Emergency Car Problems

Car problems can erase all the enjoyment of driving in an instant. Flashing red and orange dashboard lights, smoke coming out from under the hood, or the scary realization that your engine has died 32 miles from home – fears such as these become more manageable with some basic troubleshooting skills. Here are a few common roadside problems and their suggested solutions; an emergency toolkit list appears at the end of the article:

1. Problem: Alternator light comes on, and the car begins to run rough.

Diagnosis: Your alternator is not producing electricity, so the engine is running on the battery alone-you can still drive the car, but you only have a short time until the battery goes dead (usually about 15-30 minutes).

Solution: Drive 40 mph or less, turn off all accessories-radio, AC, fan blower, etc. This is one situation in which you don’t use your flashers, since they will run the battery down very quickly (unless you are in fact impeding traffic). Drive cautiously-you won’t have quick acceleration to pass, etc.

In most cases, replacing the alternator will solve the problem, but occasionally the alternator light will come on for other reasons. Many auto parts stores can test your alternator before you buy, so you’ll know for sure.

2. Problem: Steam is escaping from under the front of the hood, and your engine temperature light has come on (meaning the engine is too hot).

Diagnosis: Pull safely off the road, turn off the engine as soon as possible, and turn on flashers. Open the hood cautiously, and see if you can determine where the steam (or water) is leaking.

Solution: If water is leaking from one of the larger radiator hoses (upper or lower), or the water pump itself, you have little choice but to wait for a tow.

However, if it is obvious that the leak of steam is coming from near the top of the radiator, or at a hose fitting higher than the top of the engine block, and there is not much actual water escaping, you may still be able to drive the car safely a short distance. Here’s how:
1.Wait about five minutes for the engine to cool completely. Using a rag loosen the radiator cap slowly, but leave it in place.
2. Add water directly into the radiator if you have some with you, but do not tighten the radiator cap completely.
3. Start the engine and, assuming the engine temperature light stays off, continue to drive moderately.
4. The engine will stay cooler if you turn off all accessories, especially the air conditioning.
5. If the engine temperature light does come back on, try this solution for a few seconds before turning the engine off again: turn on the heater blower motor inside the car, and set fan and temperature controls to the warmest settings, even if it’s summer-this will dissipate much of the engine’s heat into the car. If the temperature light does come on again, be sure to stop as soon as possible and allow the engine to cool before proceeding.

3. Problem: Water, greenish and steamy, begins to drip steadily onto the floor of the passenger compartment from somewhere behind the glove compartment.

Diagnosis: Engine coolant is most likely leaking from the heater core or a fitting near it.

Solution: Bypass the heater core. Open the hood and let the engine cool down. Locate the two heater hoses that begin on the engine, usually on the passenger’s side of the engine, and then pass through the engine wall into the passenger compartment near each other, on the passenger’s side. These hoses are usually about an inch in diameter and will be warm to the touch. One hose supplies hot water from the engine to the heater core; the other returns the water to the engine.

Once you’ve located the heater hoses, choose the one closer to the top of the engine, remove the clamp from the end attached to the engine, and pull the end of that first hose off its fitting. A small amount of water will be lost. Save the clamp for the next operation.

Roughly calculate how much hose it will take to go from the engine end of the second hose, to the fitting you have just exposed, but do not loosen the engine end of the second hose.

Cut the second hose with a pocketknife, allowing a foot or so more slack than you measured. Slip the clamp over the hose, and push the hose onto the fitting from which you pulled the first hose. Tighten clamp. Now water will circulate from the bottom of the engine to the top, bypassing the heater core in the passenger compartment. Add water if you have some with you, into the overflow holding tank. Start engine and check for leaks; watch temperature gauge while driving. You can drive as long as you need to this way until you can get the heater core replaced later, but you won’t have any heat inside the passenger compartment.

4. Problem: Engine won’t start when you turn the key.

Diagnosis: Probably a weak or dead battery.

Solution: Battery boosters, relatively new on the market, are the best way to get your car going when the battery is too low to turn the engine over. Simply open the hood of the car, connect the red terminal of the booster to the plus, or positive, terminal on the battery, and the black or negative lead, to the negative post on the battery. You don’t need to disconnect any cables from the battery first. Turn the unit on, and start the car. Turn the booster unit off and remove the leads between the booster and the battery.

5. Problem: Flat tire.

Diagnosis: That dreaded “flapping” sound and loss of power and control gives this one away every time. Firmly grip the wheel, gradually slow down, and exit safely to the side of the road. Driving any distance with a flat tire, even at a slow pace on the side of the road, can permanently ruin the rim, creating more problems for you.

Solution: Get out your can of “Fix-a-flat”, unscrew the cap from the valve stem of the tire, and press the spout of the can firmly against the valve stem, until the can is empty and the tire has regained its shape.

Being prepared for some of the more common car repair problems such as these, allows you to drive with more confidence and peace of mind.

A suggested list for an emergency tool kit for these and other common emergency repairs:
1. good dependable flashlight
2. Ã?¼” drive socket set, containing metric and SAE sockets (usually about $15)
3. combination screwdriver
4. pliers or vise-grips
5. one or two cans of “Fix-a-flat”
6. battery booster
7. pocketknife
8. gallon jug of water, or water/antifreeze mix, 50/50

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