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Alero - No heat after bumper cover replacement

I have a 1999 Olds Alero, with a 3.4L V6 with around 125K miles. I’ve got quite a story, and I hope someone can offer me some help! This has been bit of an adventure, and I’m going to be as detailed as possible.

I bought this car used last summer from a dealership, and have never had any major issues, just routine fixes (brake pads, light bulbs, etc). Earlier this year, however, I got into a fender-bender after work one day and crunched up the front of my car pretty good: headlights, bumper, my hood a little. I wasn’t going very fast (maybe around 25mph), and luckily, nothing was leaking. I was able to drive it home (about 30 miles).

I took it to a body shop and they taped it up as best they could, but said I was going to need new headlights, headlight mounting bracket, and bumper cover, but everything else looked fine. So, being cheap and thinking this would be an easy fix, I ordered these parts online. In the meantime, I drove my car back and forth to work without issue.

Once the parts arrived my father-in-law, my uncle-in-law and I took everything apart and got the bracket and the bumper cover installed. With the hood open, I took the time to check on some fluids I hadn’t checked since I bought the car, specifically the antifreeze. I noticed that the cap was broken; the top “child safety cap” came completely off, and the “plug” end had a crack on one side of the edge and seemed almost glued into place. After some prying, I removed the plug end, and the fluid level was just fine. The following weekend, I was out of town, so my in-laws got my headlights installed and drove it around the corner to my house.

The Monday after everything was back together, I went to drive my car to work. It was a cold day, so I had my heater blowing. However, after about 5 miles, I noticed the air hadn’t warmed up at all and my temperature gauge was moving well above the midpoint (when I’ve never, ever seen it go above mid) and my Low Coolant warning light turned on. I pulled over and checked my coolant level, and it was completely empty, and then I closed my radiator cap as tight as I could. I turned around, my heat started running again, but I felt it would be safer to take another car to work. After work I bought some antifreeze and a new cap for the reservoir. After refilling it, I drove it down the street to my in-laws, and again my heat stopped working. I checked my coolant again, and it had completely emptied after only one mile.

Later that week, another uncle, a mechanic by profession, took a look at my situation, thinking it could be a blown head gasket. I refilled my antifreeze and drove the car down to his house, only a mile away. It was running for about half an hour, and he tried a pressure check. At first, he couldn’t get a reading, but then we noticed all of the air was escaping out the overflow tube. We pinched the tube off, and he was able to do a proper reading, and it looked fine to him. My heat started to run again, and he said I should be good to go. Relieved, I drove back to the in-laws, when, once again, my heat kicked out, and the coolant was empty. Before I went to drive home, I refilled the antifreeze while the car was running, and I noticed that the coolant would start to pour straight out of the overflow. This seemed to confirm my uncle’s suspicion of a blown head gasket. I also got a second opinion from a friend of the family and mechanic, who also felt it’s a blown gasket.

While I trust these two guys opinions as mechanics and I understand that head gaskets can just blow, part of me is still very suspicious that my car drove completely fine until I replaced some primarily cosmetic parts. Another suggestion was offered by two completely different “car guys” to check the fans, specifically to run the AC for a bit to see if the fans in the engine kick on, which the did NOT.

That’s the story. So here are my questions:

1) Could there have been something, like a fan or something else, that could have been disconnected during the bumper, etc, replacement that could cause this sort of thing? Or possibly something I did with removing the broken radiator cap?

2) Is there any kind of test I can have done from home to confirm the status of my head gaskets? Or can that only really be done by taking my engine apart?

The head gaskets can be checked by an engine pressure test, but I sincerely believe you would be experiencing many more issues if that was the problem. A pressure test on the coolant system is where I would start, as coolant loss is the recurring factor. The fan operation is also very suspect, start inexpensive and work your way up.

The pressure check my uncle did was on the coolant system. It didn’t work at first because the air was leaking out of the overflow hose, so we clamped that off. He ran a check again and it looked fine to him. Could this have been a false positive, like there’s some sort of blockage in the system and the coolant is just getting too hot without traveling through all the way, and shooting out the overflow? I’ve purchased a new thermosdat, but haven’t had it replaced, thinking this could have been a possibility before my uncle named the head gaskets the prime suspect.

If I had to guess it would be that the filler neck is damaged and the previous owner had done a glue patch repair, unless you run the car with the overflow hose clamped off that indicates a source for the pressure loss. I am not able to see and analyze but think an independent analysis from a non relative precedes head gasket replacement.

Yeah, I agree on the Independent Analysis part, :). I’ll get some third/fourth opinions before I actually have my engine torn apart. That’s why I’m curious to see if there’s a definitive way to see if the head gaskets are to blame, just for peace of mind and to confirm if they are the problem or not.

If your cooling system pressure check toool I not defective there certainly is a problem with the radiator fill heck, the reason I say why? you should not have to “clamp off” the overflow port hose to allow the pressure check tool to build up pressure for the test

Headgaskets are checked with a compression leakdown test of the cylinders. Each cylinder is fitted in the spark plug hole with an air pressure inlet, valve, and gage. Pressure is pumped in and the valve shut off to see if the cylinder leaks air.

Another sure sign is if with the engine running and the coolant full you have bubbles blowing out your radiator fill hole. That’d be the combustion gasses being blown through the headgasket breech and migrataing to the system’s high point: the fill hole.

But, let me suggest that you change your thinking. The problem did not start with the replacement of some cosmetic parts. The problem started with the crash. You should be looking for crash damage.

With this new thinking in mind, you need to check over any and all areas that may have been crash damaged, including the water pump and the radiator tanks. Start by putting the car safely on racks, sliding underneath with a good worklight, and looking for the source of the leak. If you must, put a full faceshield on and do this with the engine running WHEELS CHOCKED, PARKING BRAKE ON, FRIEND ASSISTING and applying brakes, CELL PHONE HANDY…SAFETY FIRST.

Note that areas like the inlets and outlet of the heater core can also be damaged by the sudden movement of the parts that comes with a crash.

My money is on the water pump. A sudden lateral (to the pump axis) jolt to a spinning water pump can damage it, and you can perform a successful pressure test on a stationary (yet damaged) pump and have it hemmorage when it’s spinning.

Yeah, my uncle thought that was kind of odd that we had to clamp the overflow hose to get any sort of reading, but felt it was conclusive enough. I assumed there’s supposed to be some sort of valve that would prevent unnecessary out-flow, but he didn’t mention any sort of thing.

When I took it to the Body Shop initially, they gave it a once-over and said nothing vital to the car running was damaged in the engine, only the cosmetic parts (and a dent in the actual bumper, no real biggie). I understand that something could have broken or came loose from the accident, but I drove t for some time, two or three weeks, before we stared replacing the bumper cover, etc, and the real problems surfaced. Maybe it could have been a domino effect between both the accident and the replacement of parts that knocked something out of commission.

I’ll have the water pump checked out, thanks!

Good point about having driven it, but I’d still keep crash damage in mind as I looked for the problem.

Sincere best.