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Old 04-24-2022, 11:09 PM   #1
rattlern64
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2001 SL2
Default Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Hey everyone. I've been gone for a few years, but picked up what seemed at first to be an awesome saturn again recently. I bought an 01 sl2 auto with 143000 from a mechanic down the road from me. Everything seemed good when I bought but I've been running in to some issues.

Started a few days after I purchased it. Low coolant light came on and it was in fact low. I've had to watch it like a hawk since then. I've gone through the entire cooling system. New ects, water pump, coolant tank, thermostat, checked hoses and radiator side tanks. Even chopped the heater core tube off the intake manifold because it was split and replaced it with the doorman steel one. Thought it was all sorted out. No visible leaks, no steam, nothing. Seemed fine for a few days and the coolant light popped back on. Triple checked my work. Full visual inspection. No milky oil or tranny fluid, no visible leaks. Pressure tested the system cold at 18 psi. No visible leaks anywhere. No pressure loss.

I'm at an absolute loss. This is my 4th saturn, so I know my way around them, but this has me stumped. I'm waiting on hydrocarbon test strips to come in to test the coolant, and I need to do a visual inspection on the plugs and cylinders. I did notice one day that there seemed to be a little steam from near the expansion tank and read something about the return hose being clogged possibly causing steam to blow off through the cap. Any thoughts on that? As I was digging around the cooling system, the thermostat had been removed and I'm afraid the car had been overheated in the past and has a warped head/ blown head gasket.

Any and all input is appreciated. Thanks in advance everyone.
...
01 SC2 5mt - Wrecked at 175,000
98 SL2 5mt- Scrapped at 115,000
00 SL1 5mt- Purple people eater sold at 190,000
01 SL2 auto- Black Betty 145,000
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Old 04-24-2022, 11:19 PM   #2
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

I'd start with a new reservoir cap. They're not all that failure prone, but 1 boil over event seems to kill them even if it leaves the rest of the engine perfectly fine.
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Old 04-24-2022, 11:39 PM   #3
rattlern64
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

I was considering replacing the cap as a cautionary thing. May or may not be related, but I can't rule it out until I get the test strip in.
...
01 SC2 5mt - Wrecked at 175,000
98 SL2 5mt- Scrapped at 115,000
00 SL1 5mt- Purple people eater sold at 190,000
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Old 04-25-2022, 07:57 AM   #4
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Is the radiator original to the car?

Did you check the top driver's side of the radiator? They can develop a small, literal pinhole size leak, that can't be seen- unless you really look for it.

I would also check the metal hoses underneath the Coolant tank. In one of my Saturns, I developed a leak with the hoses going to the T Junction underneath the Coolant Tank, and had to replace them.

The Float can also get clogged in the Coolant tank- which means you will need to take the tank out; and wash the tank with mild soapy water, until you hear the float rattling again in the Coolant tank.
...
Bryan

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Old 04-25-2022, 01:30 PM   #5
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

I have checked the radiator multiple times from every conceivable angle. I don't know if it's the original radiator, but have verified there are no leaks anywhere on the radiator. The expansion tank is new, so I don't believe the float is stuck, but I'll pull the tank, check the lines underneath, and verify there are no leaks and the float is moving freely.
...
01 SC2 5mt - Wrecked at 175,000
98 SL2 5mt- Scrapped at 115,000
00 SL1 5mt- Purple people eater sold at 190,000
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Old 04-25-2022, 02:24 PM   #6
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

"Low coolant light came on and it was in fact low."

Was the coolant low again the next time the light came on? If so, why fuss with the level sensor? It is working fine.

Did you pressure-test with the engine/coolant cold? How much pressure, how long did you leave pressure on?
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Old 04-25-2022, 11:02 PM   #7
rattlern64
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Per the original post, system was pressure tested cold at 18 psi for 1.5 hrs. No pressure was lost during the test. No coolant was observed on the shop floor and no visible leaks were found. UV dye was added to the coolant before the test to help identify any leaks.
...
01 SC2 5mt - Wrecked at 175,000
98 SL2 5mt- Scrapped at 115,000
00 SL1 5mt- Purple people eater sold at 190,000
01 SL2 auto- Black Betty 145,000
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Old 04-26-2022, 11:54 AM   #8
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Sorry, about missing the cold/18 psi. Did you happen to pull the plugs and peek into the cylinders, to see if the piston tops were wet after the test?
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Old 04-26-2022, 10:54 PM   #9
rattlern64
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Haven't gotten around to pulling the plugs yet. I'm gonna check the bore and plugs for signs of wetness and to see if one bore is cleaner than the rest.
...
01 SC2 5mt - Wrecked at 175,000
98 SL2 5mt- Scrapped at 115,000
00 SL1 5mt- Purple people eater sold at 190,000
01 SL2 auto- Black Betty 145,000
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Old 04-30-2022, 12:16 PM   #10
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

My old 96 and my current 02 both weep coolant out the gap between the head and block at cylinder 4. On my 96 I had the head shaved and rebuilt and it still leaked there.

My 02 do is it and I put some copper sealer in the coolant and it stops for awhile.

But saying that I can smell the antifreeze leak.
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Old 04-30-2022, 09:49 PM   #11
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Quote:
Originally Posted by 1996SL11.9L View Post
My old 96 and my current 02 both weep coolant out the gap between the head and block at cylinder 4. On my 96 I had the head shaved and rebuilt and it still leaked there.

My 02 do is it and I put some copper sealer in the coolant and it stops for awhile.

But saying that I can smell the antifreeze leak.
My ‘98 seems to seep oil into the coolant, as the inside of the reservoir gets greasy. The coolant loss seems to be the plastic drain valve on the all-aluminum radiator, even though I replaced the O-ring.
(Note that the $60 all-aluminum rad on eBay has a brass drain valve)

On topic, is there a way to identify burning coolant by looking at the deposits on the spark plugs?
(Edit: see post #9)

Last edited by bumpdraft; 04-30-2022 at 09:52 PM. Reason: Did not read carefully
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Old 05-01-2022, 08:39 AM   #12
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Quote:
Originally Posted by bumpdraft View Post
My Ď98 seems to seep oil into the coolant, as the inside of the reservoir gets greasy. The coolant loss seems to be the plastic drain valve on the all-aluminum radiator, even though I replaced the O-ring.
(Note that the $60 all-aluminum rad on eBay has a brass drain valve)

On topic, is there a way to identify burning coolant by looking at the deposits on the spark plugs?
(Edit: see post #9)
If youíre burning coolant in my opinion the plug will be cleaner than the rest.
Saying that, I canít see any way for oil to get into the coolant except via the head gasket. But to me it wouldnít be greasy looking, you would see oil floating on top.

Iíve been wrenching on cars a long time and oil doesnít readily mix with antifreeze unless there is enough of it in the pan to end up going through the oil pump. Water (moisture from condensation) will turn oil white and foamy no problem. Have you drained your oil and looked for antifreeze in the bottom of the drain pan as you slowly pour it out?
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Old 05-01-2022, 08:15 PM   #13
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Quote:
Originally Posted by fetchitfido View Post
I'd start with a new reservoir cap. They're not all that failure prone, but 1 boil over event seems to kill them even if it leaves the rest of the engine perfectly fine.
on that note, if the expansion tank is a dorman aftermarket replacement, you may find that most of the replacement caps on the market don't thread quite properly and hence don't seal well. i was chasing mysterious coolant loss through the cap on janus for years, and was starting to suspect the head gasket, until i decided to swap a spare oem tank and cap in. that solved the issue immediately.

also, it should be pretty obvious if you're losing coolant through the cap, there will be coolant residue (or still-wet coolant) visible on the tank.

now, given the diagnosis you've done, i'd try a hot pressure test (warm the engine up, let it cool off just enough that it won't spray out when you remove the cap, then test again) and a leakdown test. leakdown tests are quite effective at locating a head gasket problem, at least if the coolant is getting into the cylinders. oh, and have you observed any steam from the exhaust? generally there will be at least some if coolant is burning off.
...
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Old 05-02-2022, 12:24 AM   #14
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

How are you doing the pressure test? If you are using an adapter that screws on in place of the cap, then you are not testing the cap-to-reservoir interface. the above post made the light come on for me...
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Old 05-03-2022, 07:47 PM   #15
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

The cap may be suspect, it is the cheapest part so I would replace with a good quality one. The purge line may be leaking at the fitting where it enters into the overflow tank.
...
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Old 05-04-2022, 01:19 AM   #16
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Quote:
Originally Posted by cgg17 View Post
The cap may be suspect, it is the cheapest part so I would replace with a good quality one. The purge line may be leaking at the fitting where it enters into the overflow tank.
i just mentioned it, but i will reiterate... the tank is also suspect if it's not oem. i put several replacement caps on janus without a second thought about the dorman replacement tank, and then it finally clicked when a professional mechanic friend was complaining about poor fitment of some other dorman part he'd recently had to install at work. i like some of dorman's parts (the "help!" line is particularly worthwhile) but others do have fitment/dimensional issues. when i did the rear disc swap on phoebe, i bought dorman parking brake cables, and they were too short, causing the brakes to be stuck on even with the adjustment nut on the lever at its loosest. thankfully that did clear up after i left the car parked with the brake on very tight for a week and they finally stretched out some. there's not such an easy fix if the threads on the tank are moulded wrong, though.
...
rings-1996 sl2 ~215k mi
phoebe-1995 sl1 ~250k mi
janus-2000 sohc2 ~190k mi
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Old 05-12-2022, 04:28 PM   #17
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Default Re: Mystery coolant loss. Head gasket?

Good thread discussion, very good troubleshooting work by Rattlern64.

> Your engine NEEDS the GM 'cooling system seal tablets'
ACDelco 10-108 12378255

The Only thing you can buy at GM or cadilac dealers for less than $6 !!

.........................

I noticed different behavior of the gen3 2000 vs previous '97 gen2:

More torque at lower rpms; more tendency to boil over unless
reservoir cap is tight, never pings at low revs starting off.

CGG17 observed that the gen3 engines often have cracked ring lands....

When I first got the car (used, 165kMi) the engine coolant (i suspect the block had never been drained) required at least 4 distilled-water flushes.

Recently (186,oooMi) i noticed a coolant leak had developed. I topped off,
the leak continued. Then, i added a coolant seal tablet. AOK for a while.

I drove to Allentown from Long Island ... AOK. But, I noticed the coolant looked weird -- it had clarified from use>>> The coolant tablets make the
antifreeze mix look like coffee, or chocolate milk with a lot of suspended
particulate. Clear is not good. Clear indicates that the particulate is leaking from the cooling system somewhere. I added a coolant seal tablet, AOK.

I drove to mid-Vermont from Long Island, and upon arrival:
1.) the coolant had clarified ; 2.) the weeping leak from the heater core
smelled more like exhaust than antifreeze -- cause for concern, except that
both the coolant loss and the oil consumption were minimal.

On the way back south to L.I., I stopped at auto service in Cambridge, N.Y.,
and whined a bit with the proprietor, who offered, "A marginal head gasket
in a Saturn can often be cured by adding a GM cooling tablet" ... and I
gushed, yeah, I've got some onboard! I added one at my next stop.

Sooo the reason for the drive to Allentown, was to buy a used head assembly from a good wrecking yard there. The head has since been cleaned up by
a local auto machine shop. I NEED a head gasket, and having a rebuilt
head will enable fitting: 1.) head+gasket , 2.) new plastic Intake Manifold,
and new Timing Set, Oil pump over a day, or two... and not worry about burnt valve or slipped timing chain.

And, the first fill of the cooling jacket (with new Stant thermo), will be accompanied by 2 cooling system tablets !
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