HOW IT WORKS: THE RADIATOR CAP

An essential part that’s cleverer than it appears


by Lewis Plumb |

Most cooling systems from the 1950s onward are pressurised. As they heat up, the coolant and air above it in the radiator expands. The pressure builds up and suppresses the boiling of the coolant. Water can be taken to about 107°C at 4psi above atmospheric pressure and to 121°C at 15psi above.

The cap regulates the maximum pressure, preventing damage to the hoses and radiator. After turning the engine off, the system cools and the coolant contracts significantly. The cap therefore has a return valve that admits air from the atmosphere or coolant from an expansion tank, if fitted.

The radiator [1] is closed by the cap’s seal [2]. A spring [3] bears against the cap, holding down the pressure valve [4] fitted with a rubber seal. As pressure builds up, the spring and valve are forced up, allowing air (and coolant) to escape to the overflow.

As the engine cools, a vacuum forms in the top of the radiator. Atmospheric pressure forces open the lightly-loaded return valve and spring [5], allowing air to be drawn back through the overflow and into the radiator. If an expansion tank is fitted, only liquid is expelled and drawn back through the overflow. The radiator thus remains permanently filled with coolant.

HOW IT WORKS: THE RADIATOR CAP

WHAT GOES WRONG?

SPRINGS RUST

Springs corrode, weaken and eventually break. The system no longer pressurises completely (or at all) and coolant will be lost, leading to overheating problems on the road.

HOW IT WORKS: THE RADIATOR CAP

CAP COLLAPSES

The cap’s internal elements are made from brass. This can fracture, leading to disintegration and consequent leakage and overheating on fast runs. Failed rubber seals will give the same trouble.

HOW IT WORKS: THE RADIATOR CAP

WRONG PRESSURE

Rated pressures vary from 4psi to 15psi. You’ll need the correct cap for your car (consult your manual). Overpressure caps will blow hoses, strain radiator seams and displace core plugs.

HOW IT WORKS: THE RADIATOR CAP
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