The antifreeze in the coolant performs three very important jobs: it prevents the coolant from freezing during cold weather, it raises the boiling temperature of the coolant to prevent overheating during hot weather, and it fights corrosion.
Besides checking the level of the coolant periodically to make sure it isn’t low (which usually indicates a leak), the strength and condition of the antifreeze should also be checked. Most vehicle manufacturers recommend a 50/50 mixture of water and antifreeze for normal freezing and boil over protection. Up to a 70/30 mixture of antifreeze and water can be used to maximize freezing protection, but higher concentrations should not be used. Straight water or straight antifreeze should never be used in a vehicle’s cooling system.
Determining the condition of the coolant is a little more difficult because appearances alone can be deceiving. If the coolant is brown and discolored, it is obviously long overdue for a change. But even if it is still green or orange or yellow, there’s no way to tell how much corrosion protection is still in the coolant without measuring its “reserve alkalinity.” This can be done with chemically-treated test strips that give a good-bad indication by color changes.
If the cooling system is low and needs additional coolant, make sure you use the correct type of coolant or a type that is compatible with the coolant that is already in the system.
Most vehicle manufacturers recommend changing green coolant every two to three years or 30,000 miles to replenish the corrosion inhibitors in the antifreeze. Longer-lived orange and yellow coolants have a recommended service life of 5 years or 150,000 miles. If the cooling system is dirty, use a flush to remove rust and scale.
Starting in 1996, new General Motors vehicles were factory-filled with a new 5 year, 150,000 mile long-life coolant called “Dex-Cool.” The coolant is dyed orange to distinguish it from ordinary antifreeze. If it is intermixed with ordinary coolant, the corrosion inhibitors can react reducing the corrosion protection to that of normal coolant (2 to 3 years or 30,000 miles).
A number of long-life aftermarket antifreeze are on the market now that can also be used in older vehicles to extend the coolant change interval to five years or 150,000 miles.
For the environmentally conscious, you can also get antifreeze that is propylene glycol based. The main difference is that it is less toxic than ordinary ethylene glycol antifreeze (reduces risk of accidental poisoning if the cooling system leaks and an animal licks it up).
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