Learning About a Car’s Cooling System

Your car's cooling system is separate from your air conditioning system. A car's cooling system components prevent the engine from overheating and keep the car operating at the optimum temperature. Car cooling parts will either use air or liquid to keep your car from overheating. A well-running car will have cheaper car insurance rates. Enter your ZIP code below to compare car insurance quotes.

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Zaneta Wood, Ed.S. has over 15 years of experience in research and technical writing bringing a keen understanding of data analysis and information synthesis to reach a wide variety of audiences. She studied adult education and instructional technology at Appalachian State University as well as technical and professional communication at East Carolina University. Zaneta has prepared technical p...

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Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He has an MBA from the University of South Florida. Jo...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder & CFP®

UPDATED: Aug 15, 2020

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Here's what you need to know...

  • A car’s cooling system is completely different than an air conditioning system
  • A car can have an air or liquid cooling system, but most are cooled with liquid
  • The cooling system keeps the car operating at optimum temperature

Typically, when a person hears about a car cooling system, their first thought is about the car’s air conditioner. While the air conditioner is a very important feature that everyone wants in a car, the car’s cooling system is something completely different and much more important.

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The car’s cooling system is the system that keeps the car from overheating. This is one of the most important—if not the most important—systems in the car.

What does a car cooling system do?

There have been many advancements made to gasoline-powered car engines over the decades, but they are still not very efficient at converting the chemical energy from the gasoline into actual mechanical power.

Up to seventy percent of the gasoline’s energy is turned into heat.

The car’s cooling system is in place to control this build-up of heat.

Without the cooling system, the engine of a car would overheat even after a fairly short drive. It has been estimated that the cooling system of a regular-sized car traveling on the interstate dissipates the same amount of heat it would take to heat two full-sized houses.

It might surprise some people to learn that one of the main purposes of a car’s cooling system is not just to keep the car from overheating, but also to heat the car’s engine up to its optimum temperature quickly.

When a car’s engine is cold, certain components tend to wear out faster and the car produces more pollution while also being less efficient. That is why it is always best to let the car’s engine warm up a bit before driving, even in warmer months.

While a lot of the heat that is made from the combustion process exits via the car’s exhaust, most of it is absorbed by the engine itself. A car runs best when its engine maintains a regular 200 degrees and it is the job of the cooling system to keep the car at this temperature.

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What are the two kinds of cooling systems?

There are two kinds of car cooling systems:

  • Air cooling systems – Air cooling systems are mainly found in older cars. With this cooling system, the heat created by the combustion process is turned into air. This happens when metal fins cover the car’s engine block and a fan forces air to move across these fins, cooling the car’s engine.
  • Liquid cooling systems – A liquid cooling system is what is found in most modern cars. This system runs fluid through a series of passageways and pipes in the car’s engine. The fluid absorbs the heat. As the cooling fluid makes its way out of the engine, it passes through a radiator, which converts the heat in the fluid into air.

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What are the components of a car cooling system?

A car’s liquid cooling system has a very extensive plumbing system.

This system is made up of a:

  • Thermostat
  • Water pump
  • Block cooling system
  • Head cooling system
  • Radiator cap
  • Cooling fan
  • Radiator
  • Overflow cap
  • Heater valve
  • Transmission cooler
  • Heater fan
  • Heater core

As the fluid makes its way through the engine, it goes through the head cooling system and block cooling system first. As the car engine heats up, the fluid makes it way through the other systems.

The fluid used in a car’s fluid cooling system has to be very versatile.

Depending on the climate where the car is driven, the fluid has to have a very low freezing point so it does not freeze in the winter and a very high boiling point so it has the ability to absorb the highest amount of heat possible even in the summer.

Because of these parameters, water alone is not enough because it has a very high freezing point. As a way to fix this issue, ethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze, is added to the water. Antifreeze also prevents corrosion in the engine because of the additives it contains.

The water and antifreeze mixture is forced through the engine by the water pump. Using centrifugal force, the pump sends the fluid through the cylinder head, and engine block, and then through the radiator, ending up back in the water pump where the cycle begins again.

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