What Does a Car Radiator Do? And Tips to Prolong Its Life

Car Radiator Failure Smoke

A car radiator is simply a device that exchanges heat from the engine with the surrounding, cooler air. The failures are slightly more complex, but preventable.

What Does a Car Radiator Do?

Hot coolant enters the radiator through the upper hose, then moves down a series of small tubes built into a large, flat surface area. The heat from the coolant is transferred to these tubes and then onto many tiny metal vanes.  This surface area is needed for the rush of cooler air drawn in by the radiator fan, or by the speed of the car.
Now in most modern cars, this front area can get quite crowded: the air conditioning has its own radiator called a condenser, and the transmission fluid might also have a cooler or even use part of the radiator. For these reasons, the front grill is designed with plenty of open space.

Symptoms of Car Radiator Failure

Radiators fail in two ways. Unfortunately, these malfunctions creep up on us, and may not be obvious until it’s too late. That’s why prevention is very important.


The most common failure is leaks. Like most parts in a vehicle, the radiator is constructed from aluminum and plastic, to help with fuel economy.  It doesn’t take much corrosion or jarring to start a small hole or crack. With all the shielding underneath, and simple evaporation, we might not notice these small leaks until it’s too late, and the car is overheating

Restrictions and Clogging

Restrictions and clogs are caused by the rust and corrosion that develops in the radiator and throughout the coolant system. They’re especially common if there’s been little or no preventive maintenance.
The clogs are brought about by the rust that flakes off and joins the coolant flow.  These small rust particles build up in the smaller tubes of the radiator. Clogs and restrictions cause uneven cooling, or the overheating of the engine.

Car Radiator Replacement

When the radiator has failed, either through leaking or from clogging up, replacement must be performed right away. Severe overheating causes catastrophic damage to an engine, and leads to much bigger – and more expensive – repairs.
Most shops and repair facilities will be able to change the radiator, and usually can do it in the same day. Most radiators run $120 to $200, depending upon the type of car. Installation costs an additional $80 to $300, based on how much the front of the car needs to be taken apart.
Upper and lower radiator hoses are a good add-on at $60 to $80, with very little or no additional labor.

How to Prevent Radiator Failure

The single most effective way to prevent radiator failure is to change the engine coolant. You should follow the manufacturer’s schedule, or do so at least every 30,000 miles.
In addition to the chemicals that help carry heat, coolant also contains rust inhibitors that protect the steel and aluminum interiors of the entire system. These inhibitors prevent the radiator itself from breaking down and developing weak spots and holes. They ensure that the entire system will be protected, and that rust will not be carried back to clog up the radiator.
A coolant flush with quality OE fluid usually runs $100 to $120, and helps to postpone a much costlier radiator replacement. 

Need a coolant flush, or radiator replacement?

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