Sunday, 7 October 2012

E21 316: M10 Coolant/Radiator Troubleshooting

The car has no overheating issues, it's running like a dream, but the temp. gauge does have a habit of wandering between slightly over normal during slow driving or standing at idle. With cool air blowing into the cabin the needle goes slightly higher again, but never goes above about half way between normal and 3/4, even going uphill or driven hard. On a clear motorway run with lots of cool air the needle drops and sits about the same distance below centre, reaching as low as half way between 1/4 and normal. I'm thinking either a clogged radiator or a stuck thermostat and everyone has backed me up, but I thought I'd take a hard look at it this weekend and try to diagnose the problem in clarity before swapping anything.

Symptoms:
Needle fluctuates between slightly cold and slightly too hot in mixed driving conditions. With heater controls set to hot and the fans turned off temperature fluctuates least, but any attempt to blow air into the cabin, hot or cold, causes the temperature to vary more and only cold air blows regardless of heater setting. 
The radiator is plenty full of coolant, but there doesn't appear to be a lot of circulation. The return pipe from the engine to the radiator is red hot, while the send pipe from the radiator to the engine is cool. This pipe should be cooler than the other, but not this cool, so it looks like the radiator valve is not releasing cooled water once the engine has warmed up. Hot water also flows through the heater-core to warm the air, which would explain why I'm not getting any. 

Diagnosis:
It's definitely looking like a thermostat stuck in the closed position and not releasing water from the radiator, but the pipe to the thermostat, even where it exits the radiator is also cool to the touch. My temp. gauge also doesn't just go up and up, it fluctuates to cool as well, so it could still just be a case of a clogged radiator. Let's hope it's the latter, because the first thing I'll be doing is a full radiator-flush to see if there's an improvement, then changing the thermostat if the problem persists. If this fails, then it could be a new, and expensive, radiator or one of the harder to source temp. sensors or even the water-pump. Hmm.

Flushing:
Went to Halford's this morning and bought a pack of Holt's 2-part RAD-Flush [£6.99] and 2 litres of engine-coolant [£15.98]. Drained the system and found plenty of blue coolant in there and no oil, but quite a bit of rusty sludge. The car holds 7 litres of coolant, but I only got about 5 out of it. I removed the radiator [the hoses are off anyway as there's no drain plug] and gave it a good flush with the hose. A lot of rusty sludge and orange water poured out and the water appeared to contain no coolant at all, but once the water had run clear there was no sign of a blockage. I re-fitted and filled the radiator, it took about 5L of water, and poured in the first stage of RAD-Flush, though I'm not sure how it will flush the system if the thermostat won't release coolant. 
The instructions say to run the car at fast-idle for 30 minutes, but without knowing if there's water pumping round the block I decided to abort if the engine went hotter than normal. I stopped running the engine at 13.5 minutes as the needle started to reach 3/4 on the gauge. A quick check of the radiator hoses revealed the same story - in-hose red hot and out-hose now freezing, so I'm guessing there's no coolant in the engine itself at all now. This means I can no longer drive the car as I have been until the problem is fixed, unless I back-fill the engine with water through some other hose, but it will require draining again anyway when the new thermostat arrives.

Thermostat:
All signs now point to the thermostat. Here's a couple of good checklists posted on eHow to help diagnose a broken thermostat, or other possible causes with similar symptoms - http://www.ehow.com/list_6018650_signs-car-thermostat-broken.htmlhttp://www.ehow.co.uk/list_6018650_signs-car-thermostat-broken.html.
I re-drained the radiator and it ran almost as clear and cold as it went in. A little hot water came from the thermostat side of the hose, but it seemed to be more of the blue coolant mixture. I removed the top hose to the thermostat and about a litre of the warm blue coolant mixture gushed out, another litre coming as I removed the hose in the thermostat's side. It would seem that the radiator hasn't been part of the cooling-system since I've owned the car!
I got the thermostat completely out and immediately I could see it's stuck completely closed to the radiator hose, and only partially open to the bypass valve. Water is being pumped through the thermostat and straight back to the engine and this, along with the non-viscous fan, is the only thing cooling the engine. Quite frankly, I'm amazed the overheating problem hasn't been more severe! I guess with it being summer I never noticed the lack of hot air and not using the cold-air blower kept it close to normal. I could live without the cold-air during a British summer, but as winter rolls around I've noticed that the side-windows are impossible to de-mist. Warmth from the engine itself does de-mist the screen, but as the weather grows colder I can't be sure - best to fix this problem sooner rather than later.
Just bought a new budget thermostat from GSF car-parts on eBay. It's not OEM quality, but it is guaranteed and is much, much cheaper @ £12.50 with free postage, although I paid £20.40 for included next-day delivery, which is still good. I really hope this proves to be the only problem with the cooling!


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