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Old 04-05-2007, 08:21 PM   #1
SLoneDC
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Default Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

On my '97 SL1, a warning light flashed on several times above the engine temp coolant gauge then went away. It looked like a thermometer on the left and a radiator, or some kind of a box, on the right. The coolant temp was at its normal 1/4 hash mark, outside temp about 40 degrees, driving a steady 40 mph. What does it mean? I don't have an owner's manual. Could it be low coolant level (hard to check in the dark)? Expecting a hard freeze tonight, could low coolant be harmful?

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Old 04-05-2007, 08:23 PM   #2
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

was it a box, with a wavy line, and an arrow pointing down? If so, then your coolant is low. Check it, refill it with the proper fluid, or some water (prefereably distilled), and if it continues, or the level already fine, then your senson the overflow bottle is gummed up.

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If your ECTS is not brass...your ass is grass.
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Old 04-05-2007, 08:29 PM   #3
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

Quote:
Originally Posted by Uzzy View Post
was it a box, with a wavy line, and an arrow pointing down? If so, then your coolant is low. Check it, refill it with the proper fluid, or some water (prefereably distilled), and if it continues, or the level already fine, then your senson the overflow bottle is gummed up.
I didn't see an arrow, but it flashed by too quickly to get a good look at it. I'll try to have a look at the coolant by flashlight. REALLY need an owners' manual...eBay, here I come.

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Old 04-05-2007, 08:29 PM   #4
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

Yes, it's low coolant (or, as Uzzy said, a faulty sensor [common]). Yes, low coolant can be VERY harmful.

Owners manuals are readily had, cheap, via eBay. That's probably where the one that SHOULD have come with your car went .

Your temp gauge reading is low. It could be because the coolant is low, but it is also likely the ECTS - engine coolant temp sensor. Visit our How To Library to read more than you probably want to about how/why it fails, why it's important, and how to replace it.

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Old 04-05-2007, 08:36 PM   #5
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

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Originally Posted by madpogue View Post
Your temp gauge reading is low. It could be because the coolant is low, but it is also likely the ECTS - engine coolant temp sensor. Visit our How To Library to read more than you probably want to about how/why it fails, why it's important, and how to replace it.
Ya, true, I missed that. You should read a little below 1/2 for normal. could also be the thermostat, but make sure the ECTS is the new style anyway. That little seemingly insignificant part can really wreak havoc on a lot of things.

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Old 04-05-2007, 08:44 PM   #6
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

Thanks for all the advice. I checked the expansion tank and the level is about at "minimum cold", although the engine isn't really cold since I drove it a few miles about 30 minutes ago.

What did concern me was the light brown color of the coolant. Who knows when it was flushed last? (Cheap used car, minimal service records.) I could get a coolant flush first thing tomorrow morning at work. The cap says something about "special coolant required". What's THAT all about?

Sorry to have so many questions--I'll go order manuals right now!

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Old 04-05-2007, 08:55 PM   #7
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

Quote:
Originally Posted by SLoneDC View Post
Thanks for all the advice. I checked the expansion tank and the level is about at "minimum cold", although the engine isn't really cold since I drove it a few miles about 30 minutes ago.
Did you remove the cap to do this? If so, GO OUT THERE RIGHT NOW AND REMOVE THE CAP AGAIN. We'll wait, right here.

....

Okay, you back? Now, leave the cap OFF until the engine is COLD. When you remove and replace the cap on a warm engine, the cooling system pressure equalizes with that of the atmosphere. But then, as the engine cools, its pressure drops, so you get net _vacuum_ in the system. This has been known to do things like crack the radiator tank (not the reservoir, the side tank of the radiator itself).

Quote:
What did concern me was the light brown color of the coolant. Who knows when it was flushed last? (Cheap used car, minimal service records.) I could get a coolant flush first thing tomorrow morning at work. The cap says something about "special coolant required". What's THAT all about?
It's called Dex-Cool. It was "special" back in '97; nowadays it's commonplace. Just find one that says it's "Dex-cool compatible". About the color, it was originally pink/orange, so light brown isn't unusual, but if you don't know how old it is, it's time to replace it. DON'T "flush" it. Just drain it out. This would be a good time to replace that ECTS. And it's also a good time to replace the thermostat. Then fill with equal parts of quality anti-freeze and _distilled_ water.

Come to think of it, don't do this yet. If you have a leak, you'll just be leaking brand new coolant. Best to determine that your system is tight, before replacing the coolant.

Quote:
Sorry to have so many questions--I'll go order manuals right now!
No sweat; better to ask now, than be texting us from the side of the road saying "my engine overheated and blew up..." or what-not.

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Old 04-05-2007, 09:12 PM   #8
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

I went back down and removed the expansion cap again, and darned if I didn't hear a little whooshing sound, just like the first time I removed it to try to see the level in the dark! I'd better just leave it off overnight, since a hard freeze is predicted and I don't know how long the engine will take to equalize with the outside temp. Or will that be a stupid rookie trick, too? By the way, I actually DO own an OBD II code reader, and I'm not showing any codes (yes, with the engine running.)

So let's see, tomorrow I need to check the tranny fluid level, the coolant level, the ECTS, and the thermostat. And potentially some sensor on the tranny itself. This will be interesting since they don't let us work on our cars at my apartment complex.

Jeez, Saturns are "interesting" vehicles. Good thing it's growing on me in my first week of ownership. The front suspension is starting to clunk and the trip odo is grinding.

Anybody know a good non-dealer mechanic in southern Fairfax County, Virginia? Preferably Springfield, Woodbridge, or Quantico areas.

I love my Saturn, I love my Saturn, I love my Saturn...

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Old 04-05-2007, 10:00 PM   #9
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

While you are checking the cooling system you might as well check the radiator for the usual cracking on the upper right hand tank towards the engine when looking down with the hood open.

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Old 04-05-2007, 11:45 PM   #10
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

There's nothing to "check" with the ECTS or the thermostat. Like I said (sorta), top off the cooling system, put the cap back on (!), and keep driving it for a while and watch the coolant level. If you're certain the level is good, and it's not losing any, and the low coolant light flashes again, then the sensor is probably gummed up. If indeed you are losing coolant, let's get that found and fixed, and _then_ think about replacing the coolant, along with the thermostat. You can replace the ECTS anytime. It's a design thing - original plastic-tipped sensor is prone to fail in hot acidic coolant. Replacement is brass-tipped, and should be good for life.

Hey, it's a ten-year-old car, and as you said, minimal service records (which probably means minimal maintenance). Any car of its vintage is gonna need some TLC. The _good_ thing about your new acquisition, compared to its competitors of its vintage, is that the TLC will be a LOT cheaper and easier to DIY (well, aside from the sucky no-maintenance rule where you live).

You have a buddy with a driveway? Does s/he like beer?

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Old 04-06-2007, 08:14 AM   #11
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

If the ECTS is good, and the temp indication does not go above 1/4 scale with normal driving (will go higher when stopped idling for long periods) you probably have a stuck-open thremostat, and that can hurt fuel economy.

But check (it is a pass-fail check for old/new type) and as approprite replace the ECTS first. In the process check to be sure the connector is good (not corroded). See the threads on how to check and replace it the How-to Library forum. ECTS can be replaced without any significant coolant loss (maybe a couple ozs) if you follow the instrucitons and do it on a cold engine. Takes maybe 10 minutes, and no need for ramps, etc.

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Old 04-06-2007, 08:41 AM   #12
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

This morning, the coolant was 1/2 inch below the "Miminum Cold" line, so I topped it to the "Maximum Cold" line. No more flashing lights. Coolant gauge still doesn't rise above the first hash mark. Another hint? The heater doesn't put out seriously warm air until I move the temp control lever about 4/5 of the way to the right. Sounds like the thermostat? I'll watch carefully for leaks. I didn't spot any obvious radiator cracks.

Would a failed/failing ECTS throw a code that my OBD II reader would pick up? I show no codes.

I'm not really concerned about any of this, because I routinely drive old Volvos with 200k+ miles and all the attendant maintenance work that requires. You can buy cheap and do repairs sometimes, or buy newer and make car payments. Since repairs may or may not happen, but car payments always do, it seems like a no-brainer to me.

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Old 04-06-2007, 12:18 PM   #13
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

The ECTS will not always throw a code. Rarely infact, does it do enough meddling to throw a code. It can affect engine performance, and fuel economy, and lead to problems over the long term.

You likely have either a stuck open thermostat, or a crappy aftermarket one. They open too early. You might also like to look into installing a manual rad fan switch a la wolfman's careful intruction in the How-To section.

Also, if the coolant is as grungy as you said earlier, a flush would be in order. Also check the rad for slight cracks on the side tanks, as mentioned, and look at the water pump bearing for coolant loss. Those are the two most common areas to fail, and low coolant are the first warning signs.

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Old 04-06-2007, 05:01 PM   #14
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

Quote:
Originally Posted by SLoneDC View Post
This morning, the coolant was 1/2 inch below the "Miminum Cold" line, so I topped it to the "Maximum Cold" line. No more flashing lights.
Sounds like the level sensor is working at least (perhaps a bit _too_ well). Only thing to do now is monitor for any loss of coolant. Just look at the tank every day or two; keep checking it cold, so you're comparing apples to apples. You might never _see_ a slow leak, as it might be so slight that it only leaks when the system is under pressure. A cold pressure test is the only way to find such a leak.

Quote:
You can buy cheap and do repairs sometimes, or buy newer and make car payments. Since repairs may or may not happen, but car payments always do, it seems like a no-brainer to me.
Wow, an entire philosophy in a nutshell.

To add to what Uzzy said about the ECTS and codes, the upshot is, the ECTS can make the car run in such a way as to throw a code _reported_ by an entirely different part. The classic example is (I'm forgetting the number) "O2 sensor reading rich mixture" or words to that effect. Some (e.g. the AutoStoners) see that, and immediately want to replace (at your expense!) the O2 sensor, when in fact _it_ is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing. And the "rich mixture" it's reporting is actually caused by a bad ECTS.

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Old 04-06-2007, 05:08 PM   #15
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

Meet me in Richmond and I'll fix your car

I used to live in Richmond, VA so if you don't mind driving there, I have some mechanic buddies there. As for the DC area...that's an area to be cautious about.....people get ripped off in that area all the time....I have a relative that lives in McLean, VA....or somewhere around there. And I know exactly where Woodbridge is....been there a few times.

...
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Old 04-06-2007, 06:32 PM   #16
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Default Re: Flashing warning light above coolant temp gauge

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Meet me in Richmond and I'll fix your car
Well, I lived in Richmond until December of last year. I had a great independent Volvo shop there--Paul's--that is supposedly the largest in the U.S., and certainly the best I've found for dealing with my '92 740 Turbo wagon with 240k miles.

I did have a cold pressure test done on the SL1 cooling system this afternoon. There was no sign of a leak, but then, the coolant level WAS down yesterday. So I'll keep watching it.

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