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The Most Common Car Cooling System Problems

May 26, 2021 ·

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When you’re out on the road, your vehicle generates a lot of heat. That heat and friction is concentrated in the engine, which requires your car’s cooling system to be working effectively to prevent overheating.

Your vehicle’s cooling system is comprised of many different parts, including the radiator, radiator fan, hoses, thermostat and water pump. Given how hard these components are working on a regular basis, it makes sense that over time they might wear out and need to be repaired or replaced.

Becoming familiar with how the cooling system works and some common signs of issues can help make you more aware of possible repairs. Keep reading to familiarize yourself with this important vehicle system!

How the Cooling System Works

Most vehicles feature cooling systems that use liquid, or coolant. When liquid passes through a hot engine, it works to absorb heat, cooling the engine in the process. The coolant then passes through the radiator, where it’s cooled by air flowing through the grille.

There is a thermostat in the cooling system that sits between the engine and the radiator. The thermostat opens and closes as needed depending on the temperature of the liquid. Until it reaches a certain temperature, the fluid will circulate until a valve on the thermostat opens to allow it to be cooled again.

Cooling System Parts

The major components of the cooling system include:

  • Radiator: As discussed above, the radiator works as a heat exchanger to remove heat from the fluid circulated through the engine area.
  • Radiator fan: The radiator fan is situated between the radiator and engine and helps pull cool air through the radiator.
  • Radiator hoses: These carry engine coolant between the engine and the radiator.
  • Pressure cap: Also known as the radiator cap, this helps maintain the pressure of the engine cooling system.

  • Water pump: The water pump works to circulate coolant throughout the engine cooling system after drawing it from the radiator through the thermostat.
  • Thermostat: The thermostat maintains the engine’s operating temperature by opening and closing as needed to allow the right amount of coolant to get through.

Regular maintenance of the cooling system helps keep your car running and helps extend the life of your engine. Visually inspecting these components and checking your coolant levels often are some simple steps you can take.

Car Cooling System Troubleshooting

Even when you keep up with maintenance and check your car’s cooling system often, things can still become damaged or worn out. If you’re wondering how to tell if your radiator is bad, check for these symptoms:

  • Your vehicle is running hot or is overheating
  • A fluctuating temperature gauge
  • Steam coming from under the hood
  • White exhaust fumes
  • Low coolant levels
  • Coolant is leaking under vehicle
  • Decreased/poor gas mileage

If you think something might be wrong with your radiator or cooling system, getting it checked by a professional is important. A trained automotive technician will be able to diagnose the cause of your problem. Here are some of the most common issues:

Radiator Leaks

Leaks can spring up from a few locations in your radiator, including the hoses. Some radiator leak symptoms include puddles of coolant underneath your vehicle or low coolant levels. You might even notice white exhaust smoke, which can indicate burning coolant due to a leak.

Air in the Cooling System

If air gets into the cooling system, it can reduce the system’s ability to maintain the proper temperature and regulate your engine’s performance. Air in cooling system symptoms commonly include rises or frequent fluctuations in temperature. Air in the cooling system is considered to be one of the top causes of engine overheating.

Thermostat Issues

Problems with the car thermostat are generally easy to notice. The gauge reading high or changing erratically are some of the more common signs. You also might notice coolant leaks around the thermostat housing.

Water Pump Failure

Rust can start to build up on a water pump and cause corrosion of the metal, which can create small holes on the pump’s surface. High-pitched sounds coming from the front of the motor might indicate a loose water pump pulley. Coolant leaks can also be a symptom of a failing water pump.

Low Coolant

Low coolant can be one of the main causes of issues with the cooling system. Low coolant signs can include a dashboard warning light on some vehicles, rising temperature gauge or the internal heating system having issues working.

Learn to Diagnose Cooling System Problems at UTI

While you should take your car to a trained automotive technician if your vehicle is experiencing cooling system problems, you can also learn how to fix those problems yourself! Automotive mechanics are in demand. With more than 73,000 estimated average annual automotive job openings in the United States,41 you can train to become an automotive technician at Universal Technical Institute (UTI).

In the Automotive Technology program at UTI, you’ll get hands-on training and an education that can prepare you for the workforce.1 Courses cover a range of topics, including maintaining and repairing cooling system parts.

In less than a year,7 you can be ready to make a difference by filling a much-needed role in the skilled trades.

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1) UTI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.

2) For program outcome information and other disclosures, visit

7) Some programs may require longer than one year to complete.

41) For Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an annual average of 73,300 job openings between 2021 and 2031. Job openings include openings due to net employment changes and net replacements. See Table 1.10 Occupational separations and openings, projected 2021-31, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,, viewed October 13, 2022. UTI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.

Universal Technical Institute of Illinois, Inc. is approved by the Division of Private Business and Vocational Schools of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.


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