What Happens When Your Car Radiator Leaks?

happens-car-radiator-leaks Credit: Jonathan Zabloski/E+/Getty Images

When a car radiator leaks it loses coolant, and the engine can overheat. Overheating can lead to severe engine damage or even failure. Although the damage is unpredictable, a common component damaged by overheating is the head gasket, which can crack in extreme heat.

The radiator regulates and disperses the heat an engine puts out during normal operation. A radiator works by running antifreeze and water, which absorbs heat by running a course through the engine, through a series of tubes. Thousands of small metal fins help scoop in outside air that cools the coolant, releasing heat into the atmosphere and away from the engine.

Corrosion is the leading cause of a radiator leak. Because it sits just behind the grill, the radiator is subject to damage from outside elements including outside water, salt, bugs and any other element that might corrode the radiator's aluminum exterior. Coolant is also acidic, and becomes more so with prolonged exposure to extreme heat. The acid can eventually corrode the radiator from the inside.

Experts recommend checking the radiator every 12,000 miles or 12 months. They also recommend to check coolant system hoses every six months, and replace them at least every four years.