Antifreeze and Winter Car Care

by Don Elliott on September 13, 2011

Internal combustion car engines generate heat when they are running. In order to protect car engine parts, an engine coolant is necessary to keep the motor from running too hot. Antifreeze is added to the cooling system to prevent the engine coolant from freezing in cold weather when the car engine is not running.

Water is an excellent medium for handling heat transfer. In the earliest internal combustion car engines, water was the engine coolant of choice. However, water has a couple of problems. Water promotes corrosion when it comes in contact with cast iron, copper, brass, and solder. All these materials are major components of most car engines and their radiators. Water also boils at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not quite hot enough under some driving conditions. Finally, water freezes and expands at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This is not nearly low enough for most climates in North America.

Engine antifreeze coolant (commonly referred to as just engine coolant) technology has improved considerably over the years. Originally, car owners mixed their own engine coolant by adding methyl alcohol (methanol) to water. Unfortunately, the methanol evaporated over time and added an additional corrosive element to the process. Ethylene glycol was developed in the 1930s. Methanol is still used as the antifreeze used in windshield wiper fluid. In addition, a variety of corrosion inhibitors, lubricants, and buffers are added in today’s engine coolant to protect the engine parts from the inside out.

Today’s engine coolants are available premixed with water in a 1:1 ratio. When shopping for the proper engine coolant for your car, it is important to maintain your used car value by reading the labels when browsing the choices at your auto repair shop. Various additives are specified for different makes and models, each one identified by color. Most recently, to avoid the problem of mixing incompatible engine coolants, engine coolant manufacturers have come up with a universally acceptable formula.

It is a relatively easy task to check your engine coolant to be sure that it has the proper amount of antifreeze. Hydrometers are available at your car repair store for about $5. Depending upon formulation, most 1:1 blend engine coolants will protect the fluid from freezing to about minus 34 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most conventional ready to use engine coolants provide 24-month/24,000 mile protection when installed with a complete flush and fill. Some brands offer a lifetime guarantee. Others come with a 5-year/150,000 mile warranty and are compatible in all makes and models. Again, check the label to be sure that you make the right choice for your car.

One last point! Ethylene glycol and other additives are toxic to humans and animals. Animals in particular seem to be attracted to engine antifreeze or engine coolant because it has a bit of a sweet taste. Use caution when storing or disposing of engine coolant to prevent harm to family, children and pets.

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