April 1, 2006

Car Heater Problem -- Check Your Coolant Level

The heater in my 1996 Mercury Sable didn't work right. The heater would blow hot air for about 30 seconds and then the air would turn cold. I checked the fuses. They were fine. I checked the external coolant reservoir and it appeared to be dry. So poured a gallon of antifreeze into the reservoir. (I knew I should add a 50-50 mixture of antifreeze and water, but I was traveling in the mountains and the store where I was still had insulated covers on the outdoor faucets.) The heater worked perfectly and the temperature gauge stayed near the center of the dial all the way home. At home I added about a quart of water and brought the level in the reservoir to the maximum cold-fill line.

I was amazed by what I read in the car's manual about coolant. Here's an excerpt. "Have your dealer check the engine cooling system for leaks if: you have to add engine coolant more than once a month, or you have to add more than a quart (liter) at a time". I have had the car since 2003 and I have never added coolant. Apparently losing coolant is acceptable in a Mercury as long as you don't lose more than a quart a month. Amazing.

In my defense for not checking the coolant, I was spoiled by my Toyota. I drove a Tercel for 19 years, from 1984 to 2003, and I never added coolant. I checked it periodically and it was always to the top of the radiator and my antifreeze tester always showed that I was protected to a reasonable temperature. Of course the coolant was flushed and replaced a few times at recommended intervals based on the maintenance schedule, but other than that I never had to worry about it. When I gave the car away in 2003 it still had the original radiator hose, and the hose was still in good shape. I drove the car for 19 years and it never broke down, never stranded me, and never even had a flat tire. I guess I'm about to learn that Mercurys aren't made to last like that.

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