What To Do When Your Car Heater Won’t Work

Driving an ice-cold car on a frigid morning is no fun and a heater blowing cold air is not only annoying it's a safety hazard. Here is what to do.

When it’s cold outside, your car’s heating system provides warm air to make driving comfortable. Even if you live in a warmer climate, there will be chilly mornings when you’ll want your car’s heater to help warm you up while driving.

But if you live in a cold, demanding northern climate, a properly functioning heating system isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s essential. In addition to making your drive miserable, a heater blowing cold air prevents the defroster from removing ice and fog from the windshield, creating dangerous driving conditions that you should never ignore.

How Does a Car Heater Work?

Heat from a running engine is absorbed by coolant. To maintain proper engine operating temperature, the cooling system circulates the engine coolant through the radiator and heater core.

The radiator and heater core act like small heat exchangers to remove excess heat from the coolant. In a passenger vehicle, the heater control panel manages the components that regulate how much heat from the heater core enters the passenger compartment, to keep you warm and toasty. The heater control is also used to adjust blower motor fan speed and which vents the heated air exits.

What If My Heater Isn’t Blowing Warm Air?

There are a few reasons why your car’s heater can fail to blow hot air into the passenger compartment. Let’s look at the most common causes and determine if they are something you can fix yourself.

Low Coolant

Low coolant level is the most common cause of poor heater output. To determine if this is the problem, when the engine is cool, remove the radiator cap. The coolant level should be at the top of the radiator neck.

Using a 50/50 mix of anti-freeze and distilled water, top off the radiator and fill the coolant reservoir tank to the “Max” line — be sure not to overfill the radiator or the coolant reservoir. With the radiator cap still off, set the parking brake, start the engine, and set the heater control to the highest temperature and maximum fan speed settings.

As the engine warms up, the coolant level may drop when the thermostat opens. If the coolant level drops, and being careful to avoid any moving parts (especially the cooling fans!), slowly squeeze the upper radiator hose to help remove any air that may be trapped in the cooling system. Top off the radiator and coolant reservoir tank again, if necessary.

If you need to keep adding coolant, check the radiator, thermostat housing, radiator and heater hoses, water pump and coolant reservoir for leaks. If any of these parts are leaking, check your owner’s manual to determine which ones you can replace yourself.

If you don’t see fluid puddling under the car, check the tailpipe for thick white smoke or a sweet-pungent odor. These symptoms indicate coolant is burning in the combustion chamber due to a bad head gasket, intake manifold gasket or other failed internal engine part. Replacing internal engine gaskets is not a DIY project.

Thermostat Stuck Open

The thermostat is a simple, but critical valve designed to block coolant from circulating through the cooling system when an engine is cold, allowing the engine to heat up and reach operating temperature quickly.

When the engine reaches operating temperature, the thermostat opens, allowing hot coolant to flow through the cooling system and heater core. A stuck-open thermostat prevents the engine (and coolant) from heating up.

Cold coolant flowing through the heater core can’t produce heat and won’t warm up your car’s interior. A stuck-open thermostat also causes poor gas economy, elevated tailpipe emissions and engine damage. On some vehicles you can replace the thermostat yourself — check your owner’s manual. Otherwise, your mechanic can do it.

Plugged Heater Core

Heat from the circulating coolant is transferred to the heater core. The blower fan pushes air over the heater core (similar to a small radiator), removing heat from the coolant. This heat is used to warm up the passenger compartment and defrost the windshield.

A plugged heater core restricts coolant flow and gives off little or no heat. With the engine at operating temperature, set the heater control to the full hot position, then carefully grasp both heater hoses. They should be very warm. If one is significantly cooler than the other, in all likelihood, the heater core is clogged. You can try flushing a clogged heater core with a garden hose.

A heater core can also leak. A leaking heater core produces a sweet odor and a slimy film on the windows, as well as causing low coolant level issues. Installing a new heater core can be difficult and should be done by a pro.

Electric Cooling Fans With a Bad Switch

Electric cooling fans that run constantly due to a malfunctioning switch, relay or controller prevent coolant from reaching operating temperature — similar to a thermostat that is stuck open. Due to the complexity of this circuit, diagnosis and repairs are best left to the pros.

Heater Control Valve Stuck

Some vehicles use a heater control valve that only opens (allowing hot coolant to flow through the heater core) when the heater control calls for hot air. The heater will fail to produce warm air if the control valve is stuck closed, leaking or disconnected from the heater control.

Follow the same steps to check if a heater core is clogged, only you’ll also want to feel the heater hoses on both sides of the valve. If the hose connected to the engine is warm, but the hose from the valve to the heater core (the hose that goes into your car) is cooler, the valve is in the closed position.

Some valves are controlled by vacuum. Check that the vacuum hose is connected and not damaged. If the hose is okay, remove the hose and place your finger on the end of the vacuum hose and feel for suction, sort of like a vacuum cleaner hose, but not as strong. Leave it to your mechanic to repair if no suction is present. You can replace a heater control valve yourself.

Blend Door Stuck in Cold Position

The blend door regulates the amount of heat from the heater core that enters the passenger compartment. Electrical, vacuum or mechanical outputs from the heater control act on the heater blend door to deliver all hot air, all cold air or some combination of the two.

A blend door stuck in the cold position, due to a defective heater control, failed electrical or vacuum actuator or mechanical control cable will produce little heat.

Don’t confuse the blend door with the mode door. Mode doors function the same as a blend door but direct air flow to the floor, dash vents and defroster. Repairing blend door problems is best left to an automotive air conditioning specialist.

The Last Word

It’s important to address car heater problems as soon as possible. On cold days, a car that isn’t blowing warm air won’t be pleasant to drive, plus the situation places the driver and their passengers at risk if the windshield fogs up or ices over.

For your vehicle’s heating system to work efficiently, and help prevent coolant leaks and engine mechanical problems, flushing the coolant every three to five years or 30,000 miles is key.

Some of the issues tackled here can easily be fixed at home while others require a mechanic. If you ignore the problem, it may cause a bigger and more costly issue down the road.

Robert Lacivita
Bob Lacivita is an award-winning auto technician and career and technical educator and freelance writer who has written about DYI car repairs and vehicle maintenance topics, as well as writing state, federal and organizational foundation grants, and helped design a unique curriculum delivery model that integrates rigorous, relevant academic standards seamlessly into technical/vocational training, for more than 20 years. His work has been featured in Family Handyman, a Reader's Digest book and Classic Bike Rider magazine, among others. Bob and his wife lived through 20 years' worth of DIY home remodeling while parenting two (now grown) boys and now relax by watching their three fabulous granddaughters.