Flushed with pride

| December 12, 2008

Do-it-yourself cooling system flushes might loosen sediment, which will then clog radiator tubes.

Neglecting your radiator isn’t all bad. On the bright side, you’ll make new friends at the radiator shop. Of course, you’ll be losing a lot of money at the same time. “Without care, a radiator might last a couple of years, if you’re just running up and down the highway,” says Doug Covey, owner of Covey’s Radiator Service in West Palm Beach, Fla. “But if you’re running off-road a lot, you could have your plastic tanks cracking within a year.”

That’s how Covey’s customers get to know him. “They just drive until it’s a problem or until it breaks,” he says. “Then they bring it here and have it fixed.”

It doesn’t take much – no highly technical skills or tools – to stay on top of the condition of your radiator and antifreeze and avoid a premature visit to the shop.

Near coastal areas, the salt air destroys poorly maintained radiators year-round, says Covey, who for 20 years has been running the radiator service his father started 35 years ago. Up north, drivers have to watch out for the highly corrosive chemicals spread on highways during winter.

“The liquid calcium and sodium chloride that they mix with the salt just tears trucks up,” says Brian Sollenberger, shop manager at West Side Radiator Repair in Denver, Pa. The damage can occur fairly quickly.

“I’ve replaced radiators on ’04 trucks,” Sollenberger says. “We have guys coming in after just one year with no fins on their radiators.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he says. “There’s a guy in Reading (Pa.) whose fleet delivers heating oil, so he runs hard during the winter,” Sollenberger says. “He’s running 30-year-old radiators.”

Sollenberger attributes their longevity to regular maintenance. “He inspects mounting brackets and bushings to help keep the vibrations down. He keeps his radiators washed and painted with good antifreeze inside.”

Radiators were made of thicker metal decades ago, Sollenberger says. “I’ve repaired core leaks on radiators from the 1920s and ’30s,” he says. “They used to build them a lot better then.” But even today, he says, “They’ll last as long as there’s somebody who’ll keep them washed and painted.”

Today’s truck radiators are made of plastic and aluminum, brass and copper, or, in some cases, steel. “Most of the newer trucks – after ’87 or ’88 – have radiators with aluminum cores and plastic tanks,” says Gary Darnell, owner of Radiator Works in Riverview, Mich. “That’s what put us in business. The vibration and heat crack the tanks, and the gaskets leak.”

Covey is familiar with that problem. “If you look at the engines now, they have those big hoses attached to the necks on those plastic tanks,” Covey says. “Those hoses are otherwise unsupported, so the plastic is the only thing holding them up. The plastic gets weak and brittle from the expanding and contracting, necks crack, and then you have a leak.”

A thorough radiator preventive maintenance program starts with analyzing antifreeze.

“I don’t mean just sticking a hydrometer in there and checking your antifreeze level and your pH,” Sollenberger says. “I like to see owner-operators take antifreeze samples from their radiators and send them out for a chemical analysis.”

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