About Your Car Radiator: Replacement Costs & Tips to Prolong Its Life

Car Radiator Failure Smoke

Most of us have a good idea what a car radiator looks like and where the radiator is located, however the workings and more importantly the failures are slightly more complex. The car radiator is a device to exchange heat from the engine with the surrounding, cooler air.

Hot coolant enters one side of the radiator through the upper hose, then moves across and 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 – the ones where the bugs get stuck. All this surface is ideal for the rush of cooler air either being 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. This is why the front grill is designed with plenty of open space.

Symptoms of Car Radiator Failure

Radiators fail in two ways that creep up on us rather than come knocking. 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, so 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

In addition to leaks, restrictions or clogging will cause problems over time especially with little or no preventive maintenance. Rust and corrosion develop in the radiator and throughout the coolant system. As the rust flakes off and becomes part of the coolant flow these smaller particles will build up in the smaller tubes of the radiator. The radiator becomes restricted or clogged leading to uneven cooling or the overheating of the engine.

Car Radiator Replacement

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When the radiator has failed, either through leaking or from clogging up, the replacement must be performed right away. Severe overheating will cause catastrophic damage to an engine, and lead to much bigger – and more expensive – repairs.

Most shops and repair facilities will be able to change the radiator, and usually the same day. Most radiators will run from $120 to $200 depending upon the type of car, and installation will be an additional $80 to $300 deciding by how much of the front of the car needs to be taken apart. Upper and lower radiator hoses are a good add on at $60 to $80 for the set with very little or no additional labor.

How to Prevent Radiator Failure
To extend the life of your radiator, the single most important prevention is to change the engine coolant following the manufacturer’s schedule or 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, but also the rest of the system will be protected and the rust will not be carried back to clog up the radiator. A coolant flush with quality OE fluid usually runs $100 to $120, and will help postpone radiator replacement into the 120,000 to 150,000 miles.