Getting Ready For Winter: Anti-Freeze

The coming winter season brings to mind an important topic, the maintenance of engine cooling systems. Cooling system malfunction is a leading cause of premature engine failures. A regular maintenance program is the best insurance against avoidable downtime and unnecessary repair costs. The following is a short discussion on the history, development and maintenance of the essential element of any cooling system – antifreeze.

Unlike most other substances, whether solids, liquids or gases, liquid water due to its molecular structure has the unique characteristic of expanding when cooled to a solid. This trait has been an important natural process for the degradation of rock over the millennia. In cracks, the unrelenting expansion as water cools to form ice will cause even the hardest rocks to split and fragment into smaller pieces. This natural phenomenon did not present a significant hardship for humans until the advent of the industrial age and the introduction of machines to replace the labor of muscle. Now water’s quirky habit of expanding instead of contracting when cooled became a major problem. This was nowhere more evident than in the development and adaptation of engines, first steam, and later internal combustion to power the machinery of civilization.

The efficiency at which water readily absorbs and releases energy in tandem with its universal abundance made this liquid an early choice as coolant in the internal combustion engine. In its liquid state water is easily pumped throughout the hollow components of an engine, notably the cylinder head and block efficiently absorbing heat energy which is quickly released in the cooling fins of a radiator. However, when left in the confines of those same hollow components and allowed to cool to form ice, water again reverts to nature’s agent of degradation splitting iron, aluminum or other metal components of an engine as if in the cracks of stone.

Using pure water as a coolant placed limitations on internal combustion engines. Machines had to be protected from freezing temperatures or the water had to be drained from engines when not in use. If forgotten or improperly drained the resultant damage from freezing water could be ruinous. These burdens were time consuming, costly and diminished efficiency. To overcome this problem a better coolant was needed.

The better coolant arrived with the development of ethylene glycol. Depending on mixture ratios it was discovered that a solution of ethylene glycol and water had a lower freezing and higher boiling temperatures than did pure water. The solution had good cooling properties and like water was easily circulated. This solution has become widely known as anti-freeze. Anti-freeze has been a key ingredient in extending the operating capabilities of equipment in temperatures, hot and cold.

Over time manufacturers have developed additives for anti-freeze to reduce damage caused by coolants to engine components. Acidification from dissolved combustion gases in coolants will cause corrosion, bubbles in coolant will cause liner pitting and scale deposits in cylinder heads and radiators will cause loss of cooling efficiency. Additives have been developed to mitigate these and other problems.

Like any engine component anti-freeze requires maintenance. The additives lose their effectiveness through dilution, contamination and wear. A maintenance program is necessary to insure anti-freeze is protecting your engine. Good maintenance consists of regularly checking your coolant for freezing temperature and adding the necessary supplemental additives to combat contaminates that are the cause of corrosion, liner pitting and scale deposit. A good method of reducing the levels of harmful contaminants in anti-freeze is through coolant filtration. Some machinery comes equipped with these systems and kits are available for aftermarket installation. Regular filter changes are necessary to maintain anti-freeze at optimal performance. Anti-freeze testing kits that measure acidity (ph), contaminates and freezing temperatures are available from a number of manufacturers. Look on the web or check for these kits at your local parts outlet. Anti-freeze manufacturers normally provide recommended maintenance schedules for their products.

Anti-freeze is toxic. Be sure to watch for and clean up leaks. Check hoses and connections regularly and look for corrosion that may result in coolant releases. Ethylene glycol has a naturally sweet taste that attracts children and pets. Ingestion of this material will cause serious illness or death. Don’t leave new or used anti-freeze in locations accessible to children or animals. To dispense with used anti-freeze locate a facility that accepts used anti-freeze for disposal and recycling.

For Additional Information:
More information is available about anti-freeze, additives and testing kits on the websites of the various coolant manufacturers and suppliers.

Photo radiator by EvelynGiggles