicles. It’s best to stay calm, drive as you would normally, turn on your signal lights, and stop at a safe spot to address the issue.

Maintain Road Safety by Protecting Your Engine 

The car’s cooling system is a vital network that helps the engine run smoothly by regulating its temperature. When one or two components within this network malfunctions, the engine could overheat. This is why it’s best to periodically check your engine’s cooling system and perform essential maintenance practices. 

An engine failure could cause severe accidents. If you’re involved in one, it’s good to partner with an experienced personal injury lawyer so that you’re compensated for your injuries. Visit Diamond & Diamond and learn more about how we can help you. 

Contact professionals at Diamond & Diamond. Our team of legal experts in personal injury and beyond can help you with any liability claims, whether against a car manufacturer or insurance provider.

Leave a Reply


FAQs on How Vehicles Maintain Optimal Temperature

Do electric cars overheat?

What are some helpful ways to prevent the engine from overheating?

Can extreme weather conditions affect my engine performance?




Get the help you deserve


Call NOW for a free consultation


Diamond & Diamond Ontario Head Office

255 Consumers Road, 5th Floor, Toronto, Ontario

>> Learn More

Diamond & Diamond Alberta Head Office

4246 97 Street NW, Unit 103, Edmonton, Alberta

>> Learn More

Diamond & Diamond British Columbia Head Office

1727 West Broadway, Suite 400, Vancouver, British Columbia

>> Learn More


168 Bayfield Street


1331 Macleod Trail SE, Suite 645


2713 14 St SW


600 Crowfoot Crescent NW #240


4246 97 Street NW, Unit 103


256 Pall Mall St, Suite 102

Oakville / Mississauga

2939 Portland Drive, Suite 200


50 Richmond Street E, Unit # 108 B


955 Green Valley Crescent, Unit 315


31 Larch Street, Unit 300


1104 – 13737 96 Ave, Surrey, BC V3V 0C6


255 Consumers Road, 5th Floor


1678 Bloor Street, Suite 302


1727 West Broadway, Suite 400


13158 Tecumseh Rd. E. Unit 3B