Many car owners have thought of putting water in their cooling systems instead of coolant, especially those who live in warmer climates. But, can you use water instead of coolant?
Coolant is a mixture of distilled water and alcohol used to absorb heat generated by an engine and expels it through the radiator. As the engine is running, coolant circulates throughout the engine, absorbing the heat produced and transporting it back to the radiator. It then expels the hot air and takes in the cool breeze that passes through the fins of the heater, and the process repeats itself. There is a common misconception that vehicles driven in conditions above 32 degrees do not need antifreeze and can purely survive on the water in the radiator. However, this misconception comes with a high number of risks to the health of your engine.
Can I use water instead of coolant?
Engine coolant is crucial in the operation of your engine and cooling system. It is a chemical fluid that mainly consists of a 1:1 mixture of distilled water and alcohol, among other ingredients. Antifreeze aids in the prevention of corrosion as it is compatible with plastic and other materials found in the engine. It also ensures better heat transfer, reducing risks of freezing, clogging, and scaling. Coolant broadens the range at which water boil and freezes, enabling it to maintain stable temperatures despite the weather conditions.
Coolant is not replaceable with water. If water was adequate for the regular operation of the engine, coolant would not be in existence. Using water instead of coolant causes it to evaporate due to the heat produced in the internal combustion engine chamber, resulting in severe engine damage. Water is not capable to solely cool the engine due to its specific boiling and freezing points. On the other hand, coolant is specifically designed to absorb heat and prevent rusting in the engine.
What happens when you run out of coolant?
Coolant is one of the most critical fluids under your vehicle’s bonnet as it is responsible for preventing your engine from overheating. The right antifreeze solution circulates through your engine, maintaining the average working temperature for the optimum operation of your car. If your car runs out of coolant while you are on the road, you will likely experience:
- Dashboard warning light
Modern vehicles have a visible dashboard warning light that comes on as a sign of low coolant. At standard temperature, the needle of the temperature gauge will point at ‘normal.’ Movement of the needle downwards or upwards indicates a shift, fault, or error in the coolant. By keeping an eye on the temperature gauze while driving, you will have the upper hand when you run out of coolant.
- Engine cut-off
Modern cars have an automatic cut-off feature, designed to prevent damage when the engine begins to overheat. As a result, the car will not start until the engine cools down. Therefore, it is advisable to immediately fill up on the right dose of coolant before trying to run your engine.
- Malfunctioning of the heater
Any issues with the coolant result in the heater not responding. The heater utilizes the residual heat the coolant absorbs from circulating through the engine. When you run out of coolant, the heater does not receive the amount of heat it requires to operate. So, when there is blockage or leakage of the coolant in the engine, the heater would malfunction, causing to either blow only hot air or no hot air at all.
- Mild sweet smell
A sweet smell while driving is a sign of leaking or faulty coolant. You may also see steam come from under your hood due to an overheated engine or unexpected film under the film of your windshield as a sign of leaking antifreeze.
- Poor fuel economy
One of the benefits of using antifreeze is that it allows the engine to operate at normal temperatures, which reduces fuel economy. Once a car owner notices the price of the fuel hiking up, ensure to check the vehicle’s coolant levels. Once the engine overheats, it does not burn fuel properly; thus, exponentially increasing exhaust emissions, which is harmful to other drivers and the environment.
Is it okay to top up engine coolant with water?
Good quality coolant usually is premixed with water; hence, you can put it directly in your car. If your coolant level is too low (near, on or below the lower mark), top it up with a 50/50 mixture of coolant and water when driving in normal conditions. You can also pour premixed antifreeze into the reservoir if it is nearby.
During emergencies, you may also opt to use tap water as a coolant as it serves as a quick solution to cooling down the engine. However, it is best to add coolant as soon as possible to avoid engine damage. Do not overfill to prevent damaging the entire cooling system.
How to thaw a frozen radiator?
Winter is a tough season on vehicles, especially if car owners do not take the necessary precautions. Apart from the snow reducing your visibility and ice making the roads more slippery, cold weather also affects your vehicle by reducing fuel efficiency.
Once water freezes in your radiator, your car will likely freeze up as well causing it to overheat. Insufficient cold weather protection results in the freezing up of the contents in your cooling system. As such, what do you do to thaw your frozen radiator?
- Do not run the engine
Often, many people assume that heating the engine from the freezing point will thaw the radiator and get the fluids flowing again. However, without the steady flow of antifreeze/coolant, the engine is likely to overheat. As a result, it may cause an explosion due to the amount of pressure from the blocked cooling system.
- Give the radiator time to thaw
Once your entire cooling system is frozen, it is best to allow it adequate time to thaw. If you park your vehicle outside in cold weather, it may take time for it to thaw appropriately. Find a way to move it to a shelter or warmer location safely. It is possible to speed up the thawing process by placing a fan heater in front of the radiator. Point it directly at the car to ensure the heat generated helps in melting the frozen fluids quicker. It is essential only to drive the car once you are sure the radiator is wholly thawed through. After complete thawing, flush and drain the entire cooling system and replace all the fluids with top quality coolant/antifreeze. Good antifreeze provides thawing protection, regardless of the temperature.
- Check the level of antifreeze/coolant before winter season begins
Ascertaining the level and strength of your antifreeze/coolant before the winter season arrives is an effective preventive measure against frozen radiators. By using a coolant tester, you can visually inspect for sediment and rust, allowing you to test for anti-boil/antifreeze protection quickly.
According to Prestone, a 1:1 mixture of water and coolant/antifreeze provides the best protection against boil over and freezing. This mixture also aids in removing harmful acids that build up from your engine coolant over time. If you live in an area where the temperatures drop dangerously low, you may opt to buy a block heater to prevent such scenarios.
Will my car freeze without antifreeze?
Antifreeze/coolant flows through the engine and its components, ensuring optimum working temperature throughout. Antifreeze keeps your engine from freezing during extremely cold weather. Once your vehicle runs out of antifreeze, your vehicle is likely to freeze up and stop running. Similarly, the following is likely to happen.
How cold does it have to be for gas to freeze in your car?
Gas is a mixture of various hydrocarbons and additives in different quantities. There are multiple types of gasoline, including ethanol, octane, hexane, heptane, and butane, among many others. All these different ingredients in gasoline have different freezing points, which impact the actual freezing point of the gas itself.
Gasoline freezes between -40 and -76 degrees Celsius. As the temperature decreases, the composition of gasoline changes gradually. Gums and sediments begin to separate themselves from the gas. At extremely low temperatures, the hydrocarbon molecules, such as iso-nonane and cyclo-heptane, solidify and begin to look wax-like. These molecules continue solidifying as the temperatures go lower, leaving light and unstable molecules.
Car fuel lines are also capable of freezing and catching solid sediments suspended in the gas, causing severe damage. Similarly, if your gas level is not full during winter, the moisture in the air in your gas tank freezes, further damaging the fuel lines.
Symptoms of frozen fuel lines
Often, your gas tank is not as likely to freeze as compared to your fuel lines. Fuel lines are small and metal pipes that run through your engine as cold air travels over them for cooling purposes. As such, gasoline is only likely to freeze in freezing temperatures as it will begin to crystallize or coagulate due to some of its components freezing. However, fuel lines will freeze if you leave your car in the freezing outdoors for an extended period or while driving in severe cold conditions.
Once the fuel lines freeze, gas does not enter the engine. Some symptoms of frozen fuel lines include:
- Stalling or sputtering while driving
Your gas tank can still freeze despite the heat generated while driving. Freezing of gas occurs in extremely unbearable cold conditions. Whether it is a frozen gas line or gas tank, the vehicle will stall or sputter while on the road.
- Car not starting
If your engine does not start on a cold morning, you likely have frozen fuel lines. However, you can warm up your car by letting the lines unfreeze, allowing your car to start normally. To unfreeze the lines faster, push your vehicle into the garage or in a warm environment.
- No turnover
With frozen fuel lines, the vehicle may turn over but not start, meaning it is the engine does not have enough supply of fuel. Similarly, it may also not turn over or start, meaning the fuel line is completely frozen. However, if the engine can still turn over but not start, allow the fuel lines to thaw naturally.
At what temperature does a car engine freeze?
Cold and damp weather can wreak havoc on your vehicle if you do not take precautions. Apart from affecting your car battery, tire pressure, starter motors, and fuel systems, it can also freeze your engine. As such, it is advisable to use a good quality coolant/antifreeze to maintain average working temperatures in your engine.
Car engines require a constant flow of coolant that regulates its working temperature, even during cold seasons. Once the engine freezes, it is likely that your radiator is frozen or that the coolant is not circulating as it should.
Many auto experts believe freezing temperatures that dip well below zero are detrimental to your vehicle, including the engine. When you have a frozen engine, it is natural to assume that running the car automatically warms up the engine. Contrary to popular belief, this habit is harmful to your environment, wallet, as well as your car.
Once the engine reaches a working temperature of 40 degrees, it reverts to its regular working conditions with normal fuel injection. However, car idling does not help the engine reach this temperature any faster than driving would.
Symptoms of frozen engine block
Most engine freezing problems are due to using water instead of coolant in trucks and cars. Water is known to expand when it freezes at 32 degrees Celsius. Such expansion may result in a crack on the iron or aluminum block of the engine since the engine block is not flexible. An engine block is expensive to repair and may lead to severe damage to the engine itself.
Similarly, extremely low temperatures or diluted coolant causes the water in the engine block to freeze. When water freezes and expands, it easily raptures the delicate heat exchanger tubes, damaging the radiator and causing the engine to overheat.
Luckily, modern automakers build vehicle engines with large bored holes from the outside of the engine block into the water jacket and fit soft metal plugs also referred to as freeze plugs, into these holes to form a tight seal. Once the water in the engine block happens to freeze, these plugs are forced out of the block to relieve the pressure, allowing the engine to start normally. Once the water unfreezes, it leaks out.
Using water instead of coolant is best in cases of emergencies. Water does not have the corrosion inhibiting properties of coolant, and neither can it withstand extreme temperatures. Antifreeze has several ingredients that enable it to cool the engine and maintain a constant temperature for its normal operation. As such, find a good quality of coolant to put into your reservoir for better fuel economy and prolonged engine life.
Is distilled water better than tap water as car coolant?
The reason car owners have a preference for distilled water to tap water is that it has a balanced PH that won’t harm your cooling systems. Depending on where you are getting your tap water, it can be filled with various harmful elements like hard minerals, slime and other impurities. Such chemicals can react negatively with your coolant causing further harm to your engine. The correct mixture should be fifty-fifty distilled water and coolant.
How long does coolant last?
Firstly, you should always ensure that your coolant levels do not go below the stipulated minimum amount. Concerning the expiry of coolant it is believed to last for around 3 years before it starts losing its properties. If you live in an area receiving very cold temperatures then ensure you purchase a coolant that will accommodate such temperatures.
Is the coolant the same as anti-freeze?
The two names are often used synonymously. The anti-freeze often comes in bright green or yellow colors depending on brand. It’s purpose is to prevent your engine from overheating or freezing. Most of the coolants are made from propylene glycol or ethylene glycol. You should mix the coolant and water in the ratio of 1:1. Since anti-freeze is sweet smelling and good looking take precautions not to accidentally swallow it as it is poisonous. Check with your mechanic for the best coolant for your car.