Most people think of antifreeze and coolant as interchangeable things. The reality is there’s a difference, even though it might be small, and knowing what it is will only help you as a car owner.
What is Antifreeze?
Antifreeze is normally made of propylene glycol or ethylene glycol. Like the name indicates, it doesn’t freeze easily. And unlike water, it doesn’t boil easily. Overheating engines can literally melt, so using antifreeze is essential.
You get another benefit from antifreeze: it naturally protects against corrosion, like rust. That’s great news for all those metal parts the liquid runs over. So it’s a protector against overheating, freezing and corrosion, making it an essential thing for your car.
What is Coolant?
Coolant is antifreeze with water added into it. You can get coolant that’s 70 percent antifreeze and 30 percent water, or a mixture that’s half and half. Your vehicle manufacturer likely recommends one or the other. Of course, you get more corrosion protection with the higher concentration of antifreeze. Adding water actually lowers the freezing point of the mixture.
Without coolant, your car would overheat easily in the summer and have trouble starting in the dead of winter. It should go without saying that you need to ensure your car has enough coolant, or you will suffer from these problems.
Interestingly enough, one of the early signs in the winter that your coolant level has fallen is that the heater stops working, because it actually is fed by the cooling system. In the summer, you’ll notice the temperature gauge climbing higher than normal, indicating you have a problem.
You might be wondering where to buy coolant. It’s available at many big box stores, auto parts centers and dealership parts departments. Coolant can come as a green, purple or orange liquid. Always check the recommended color for your vehicle, which is printed in the owner’s manual, or you potentially risk serious mechanical damage.
Coolant Maintenance Tips
You really should be checking the coolant level in your car at least once a month, along with the other liquids. Modern vehicles come with an overflow reservoir for the cooling system, where coolant flows into and out of as a way to release heat.
After you’ve been running the vehicle and reached the normal operating temperature, check the level using the markings on the side of the reservoir. The coolant should be somewhere between the minimum and maximum lines. If it’s below the minimum, you need to fill it back up close to the maximum level.
Periodically, you need to flush the old coolant out of your car. Over time the liquid loses its ability to keep the engine at an ideal temperature. Flushing it out and replacing the coolant with a new batch is the solution. This will also get rid of deposits which have built up in your radiator over time, which also boosts performance. While you certainly can flush the coolant system yourself, it can be a messy job and you’ll have to dispose of the old coolant properly.
Coolant and Antifreeze Safety Tips
Now that you know the difference between antifreeze and coolant, you might be ready to open up the hood on your car and get to work. But first, consider these safety tips.
Long ago, your only option for adding coolant to a car was by opening up the radiator cap. This is especially dangerous if your car is even slightly hot. There are always warnings printed on radiator caps to remind you of the risk.
Some coolant overflow reservoirs are pressurized, so you have to be careful opening them. Others aren’t and so you can open them at any time without risk. Always follow the warnings printed on all caps and containers in the engine compartment, otherwise you risk serious injury. With pressurized systems, it can be somewhat like opening a carbonated drink that’s been shook up first, so go slow and be careful.
Also, be careful how you store coolant and antifreeze. They are poisonous materials, so kids and animals can become sick or even die from consuming them. Don’t leave them within reach of young kids. If your bottles of coolant or antifreeze are leaking, it is best to dispose of them.
If you have any doubts about adding coolant to your car, have a professional do it for you. It’s not worth the risk of having extremely hot liquid spew out onto your bare skin. That being said, if you’re cautious and follow directions, it’s completely doable for the average person.
At T3 Atlanta, our technicians know vehicle coolant systems well. We can help you maintain yours, so you don’t have to deal with big problems that will leave you stranded or cause serious mechanical problems.