Polar vortices have conjured a whole new concept of cold recently, with parts of the US being dominated by sub-zero temperatures for a considerable stretch of time. Some might recall from high school science class, that “cold” is just an abstraction; and that what we perceive as cold is actually an absence, to some degree, of heat or energy. The last thing any of us want during this frigid winter is a lack of heat, especially in our cars as we drive to work, or while running errands. It’s essential then that we ensure that the fluid levels in our vehicle’s radiator system are good, adding antifreeze as needed; so that we don’t find ourselves with an extreme absence of heat.
So what is antifreeze? Antifreeze is a substance that is added to water, to enhance two essential chemical properties of the fluid: the freezing point, and the boiling point. Water, in its purest form freezes at 32° F (0° C) and boils at 212° F (99.98° C). Your internal combustion engine can easily get hotter than what it takes to boil water; and if allowed to get hotter and hotter, the metal can deform and ruin you engine, in a number of ways. This is another reason to make sure your radiator has plenty of fluid and that the system is working properly. Water makes a good cooling system and most automobiles are “water cooled”. Because the engine’s heat can exceed the temperature at which water boils; and since, as some of you may have noticed recently, and even still today, the outside temperatures can drop bellow the point at which water freezes; antifreeze is added to essentially balance things out.
When a secondary substance is added to water, or any fluid, its freezing/melting and boiling points change. Adding salt to water makes it boil faster, which is why a cook might add a pinch of it to a pot of water when making spaghetti or boiling an egg. It’s also the reason we throw special types of salt on our sidewalks and driveways; as this, combined with the frozen water on the ground, forming a new chemical mixture with a lower freezing point than water alone, and begins to melt at temperatures bellow 32° F. Antifreeze works in a similar way. It’s been designed to mix with water in a solution that stays liquid bellow 32° F and boils at a much higher temperature than 212° F.
You may notice that when you start your car, it isn’t hot right away; that’s because the radiator system cools the engine by bleeding the heat away from the engine block and into radiator fluid, where it can be safely dispersed – either through the fan under the hood blowing out heat through the grill; or into your car’s cabin, through the ventilation system, providing you with an abundance of heat for you, your chilly extremities and your frost windows. Since the engine isn’t hot right away, neither is the heat blowing through your vents, but the engine heats up quickly, and a properly working radiator system will remedy the cold blowing inside your car before too long. So if you find yourself without heat in your car, check if you need to add fluid to your radiator system. It’s also good maintenance practice to have your fluid tested and changed around every 30,000-50,000 miles; as it’ll breakdown over time and use.
But take note! As you can imagine, the radiator system can get very hot once your car has been running, even after only a short amount of time; and can still be hot for a long period after it’s been shut off. So on average you should never take the radiator cap off, to check the fluid, unless you’re absolutely positive the fluid inside is cool. Besides the cap itself being hot, the fluid side the radiator line can be hotter still, as well as being under pressure, due to the extreme heat. If you open the radiator cap before it’s fully cooled; the hot, pressurized fluid inside will erupt out of the line in a very powerful, scalding burst of fluid.
Even if the engine and radiator system is cool enough to open the radiator cap, you still don’t need to, because there’s another point designed for access and the addition of fluid, called the overflow tank. This is usually a well marked plastic container, which serves as a reservoir for radiator fluid. You may have to check your user’s manual, but the overflow tank can generally be found by following the hose from the radiator. This tank is then typically marked at different levels, to inform you when you’re low on fluid and should add more; and when you’re at a suitable level of fluid for the vehicle. It’s in this tank that you can add the fluid at any time, without risk of injury. When adding the fluid, make sure you know what type of radiator fluid you bought, as some are sold as a prepared mixture of radiator fluid and water in the necessary ratio of the two; and can be added straight to the radiator system without any additional steps. Other containers may be pure, undiluted antifreeze, for which you need to mix with water, before adding it to the radiator.
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Drive safe, and stay warm.