Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Troubleshooting Professional Magazine

Volume 4 Issue 5, May 2000
Troubleshooting Automotive Overheating
Copyright (C) 2000 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

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You can see additional updated cooling system information in the April 2002 Troubleshooting Professional Magazine at

Editors Desk

By Steve Litt

There's nothing like seeing your temperature idiot light go on, seeing steam coming out of your hood, hearing that gurgling sound and perhaps having your engine stall to ruin your day. Automotive cooling systems malfunction sometimes, especially when not well maintained.

And the results can be disasterous. Broken head gasket costing $2K to repair. Perhaps a broken flywheel and starter also. Maybe even a bent head. Big bucks. Be careful!

Disasterous overheats happen frequently while driving up long, steep hills such as "The Grapevine", an eight mile stretch of 6% grade on I5 between Los Angeles and Bakersfield cresting at Tejon Pass. Even perfectly designed cars have cooling trouble on such hills, and cars with poorly maintained cooling systems routinely die on such hills, often requiring four figure repair bills.

This Troubleshooting Professional Magazine issue is devoted to troubleshooting automotive overheating. It's an anguishing and potentially expensive affliction often compounded by erroneous diagnosis. Those bad diagnoses cost our society many millions. Worse, my research tells me that many cars on the road are among the walking dead -- assumed healthy but on the verge of catastrophic overheat.

I'm a computer guy, not a mechanic. But by the nature of Troubleshooters.Com, I'm the guy asked for advice when auto shops fail. As a Troubleshooter, I have no choice but to get to the bottom of it. And given enough correspondence to check and correlate, I've drawn what I feel are some pretty sound conclusions, and propose what I believe to be an overheating diagnostic strategy that minimizes expense by minimizing inaccurate diagnosis.

It may seem strange to see an issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine devoted to cars. Yet look a little deeper and it's evident that automotive cooling systems present a simple yet dramatic lesson in use of the Universal Troubleshooting Process.

Steve Litt is the documenter of the Universal Troubleshooting Process. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Disclaimer and Disclosure

By Steve Litt


The information on in this document is information is presented "as is",  without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied, including, but not limited to, the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. the entire risk as to the quality and performance of the information is with you. Should this information prove defective, you assume the cost of all necessary servicing, repair, correction or medical care.

In no event unless required by applicable law or agreed to in writing will the copyright holder, authors, or any other party who may modify and/or redistribute the information, be liable to you for damages, including any general, special, incidental or consequential damages or personal injury arising out of the use or inability to use the information, even if such holder or other party has been advised of the possibility of such damages.


I am not a mechanic, nor even a particularly mechanically inclined car owner. My primary place in automotive Troubleshooting is reporting of symptoms and conducting tests. The limits of my automotive mechanical work are replacement of batteries, and rare minor tuneups infrequent thermostat replacement. My knowledge of specific cars extends only to those I've owned, and my wife's car.

The information you see in this document is my opinion, based on personal experience, experiences reported by Troubleshooters.Com visitors, and research. I have placed it here after a substantial number of Troubleshooters.Com visitors reported mechanics coming to logically inconsistent conclusions and troubleshooting by random replacement during cooling system troubleshooting. I'm no more perfect than the average mechanic, so it wouldn't surprise me to find that some of the information in this document is erroneous. If you choose to use this document's information, you should use it in addition to information from other sources.


There was a time this type of disclaimer would have seemed absurd, but today lawyers rule the land. Now with UCITA rearing its ugly head, failure of an electronic author to absolve himself of all responsibility can be disastrous. To the 99.9% of you who take responsibilities for your own actions and earn your money through hard work rather than lawsuits, I apologize for the necessity of this disclaimer.
Steve Litt is the author of Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Mental Model of the Cooling System

By Steve Litt
A car converts about a third of its fuel's energy to mechanical energy to move the car. About a third goes out the tailpipe unused. Most of the remaining third is released as heat. That heat must be conducted away from the car's engine, or the engine will reach temperatures fatal to the engine. At the simplest conceptual level, here's what happens:

The water pump pushes cool coolant from the radiator into the engine, where heat from the engine is transferred into the coolant, thereby cooling the engine. Assuming the thermostat is open or partially open, the hot coolant leaves the engine through the thermostat and is transported to the radiator, where its heat is transferred to the air blowing through the radiator, thereby cooling the coolant. The cooled water is then ready to once again go to the water pump.

Note that the areas in the engine through which the coolant flows are called the "water jacket". Note that some of these areas include intentional holes in the head gasket. Those holes do not constitute a head gasket breach, because there's coolant on both sides. It's only when a part of the head gasket separating coolant from combustion gasses from oil that the head gasket is considered breached.

Note that a parallel coolant flow path goes through the passenger compartment heater. This is why it's advised to turn on your heater full blast in the case of an overheat (but remember never to jeopardize personal safety doing this, and remember this is a last ditch workaround and the car should not continue to be driven under these circumstances).

The airflow through the radiator depends on the fan at low driving speeds, but at high speeds most cars force air through from the grille. Note also that the air conditioning coil assembly is in front of the radiator, so if the air conditioning is on, the air flowing through the radiator will have been warmed by the air conditioner, thereby reducing cooling efficiency. That's why huge inclines like the Grapevine usually post signs to turn off your air conditioner before beginning ascent.

In summary, the engine passes its heat to the coolant, which flows to the radiator and then passes its heat to the radiator, which passes its heat to the air being blown through it. Any interference with this heat flow dangerously reduces cooling capacity. If cooling capacity falls below the amount of heat generated by the engine, overheating results. The answers to the following questions help determine the cooling capacity of the cooling system:

Later in this Troubleshooting Professional issue these simple heat transfer questions will be transformed into troubleshooting tactics.

Excess Cooling Capacity

Automotive cooling systems must have HUGE levels of excess cooling capacity. Next time you drive 60 mph on a flat deserted road, notice how far you push on the gas pedal. Probably a millimeter to a centimeter. Now see how much you need to push the gas pedal to ascend a 6% grade at 45mph. Probably an inch or 2. Go up to 65 and on some cars you'll be near flooring it. 1/3 of all that gasoline is converted into heat.

Your cooling system must be able to get rid of all that heat. Difficult enough, it becomes even more of a challenge if the air temperature is warm (less heat transfer from radiator to air), and brutal if your car is heavily loaded or towing something. If the heat generated by combustion significantly exceeds the cooling capacity, you'll severely overheat quickly (typically after a mile or two of climbing).

A well functioning cooling system has the capacity to maintain the engine at under 100 degrees temperature during continuous 50mph level drives on cool days. But of course the temperature needs to be 160-230 Fahrenheit, depending on the car (consult your owners manual). That means in most driving situations the cooling capacity must be partially defeated. This is accomplished by the thermostat, which acts as a deliberate bottleneck, regulating the amount of cooling to keep the temperature at a proper level. A somewhat typical thermostat would be closed until 180 Fahrenheit, after which it would open further as the temperature increases, until at 195 it's completely open. This means that in the 15 degrees between 180 and 195, the cooling capacity would go from 0 to the full capacity of the system (enough to scoot up the Grapevine at 65 mph carrying 5 people in a well designed, maintained machine). Below is a graph showing how temperature increases with increased engine heat production (i.e., more gas):

The portion in blue represents a level of heat production so small that it can be disbursed by the direct contact of the engine with ambient air. In practice this might be achieved in the case of a 40mph wind blowing into the open hood of a car idling in the deep of a northern Minnesota winter's night, but otherwise this condition is never seen in real life. An idling engine, and certainly driving, at anything resembling normal conditions requires radiator cooling.
NOTE: Don't make the mistake of thinking the preceding diagram represents temperature versus time. While that graph would look similar at the leftmost part of the graph, that's not what's being represented. You can think of the preceding diagram as a graph of various driving conditions, each maintained for 10 minutes or more.

The violet portion represents heat production levels within the regulated cooling capacity of the cooling system. The slight temperature gain across this range is due to the fact that the thermostat opens slowly and steadily over a range of about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the normal operating range of the vehicle. All driving should be done in this range.

The red portion represents a heat production level beyond the cooling capacity of the cooling system. The temperature goes sky high. On a well maintained vehicle, you would expect the red portion only when the car is used beyond its design capabilities, like using a compact car to pull a trailer up the Grapevine.

The bottom line is that on a well maintained vehicle, the bottleneck, by a huge margin, is the thermostat. Contrast that with a vehicle with a compromised cooling system not capable of cooling a hard worked engine, or in extreme cases even a lightly worked engine:

Here there's no regulation. The entire graph is basically a straight line. Moderate hard usage sends the car into the red. The operating temperature of a vehicle in this state of repair would vary widely with ambient temperature and length of time driving. Typically no "typical operating temperature" can be identified for a vehicle in this state. Such a vehicle will almost certainly experience a catastrophic overheat the first time the driver takes a lengthy drive, or drives in hot weather, or drives up a moderate hill.

The controlling bottleneck of this vehicle is not the thermostat -- it's something else in the cooling system. The automotive technician's task is to find that bottleneck.

Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process course. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Examining the Two Cooling Chicken-and-Eggs

By Steve Litt
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the chicken cause the egg, or did the egg cause the chicken? Here are two more chicken and egg questions: Meaningful overheat solutions are elusive until these two questions are answered. Except when the cause of the overheat is completely obvious, these two questions must be answered. Even in the most obvious cases, remember than even if the root cause wasn't a broken head gasket, the overheat could have caused consequential failure of the head gasket.

Did the overheat cause the busted head gasket, or did the busted head gasket cause the overheat?

Overheated engines often break their head gaskets (and sometimes even bend or break the heads themselves). This is especially likely on a bimetal engine, where the heads are aluminum and the block is iron, or vice versa. Two metals expanding at different rates are an excellent way to stress both the metals and the gasket between them.

But did you know that a broken head gasket can CAUSE an overheat? Many mechanics don't know this, but an otherwise symptomless broken head gasket (no yellow gunk on the oil cap, no steam out the exhaust) can allow combustion gasses from the cylinders to leak into the water jacket. Such leakage has several possible effects, all of which make overheating more likely:

Sometimes the pressure created by the combustion gasses do not force coolant out, but instead build up until the combustion gasses are "burped" out the radiator cap and into the reservoir. Such a situation can create "cyclic overheating", in which the temperature raises and lowers at regular intervals (20 minutes has been often reported to Troubleshooters.Com). Another possible mechanism for cyclic overheating is where the elevated temperature "seals" the hole in the head gasket, which then opens again when the temperature returns to normal.

Occasionally "incidental overheating" is reported to Troubleshooters.Com. This means that after the engine warms up, it overheats, and then continued driving brings it back to normal temperature for the remainder of the drive. I would suspect this is a combustion gas caused overheat which happens only while warming up. Another explanation for "incidental overheating" is the gas bubble that settles on the thermostat, insulating it from the engine's heat and preventing it from opening. When something finally happens to dislodge the bubble (a bump, a burp, whatever), the thermostat opens and all gas is blown out into the radiator, eliminating the cause of the problem (until the next time the car stands cool long enough to develop a gas bubble).

NOTE: Theoretically there can be many sources of gas in the coolant. The bubble surrounding thermostat hypothesis can be tested by temporarily removing the thermostat. If the symptom disappears, it's either a bad thermostat or a bubble surrounding the thermostat. Then install a known good replacement thermostat. If the problem reappears, the problem was a bubble surrounding the thermostat.
Incidental overheats that happen early in every drive, and then return to normal temperature, should be investigated for an air bubble surrounding the thermostat.
Never run a car without a thermostat for an extended period of time. Modern cars must be run within tight parameters to prevent abnormal wear and tear.
The common thread in all these head-gasket caused symptom is that they're caused by gasses in the coolant (usually itself caused by head gasket failure). Replacing the radiator or water pump won't fix the head gasket. At best, installing a higher capacity radiator may reduce the severity of such an overheat. The mechanic and customer need to know if a head gasket breach is allowing combustion gasses into the coolant. Fortunately there are two quick and easy tests: A block tester is a device that can be bought from a NAPA store. It has dye which changes color in the presence of exhaust gasses. From what I understand, you can get about 6 tests from one block tester, and the block tester costs around $45.00. The quote I got from my local NAPA dealer was $45.99. He didn't have it in stock, but said he could have it the next day. The relevant NAPA catalog is called "The PSA 2000 catalog" or the "Balkamp Catalog". The catalog calls the Block Tester a "combustion leak tester kit", so that's probably what you should ask for. From what I understand, it comes with a ball, tubes, test fluid, aspirator bulb and engine adapter (cone shaped device you place in your radiator filler cap). If there's exhaust in your coolant the test fluid changes color.

From what I understand, a smog sniffer is an even better method. The smog sniffer is placed above the radiator filler cap, and the HydroCarbon (HC) level is measured. Use extreme care to prevent any contact between the coolant and sniffer probe, as contact with the coolant will ruin the probe. I understand that the car should be warmed up (but not overheated) before performing this test.

Flat Earth Mechanics

Unfortunately, many mechanics believe that all head gasket flaws exhibit themselves as coolant in the oil (yellow gunk on the oil cap) or coolant in the cylinders (voluminous white steam out the exhaust). Such mechanics are almost certain to misdiagnose a head gasket caused overheat or coolant loss. I believe this accounts for many of the Troubleshooters.Com reader reports of "they replaced my water pump, radiator, thermostat and hoses, and it still happens". Such diagnosis by replacement is very expensive, and still leaves the owner to pay for the head gasket when someone finally properly diagnoses the problem.

I believe that in all but the most totally obvious overheats, the coolant must be checked for combustion gasses. If your mechanic doesn't believe it's necessary to check for combustion gasses, either because he thinks a head gasket problem can't cause an overheat or because he believes broken head gaskets always exhibit yellow gunk on the oil cap and/or white steam out the exhaust, I recommend you find a different mechanic. Even if the test costs you $60.00, it's likely to prevent expenditures for "diagnosis by substitution". Also, it facilitates a much more accurate cost estimate. Nobody wants to be told they must spend $1000.00 to replace a head gasket after they just bought a radiator.

Did the overheat cause coolant loss, or did the coolant loss cause the overheat?

An overheated engine will always spew water out the reservoir, creating a low-coolant situation. Likewise, a low coolant situation will likely cause an overheat (which of course will result in further coolant loss). Was low coolant the root cause, or was it just a symptom? Obviously, the problem will remain until the root cause is fixed.

The answer is found using a pressure test, together with head gasket tests. There are four places your coolant can go:

  1. Out an external leak from a hose, water pump, radiator, etc.
  2. Out the reservoir as a result of excess pressure from an overheat or combustion gas leakage
  3. Into the cylinders through a broken head gasket
  4. Into the oil through a broken gasket
#4 can be ruled in or out by observing the oil and oil cap. #3 can be pretty well deduced by observing the exhaust, especially on startup. #2 can be deduced with a block tester or smog sniffer. And #1 can be deduced by a pressure test.

In a pressure test, the mechanic removes the radiator cap (after the engine has cooled, obviously), and replaces it with a cap attached to a pump with a pressure gauge. He pumps it up to a pressure above your system's rated pressure, and observes whether it can hold that pressure for 2 minutes or more. If not, there's a leak. The next step is visual observation to find the location of the leak. If it can't be seen, the next step might be to place an ultra-violet reactive dye in the coolant, pump up the pressure, and look for leaks under an ultraviolet light.

While it's possible for a pressure test to push coolant through a break in the head gasket into cylinders or oil, often such leakage requires a greater pressure than that developed by the pressure test. This is why a successful pressure test does not rule out a broken head gasket.

Obviously, any leaks must be fixed. Once it's confirmed that there are no leaks, other causes can be confidently investigated.

Steve Litt is the main author of Samba Unleashed. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

The Thermostat Bubble Connection

By Steve Litt
A.S.E. certified master truck and auto mechanic Dennis Buler emailed me, mentioning he's solved many overheats by drilling a 1/8" hole in the thermostat. Dennis explained that if any gas, be it air, combustion gas, or steam, gathers around the thermostat, that often the thermostat can't detect the coolant heat, and therefore doesn't open. If only the thermostat would open, the gas would be "blown" into the radiator. And of only the gas were "blown" into the radiator, the thermostat would open. Catch 22.

Dennis explains that his 1/8" hole provides an escape route for the gas without passing so much coolant that the engine runs too cool. In other words, the thermostat will simply open less in order to maintain temperature.

Reading Dennis's email, my mind drifted back to all the emailed symptoms where the car overheated in the first few minutes, then magically dropped back to normal temperature throughout the rest of the trip. Could it be that when cold, air surrounded the thermostat. The thermostat therefore didn't open at the proper temperature. However, when the engine temperature reached overheat levels, maybe the thermostat opened, blowing out the air. The opened thermostat would allow the cooling system to do its job, returning to normal temperature. The partially open thermostat would prevent a gas buildup. Until the car was shut off long enough that the thermostat would completely close :-)

Dennis's findings might suggest that running for an hour with no thermostat might be an excellent test. If overheating occurs with a known good thermostat but doesn't occur without a thermostat, it's a strong suggestion for Dennis's air bubble scenario.

I don't know enough yet to make drilling the hole a suggestion. I don't know its side effects and risks. But it sure sounds reasonable. Add that to the fact that Dennis says he's seen several foreign thermostats come from the factory with a 1/8" hole, and the fact that another Troubleshooters.Com visitor mentions in an email that VW Rabbit owners often drill such a hole to eliminate engine airlock.

If you want to try it (and once again, I don't know enough to recommend it), you can see the location of Dennis's proposed hole in the diagram below. Here's how Dennis describes the location verbally:

"i drill the hole in the flat disk part like half way between where the gasket would seal and the center opening mechanism"
Top view of thermostat. The violet dot at the 12 o'clock position of the rim is where Dennis recommends drilling the 1/8" hole.
Side view of thermostat
Bottom view of thermostat

By the way, Dennis also heartily agreed with my hypothesis that head gasket flaws, even those that don't manifest symptoms of steam out the tailpipe or yellow gunk on the oil cap, can cause overheating for the reasons I've stated in this issue's "Examining the Two Cooling Chicken-and-Eggs" article.

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.
Dennis Buler is an A.S.E. certified master truck and auto mechanic and a volunteer at His URL is listed in the URL's section.

A Possible Overheat Troubleshooting Strategy

By Steve Litt
The overheat troubleshooting strategy I'd like to recommend involves the Universal Troubleshooting Process, which is listed below to refresh your memory:
  1. Get the Attitude
  2. Make a Damage Control Plan
  3. Formulate a Symptom Description
  4. Reproduce the Symptom
  5. Do the General Maintenance
  6. Narrow it Down
  7. Replace or Repair the Defective Part(s)
  8. Test
  9. Take Pride
  10. Prevent Future Occurrence
The remainder of this article describes my suggestion on how to put the Universal Troubleshooting Process to work in diagnosing an overheat.

Get the Attitude

Overheats and the threat of broken head gaskets or broken/warped heads can tax anyone's state of mind. Remember that no matter how bad it is, you'll probably get out of it for $2000.00 or less. Maybe a lot less, like less than $100.00 if it's a bad hose. And after this you'll never let the car overheat again. Accept what comes your way, and vow simply to diagnose the problem in a systematic and accurate way.

Make a Damage Control Plan

Safety, safety, safety. Cars can burn you -- especially overheated cars. Understand that you never remove the radiator cap while the engine is hot. Open only after it's cooled to the point where you can comfortably leave your hand on the radiator for 5 seconds. Even then, be sure to cover the cap with a towel before removing the cap, to prevent spraying. Always wear safety glasses when working on a car, make sure long hair is pinned up tight to prevent it getting caught in the machinery. For the same reason, remove jewelry and even rings.

Make sure to stay well away from an open carburetor, or even the air intake, when running the car. Backfires can cause third degree burns. Take care not to short the battery or cause any sort of spark, as batteries can explode, throwing acid at anyone near. Never work under a jacked up car unless it's been blocked up very securely, and even then keep in mind that the car could be hit by a careless driver or dislodged by an earthquake or extremely strong wind. Wear strong shoes to prevent injury if you should drop a heavy part on your foot.

Resolve to not let the temperature go into the red during testing and repair. Make sure to shut down the engine long before it gets to the red, remembering the engine will heat up more after shutting down.

For further thoughts on safety, see the Troubleshooters.Com Overheating Guide. The time to think of safety is BEFORE beginning your repair.

Formulate a Symptom Description

Does it overheat? Under what conditions? Is it more likely to happen in stop and go traffic, or at a steady 65mph? Is there evidence of coolant loss before the overheat? Do you see dripping coolant anywhere? Billowing steam out the exhaust? Yellow gunk on the oil cap? Continuous bubbles in the radiator? Does the fan ever spin? When?

When did you first notice the symptom? What else happened at that time? Were later occurrences different than the first (an initial low-coolant caused overheat could crack the gasket, after which the cracked gasket could cause overheats even at full coolant). Has the symptom been changing with time? What repairs and maintenance have been done on the vehicle?

Reproduce the Symptom

NEVER DELIBERATELY CAUSE AN OVERHEAT!!! Instead, demonstrate that there is no reasonable "stopping point" on the temperature. Well maintained vehicles always stay well to the left of the red on steady, flat drives. A temperature gauge that goes 2/3 toward the red is very good evidence of a problem. Be sure to shut it down when it reaches that 2/3 point to avoid it actually going into the red.

Subsymptoms such as steam out the exhaust, yellow gunk on the oil cap, dripping coolant, should also be verified at this time.

Do the General Maintenance

General maintenance consists of things that should be done regardless of problem, and easy and obvious steps. Make the following observations while the vehicle is not hot or running. Note that these steps combined should take a few minutes, but they can save costly and embarrassing mis-diagnosis: Now some observations with the engine running:

Next, do the two chicken and egg tests:

I'm well aware that the combustion gas test has a significant cost attached to it, but I have still included it in General Maintenance. The cost of misdiagnosing a broken head gasket is so severe that I believe it warrants the combustion gas test in all but the most obvious cases. Even in cases where a definitive cause is found, such as a broken fan belt, remember that the overheat could have consequently broken the head gasket. Obviously, if steam out the exhaust or coolant in the oil reveals a broken head gasket, you know you have a broken head gasket without doing the combustion gas test.

The few minutes and dollars spent on these tests greatly increase the chance of an accurate diagnosis and estimate. Once again, remember that overheats are likely to cause consequential damage, some of which in and of themselves can cause overheats. It's therefore common for an overheat to be found to have multiple causes.

Then there's a modification. I cannot recommend this, as I don't have enough information on it. But the possibilities sound intriguing. One Troubleshooters.Com visitor, a diesel technician with an ASE certification, says that he often drills a 1/8" hole in the thermostat. The hole is too small to affect the temperature regulation, but it's big enough to bleed out any gas accumulated at the thermostat. Such gas, whether it comes from combustion gasses or other sources (sucking back on a dry reservoir, for instance), could shield the temperature sensing part of the thermostat from the coolant temperature, thus making the thermostat "think" that the engine is cool, so the thermostat remains closed. Overheat city! The little hole bleeds off air before the engine overheats. The same T.C visitor told me in the last couple years he's seen several thermostats, especially for foreign cars, with the hole already there. Hmmmm!

Narrow it Down

If the General Maintenance was done properly, there's probably little you need to do in narrowing it down. Resolve any uncertainties with tests designed to narrow the scope of the problem, always keeping in mind that overheats often have multiple causes, especially in the case of head gasket problems.

Does it overheat more in stop and go traffic, or cruising at 65mph? The former implicates the fan or shroud, the latter tends to rule out the fan and shroud.

Advice to the Mechanic

Inform the customer of all defective or semi-defective equipment you've found. Explain that it's his choice, but fixing a head gasket and leaving the partially clogged radiator could result in another busted head gasket a week later. Explain that replacing the radiator without replacing the head gasket could result in another overheat, and maybe this one will bend the heads. Explain that driving with a broken head gasket risks a broken starter and flywheel if coolant gets in the cylinders.

Advice to the Customer

Don't try to get off cheap in cooling system repairs. Overheats cause major consequential damage, such as broken head gaskets and even broken heads. Broken head gaskets in turn can cause broken starters and flywheels. Replacing a flywheel on a transverse engine is *very* expensive.

First ascertain the condition of the head gasket. If you're driving a cheap car, you may wish to junk it or sell it cheap upon hearing of a head gasket problem, especially if accompanied by a bad radiator. However, remember that all cars need repairs, and the car you replace it with might also need expensive repairs. So if it's a good, reliable car in reasonable condition, it's often best to bite the bullet and do the repair, even to the tune of $2000.00.

Once you've committed to making the repair, replace *all* bad and semi-bad components. If the water pump leaks or has excessive play in the bearings, replace it even if it might not have been the primary root cause. If the radiator is partially clogged, replace it. You don't want that radiator clog to rear its ugly head on a 3000 foot climb.

I consider a finding of clogged radiator to be an opportunity to get a heavy duty radiator. I spare no expense on radiators. A high capacity radiator can compensate for a host of other problems. When my Dodge Coronet radiator needed replacement, I had Harry at Valley Radiator build me a 17x25 4 row monster. It cost me $400.00, but let me tell you, when I drove it across the country in one of the worst heat waves ever, I was darned glad I spent the money. If you don't have a radiator shop you trust enough to custom build you a thyroidal radiator, or if you have a recent car that can't take a custom radiator, ask for the stock radiator that comes with the car's "towing package". Such a radiator is designed to dissipate the heat generated while towing a trailer up a 3000 foot climb. The extra $100 or so will be greatly appreciated as the years go on.

Sometimes you have the option of repairing the radiator. If you already have a heavy duty radiator, and there's a real opportunity to restore it to like-new condition, maybe you'll choose to repair the radiator. But you would still have deposits and diminished capacity after repairing the radiator, I'd personally choose to buy a new radiator instead of attempting the repair. A top functioning radiator is your best defense against long steep climbs or long drives in hundred degree weather.

Replace or Repair the Defective Part(s)

Once mechanic and customer have reached a decision on the strategy of the repair, the parts are replaced and the old parts are given to the customer if requested. As a customer, I personally always request the old parts.


Owner Testing

The mechanic himself should have driven the car long enough to see it stabilize at a running temperature. If it doesn't stabilize, the repair is not complete.

Mechanic Testing

First, drive under normal conditions to verify that the temperature stabilizes at a reasonable figure. If it does, this takes guts, but I recommend a trip over a peak like the Grapevine (but no air conditioning please, cars aren't designed to take that kind of abuse). If the temperature doesn't stabilize, shut it down long before the temperature gauge redlines. When it cools, fill the coolant, turn around and limp home. Consult the mechanic.

Take Pride

The car no longer overheats. You can drive it over the Grapevine (or whatever passes for the Grapevine in your area). Take a moment to reflect on the fact that there was no voodoo or magic, just a root cause (possibly with consequential damage) that the mechanic and customer found and vanquished. Rejoice in the fact that you'll now pay regular attention to your temperature gauge, discover your car's baseline behavior, and take quick corrective steps when your car deviates from that baseline behavior. No more destructive overheats for you.

Prevent Future Occurrence

First and foremost, resolve to glance at the temperature gauge two or more times per hour. Get to know the baseline behavior of your cooling system. Upon detecting a deviation, get it taken care of. A new water pump is what, $200 installed? A new heavy duty radiator is maybe $350 installed. New hoses are about $100. Same with the belts. All of these are a drop in the bucket compared to the head gasket replacement you'll need if your car overheats. Your temperature gauge is a very sensitive test for cooling system malfunction.

Some cars don't have a temperature gauge, instead relying on an idiot light which flashes when the temperature becomes critical. In my opinion, that light might as well have the words, "ha ha, you just broke your head gasket" written on it. At that point you can't even safely drive it to the mechanic. My 82 Buick was just such a car. After replacing its head gasket and starter ($1150 back in 1987), I spent another $125 to have a temperature gauge installed. That gauge was probably what saved me from a second blown head gasket a couple years later.

Resolve to check your coolant level at least once a week. Get to know its level both cold and hot. Top off as necessary. Personally, I'd recommend mixing antifreeze with distilled water. That cuts down on deposits, and unless your car is using enough coolant to indicate a problem, one 69 cent bottle of distilled water will last you a couple years. If you need to top off your coolant frequently, it may be time to check your cooling system, especially checking for combustion gasses in the coolant. This is especially true if you experience unexplained coolant losses on long trips.

Resolve to treat long steep climbs and long drives with respect. Always confirm proper coolant level before beginning the trip. If you have *any* question at all about your cooling system, stop and top off the reservoir, and then wait 25 minutes for cool down and "suck back", before beginning a long steep climb. View your temperature gauge at least every minute during a steep climb. If the temperature gets uncomfortably close to the red, pull over, run it for a minute at 1200 rpm in neutral or park, then shut it down til it cools down. Once it's stopped boiling and sputtering, top off the reservoir with coolant so that the cooling radiator will have coolant to "suck back". Continue adding as cooling continues to best facilitate a full cooling system.

Don't be macho about running your air conditioning while climbing. If the temperature varies significantly from baseline, turn off the air conditioner and open the windows.

Cars break. It's a fact of life. Your cooling system is the perfect example of "a stitch in time saves nine".

Steve Litt is the documenter of the Universal Troubleshooting Process. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Harry Tchakerian: 1936 - 1997

By Steve Litt
When my 67 Dodge Coronet needed a radiator, I asked five shops where I should get it. All five said Valley Radiator in Van Nuys (California), run by Harry Tchakerian (pronounced chok-er-yan, with emphasis on the middle syllable). Harry set me up with a 25x17 4 row that kept its cool on a fully loaded move from Los Angeles to Orlando during the 100 degree plus heat wave in the summer of 1998. Harry died on December 22, 1997, but his shop and the quality he brought to the business live on.

I interviewed Harry's brother, Yedvart Tchakerian, on 5/1/2000. Starting out slowly, it turned into a heck of an interview. Here's Yedvart's story...

Born in 1936, Harry arrived in America as a refugee with no skills, no money, and no English, in the late 40's or 50's. He managed to get a job in a radiator shop. And he learned.

By 1961, Harry acquired 50% ownership of West Adams Radiator in the L.A. basin, and in 1965 his brother Yedvart bought the other 50%. They bought two more shops, and then bought Valley Radiator. In those days Valley Radiator was a little radiator repair shop. They bought a fin making machine and started manufacturing cores and radiators. They began selling radiators at a discount, to the extreme dislike of the local competition. But soon enough, the competition realized they could get a great radiator at a great price from Harry. At the height of Valley Radiator's success, they had 25 employees and were importing radiators from Taiwan. They scaled back in the 1990's, concentrating on high quality repairs and radiator manufacturing, as well as being a full-service cooling system shop.

I asked Yedvart for more info about Harry. Yedvart said that first and foremost, Harry was honest. If the problem was a collapsing bottom hose, that's all Harry replaced. He easily could have taken advantage of people, but that wasn't Harry's style. Yedvart added that Harry was a hard worker.

After Harry's death, the family received numerous offers to buy Valley Radiator. The offers were good monetarily, but they wanted to fire the existing employees and bring in their own.

Side Note:
Isn't this a perfect example of business arrogance today? Spend big bucks for a company, then throw away the resources that made the company great. Without Harry and the knowledge he passed on to his employees, Valley Radiator would be just another radiator shop. Thankfully, the family decided to sell to the Lopez Brothers, who had worked for Harry for 15 years. The Lopez brothers bring Harry's expertise to the 21st century. That's a good thing, because the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles gets awfully hot. 

This didn't sit well with the Tchakerian family. They had the same values as Henry. In the end, Valley Radiator was sold to the three Lopez brothers, who had worked for Harry for 15 years. Henry Lopez manages Valley Radiator today.

I have one thing to add to Yedvart's description of Harry. Besides being honest and hard working, Harry was smart. He knew his business, he knew cars, he knew radiators, he knew his customers. You trusted Harry not just for his honesty and integrity, but for his competence. For the price of a new radiator, you got an expert consultant. When I brought in my Dodge Coronet, the one of the employees saw bubbles in the coolant. Harry immediately sent me to the garage next door to get a head gasket evaluation. Harry knows his stuff. Once the head gasket was found sound, he determined that the only additional problem was the radiator. I wanted the highest capacity radiator possible, so Harry manufactured it. 25x17, 4 rows, $400 installed. Great product, great service, great price. Two years later, my Coronet cruised fully loaded in triple digit temperatures from Los Angeles to Orlando without an overheat.

Harry's gone, but the Lopez brothers carry on with the 15 years knowledge they acquired working for Harry. In today's "service economy", complete with huge megacorporations whose customer service employees are experts at shuffling complaints, it's good to know there are still places like Valley Radiator.

Harry's lesson goes well beyond cooling systems. He's a business role model. No TQM, no JIT, no reengineering, no mission statement, no best practices -- he simply made sure the job was done right and the customer was satisfied, treated his employees well and helped them learn. Business trends come and go, but Harry's values are always in fashion.

Steve Litt is a contributing author to can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Thanks for All the Help

By Steve Litt
Have I mentioned I'm not an automotive expert? :-)

I could not have written this material, nor drawn these conclusions, without voluminous help from many automotive experts. Some work on or run automotive websites on the net, others are simply master mechanics. I won't mention you all here, but if any of those who have helped want your website included in the URL's section, please email me and I'll include it.

Steve Litt is a contributing author to Linux Unleashed, Fourth Edition, Red Hat Linux 6 Unleashed and Red Hat Linux 7 Unleashed. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Linux Log: The High Quality OS

Linux Log is now a regular column in Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, authored by Steve Litt. Each month we'll explore a facet of Linux as it relates to that month's theme.
Car enthusiasts demand quality. Their cars are well designed and well maintained. Some enthusiasts drive stripped down muscle machines, others have scores of accessories and amenities, but all are built on top of robust, well functioning vehicles. There's a computer operating system like that. It's called Linux.

All Linux installations have power and reliability. On almost any given CPU/memory/disk space setup, Linux outperforms Windows. Linux is rock solid. It's so solid that you almost never need to reboot it. Even when changing your configuration. That's another Linux advantage over Windows.

Like most young parents, my folks had little money when I was a little kid, so our car was an old beater 48 Ford handed down from my grandparents. I still remember it getting vapor lock and stalling several times a day. Every couple miles, the car would stall and my Dad would run out, pop the hood, and lay wet rags on the intake manifold. My parents carried a bucket of water in the car, because this ritual would repeat itself hourly on hot days. If you are a Windows "power user", I think you know how my parents felt. Yes, rebooting is easier than laying wet rags in traffic, but it's a similar annoyance.

Linux is more like today's Buicks, or, if you prefer, yesteryear's slant 6 and 318 Dodge Darts. It just runs. Always. Every time. Forever.

Linux comes with a wide variety of options. You can install a "stripped down" command-line only Linux. No graphical user interface, no accessories and amenities, just a command line driven OS that can serve web pages, files, and DNS resolution, as well as run some astonishingly heavy processes, on a piece of hardware with surprisingly little in the way of CPU, memory or disk space. Personally, I use Red Hat Linux for such stripped down uses, but any Linux distribution can be used this way.

You can also get the luxury package. A complete graphical interface very much like Windows (but without the hourly vapor lock -- scuse me, blue screens of death). GUI assisted email, web browsing, and internet connection. Netscape Navigator and Netscape Composer (for creating web pages) are standard options of such systems. Windows comes with a rudimentary word processor, Wordpad. Likewise, most Linux distributions come with rudimentary word processors. And of course, for about $70.00, you can get WordPerfect for Linux, which compares very favorably to Microsoft Word.

My favorite luxury Linux is Caldera OpenLinux, which is sort of the "Buick Lasabre" of Linuxes. If you want the "Lincoln Towncar" of Linuxes, get Corel Linux. The look and feel is identical to Windows. The only Windows features missing are the hourly crashes and the blue screen of death. The driver (scuse me, user) has everything at his or her fingertips. If you buy the $89.00 package, you get an official copy of Wordperfect to go with it. And now even Red Hat includes many of these same luxury features. And you get the best of both worlds. Because you can press Ctrl-Alt-Function key and get a stripped down command line interface on your luxury Linux, while at the same time running GUI software on the GUI screen.

Linux distributions vary widely in price, as long as you define "widely" between 0 and $100.00. If you forego the customer support and warrantee, most of these Linuxes can be delivered to your door for $5.00 plus shipping -- often $2.00 plus shipping. A further advantage of the $5.00 CD deals is that they should contain only redistributable software, meaning it should be perfectly legal to install that same CD on your machine and the machines 100 of your closest friends. Or 1000 -- copying redistributable-only CD's is perfectly legal. No software police will show up at your door. I think a good strategy is to make your first Linux full priced (still much less than Windows) so you get some tech support. Once you're familiar with Linux, go with the $5.00 CD's.

Linux isn't as forgiving of oddball hardware as Windows. Here's why. Because Microsoft has had an illegal monopoly for so long (this is Judge Jackson's opinion, the URL of which is in the URL's section of this magazine), hardware vendors were forced to make sure their equipment worked with Windows. Only in the last year have they had any incentive to make their hardware work with Linux. As a result, you need to take a little more care selecting your hardware. You should look at the Linux hardware compatibility at... I have some additional suggestions:

The Wishing Well

My family bought a house when I was 7. The days of money problems and vapor lock were over. My parents liked the neighborhood, the school system, and the house. I liked the wishing well.

Of course it wasn't a real wishing well. It was just a three foot space between the garage and the fence. Densely overgrown with weeds, it inspired fear and curiosity. I went in, and kept going in. Because every time I went in, I came out holding something cool. A marble, a ball, whatever I wanted. Once I wished for a scooter, and sure enough there it was, 10 feet back in a heretofore unexplored section of the wishing well.

Of course any adult knows what happened. The last several owners had children, each of whom left things behind. I was a teenager when we moved out of that house. Surely the child of the new owner found the cool toys I abandoned in that overgrown space.

Only a kid could think of it as a wishing well. A magical source of found dreams. It was the magic of childhood, all too brief -- never recaptured.

Until I found Linux.

I wished for a web server and found one on my Red Hat Linux CD. Soon I found an email server and DNS server, and complete networking software. I networked my office.

The more I worked with Linux, the uglier Windows seemed. I wished for a Windows replacement. What should I find on the Red Hat, Caldera and Corel distibutions (as well as many others), but something called KDE, a graphical environment that mimics Windows so closely that you can put a Windows user on a KDE equipped Linux box and he'll know what to do. There's another graphical environment called Gnome, with a different set of benefits. If you install both the KDE and Gnome libraries, you can run programs designed for either. I felt like a kid again, crawling through the weeds and pulling out a scooter. But the fun had just begun...

I didn't like the way they had changed a particular feature of the Samba file server software. I wished there was a way to make it behave like the old version. Because Linux and other Opens Source software (including Samba) come with source code, I was able to find the location of the changed feature, and change it back. It was a simple modification of two lines of source code. I recompiled and copied the newly made files, and boom, it worked the old way. I changed the actual software to suit my liking. Your wish has been granted.

Once you install Linux, you'll see the wishing well. It won't look like an overgrown space between the garage and fence. Instead, it will be the Internet. Wish for fax software, and download HylaFax free of charge (yes, legally!). Wish for a word processor? Download free AbiWord, StarOffice, or go to the store and buy Wordperfect for Linux. Free software called word2x converts Word docs to various other formats, which can be helpful. Want a graphics program with the power of Photoshop? It's called Gimp, and comes on most Linux distribution CD's. Want a simple vector graphics program? How about tgif? It has a zero cost license. Or maybe you'd prefer Canvas, a full-featured proprietary ($375 full license) vector graphics program.

Where do you find out about available software available for Linux? The best place is the Freshmeat website at They have a search feature enabling you to pretty much find any Linux compatible software. There's also the Linux section of Tucows, whose URL is in the URL's section of this issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine.

How would you like an audio player than manages playlists and plays all different formats? I won't lie to you -- it will take a little research and programming, but you can do it free with Linux. Your windows buddies will ask you why you took all that trouble. You can no more explain it to them than you can explain your weekly maintenance of your 440 68 Charger to your neighbor with a Toyota. Your Charger leaves the Toyota in the dust, and your Linux audio player leaves the Windows music programs in the dust. And if it doesn't, you can soup it up until it does.

Linux isn't for everyone. More than ever before, trade magazines hype the computer as an "appliance". The person wanting an appliance buys a Windows computer. Linux computers aren't appliances. Neither are 68 Chargers.

Steve Litt is the main author of Samba Unleashed. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

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