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Car Maintenance

Radiator Maintenance

Maintaining your vehicle is essential if you want to keep it running well and operating at peak performance. The usual maintenance procedures, such as oil changes, are usually not issues for most people – but performing basic maintenance operations to keep your radiator and engine running well are just as important yet more often overlooked.

Radiator maintenance is an integral part of the overall “health” of your vehicle because the engine has to remain at a prime operating temperature in order to work properly. If your engine overheats, for example, you’ll have a lot more headaches than if you keep up with important maintenance tasks on a regular basis.

Radiator maintenance is mostly about the fluids. Other problems with the cooling system can arise, for various different reasons, but for basic maintenance and upkeep properly maintaining the vital fluids in the radiator is what will keep your vehicle humming with life for years to come. Whether you utilize the services of your local shop to perform key maintenance and repair processes or do everything yourself, it is recommended that coolant is replaced every year or so.

In addition to coolant replacement, it is also a good idea to flush and refill the radiator every 1 to 2 years to ensure the cooling system will run well, even if your mileage is low after this period of time. Following such a maintenance schedule is vital if you want your vehicle to be properly and consistently maintained.

Why Antifreeze is Key

Antifreeze/coolant is a big part of what keeps your engine in top working order. In addition to its cooling properties and ability to keep your engine running under extreme temperature variations, many companies also include other ingredients that help keep your engine working well. For instance, antifreeze can contain additives that prevent rust and corrosion of the radiator, engine and vehicle heater. If you neglect radiator maintenance the advantages of a good cooling system will not be fully utilized.

Basically, coolant is a 50/50 mix of glycol and water, depending on your vehicle. The glycol portion of the mixture is the antifreeze – it works to keep the water from turning to ice in cold temperatures and reaching the boiling point in extreme heat. With the coolant operating at the proper degree, the engine will continue running at a stable temperature in all climates and driving situations.

Ethylene glycol is used in antifreeze but it requires proper handling if you are planning on performing cooling system maintenance on your own – it is a toxic substance that can cause health problems or even death, and can be damaging to the environment. Following suggested protocol when handling antifreeze is a necessity. Keep it away from children and animals, and ensure proper disposal according to local hazardous waste regulations. A recent alternative to ethylene glycol is propylene glycol. Antifreeze that contains propylene glycol is less toxic than its predecessor, especially at low levels, but it still must be handled with caution.

No matter what antifreeze you use, the fluid picks up heavy metals during usage, so disposal is something to be taken seriously. Follow the same procedure you would with any antifreeze product and you will avoid problems when performing maintenance on your vehicle at home. It is very important that you do not pour coolant down your sink or into storm drains due to its toxic properties.

Draining and Flushing

Over time, rust and sediment can build up in your vehicle’s cooling system making it necessary to drain out the coolant from time to time to clean out anything that may be clogging up the system. Many experts recommend this be done every few years, preferably every year. You can tell if the coolant in your radiator requires removal if it appears dirty or brown in color, and if you see little rust specks floating around. Coolant should appear a slightly thick, light yellowy-green color, almost like lemonade, or orange if your car uses long-lasting coolant.

If you are going to take on the job yourself, begin by parking the vehicle in a safe work area – away from kids, pets and storm drains. Raising the car on ramps is also a good idea if you are able to do so. Follow this checklist before getting started: turn the ignition off and wait until the engine is cool. This is very important – it’s dangerous to work with a hot engine. Set the car in Park and engage the emergency brakes.

Now you can get started. First step – remove the radiator cap. Place a 2-gallon or larger bucket underneath the radiator drain plug and remove the plug. This will catch the fluid. Once the fluid has finished draining, put the plug back in place. If you want to drain as much coolant out as possible, you can add another step to the procedure and drain any excess coolant in the engine. Simply take out the plug in the engine block if you can, to drain the coolant.

If you think your cooling system needs a more thorough cleaning to remove excess sediment and rust, flushing may be a good idea. You can achieve this by using a radiator-cleaning product fit for this type of job. This is a simple task. All you have to do is close up all the drain plugs and pour the product into the radiator along with some water. The instructions on the package should tell you exactly what to do – this usually entails running the heater on high for a specified amount of time. When the engine cools you can drain the radiator fluid out and refill with water, following the same steps as above. This will have fully flushed out the cooling system.


Refilling the radiator is easy, especially if you consult your car’s user manual and the instructions on the antifreeze bottle. You will need to know the ratio of coolant to water before refilling, which can vary depending on the vehicle and weather conditions in your area. Fill the radiator according to the instructions and also fill the overflow reservoir with a 50/50 mix. Clean up any spills that may occur and then close the cap. Now you can run the engine to the normal running temperature – and make sure you set the heater on high to effectively circulate the coolant throughout the system. When the engine cools down again, double check for leaks.

If everything checks out ok, you’re done and can drive off knowing you have kept up with one of the most important aspects of your car’s maintenance.

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