What Causes a Blown Head Gasket?

Maybe you see some white smoke coming out of the tailpipe while you drive, or maybe your car feels a bit sluggish or under powered. You bring your car to a repair shop and the service advisor says you have a blown head gasket. Most people know the head gasket is an important component in their vehicle’s engine, but not as many understand exactly what it does and what causes it to fail. Read on to learn more about the function of the head gasket, and why it’s such a serious issue when it blows.

What does the head gasket do?

Your engine is divided into two parts. The bottom end, which contains the crankshaft, pistons, connecting rods, and oil pump. These components live in the engine block, and their movement provides power and torque to the transmission and eventually, the wheels.

bottom end four cylinder engine
The bottom end of an engine.

The cylinder head is the “top half” of the engine. The head contains the valves, camshaft(s), spark plugs, as well as the ports allowing fresh air into the engine and exhaust out of it. The valves and spark plugs work to create the combustion needed to drive your car.

aluminum cylinder head four cylinder
An aluminum cylinder head.

The head gasket is the barrier that sits between the bottom end of the motor and the cylinder head. Its job is to seal the combustion happening in each cylinder and maintain compression. Additionally, the head gasket prevents oil and coolant from mixing. It serves as a barrier between the coolant channels that run through the engine block, and the oil contained in the rotating assembly.

complete engine
A complete engine with both the bottom and the cylinder head. The head gasket seals the two together.

What causes a head gasket to fail?

In general, head gaskets are pretty robust and, in most cases, last well over 100,000 miles. That being said, some conditions can cause premature head gasket failure.

Overheating

Engine overheating is one of the most common causes of a blown head gasket. When the engine gets too hot, the gasket is exposed to temperatures outside of what it is meant to handle. Extreme heat can cause failure. Overheating can also cause warping or cracking in the cylinder head or engine block, preventing the head gasket from sealing correctly.

Pre-ignition and detonation

Both pre-ignition and detonation can cause premature head gasket failure. Both of these conditions result in high heat and pressure in the cylinder, putting extreme stress on the gasket, not to mention the pistons and valves. Remember that pre-ignition occurs before the spark plug fires, and detonation occurs after.

Abrupt temperature changes

The head gasket expands and contracts to depend on the temperature of the engine. If you start your engine cold and immediately put your foot down, the shock of the abrupt temperature change can cause a head gasket failure. Allowing your car to get up to proper operating temperature before aggressive acceleration will help prevent head gasket failure.

vehicle temperature gauge

High mileage and age

Gaskets wear out. A car that has significant mileage on it without ever having a head gasket replacement may run into issues. Age can cause the materials in the gasket to break down and not seal as well as they used to. Manufacturers prescribe a head gasket replacement once a car hits a certain mileage point. If you are over that mileage, you are at higher risk of head gasket failure.

Incorrect installation

If the head gasket was replaced incorrectly, it’s unlikely to hold a seal for long if it ever does at all. If you had a head gasket replaced but run into issues quickly after the service, there may have been an issue with the install.

used head gasket
An old, used head gasket.

Signs of a blown head gasket

Depending on the severity, the symptoms of a failed head gasket can vary.

Coolant and oil leaks

Oil and coolant leaks are common issues on many vehicles. Just because you see a leak doesn’t mean you have a blown head gasket. If you see the majority of the oil or coolant seeping out from the engine block though, it could be an indication that the head gasket is no longer maintaining a seal.

Misfiring

A blown head gasket no longer keeps coolant passages sealed off from the cylinders. This results in coolant entering the cylinder chamber, skewing the air/fuel ratio, and causing a misfire

White exhaust smoke and water vapor

White smoke or water vapor exiting the tailpipe is another indicator of a head gasket leak. Coolant that enters the cylinder and burns will appear white on its way out of the vehicle’s exhaust. Water vapor may also be present.

Overheating (again)

While overheating can cause a blown head gasket, it can also be a symptom.

White/milky oil

If you notice your oil has a milky color, it’s a good indicator that coolant has entered areas of the engine it’s not supposed to be. The most common cause of this is a failed head gasket. If you suspect a failed or failing head gasket, take a look at your dipstick or underneath the oil cap for signs of contamination. The oil that has mixed with coolant is not as effective at lubricating the moving parts in your engine.

 Can I fix a blown head gasket myself?

Probably not. Replacing a head gasket is an extremely in-depth repair that requires the removal of the cylinder head. For the average person, the complexity of this service is time-consuming and leaves a lot of room for error. Unless you are an ex-technician or a very experienced do-it-yourselfer with the proper space and tools, your best bet is to tow your car to a garage.

Can I drive with a blown head gasket?

No, you should not drive if you believe your head gasket has failed. You could cause significant damage that could quickly turn a head gasket replacement into an engine replacement.

Head gasket replacement at Becker Service Center

The team at Becker Service Center has the skills and knowledge to replace your blown head gasket. We will ensure the repair is done right the first time, restoring the seal between the block and cylinder head, and protecting your engine. Give us a call or schedule an appointment at our Naperville repair shop today!

How Often Should My Car Be Serviced?

Regular maintenance is the best way to keep your vehicle reliable and running as it should. Keeping up on services like oil changes, brake service, air filter replacement, and spark plug/ignition services, and timing belt/chain replacement can extend the life of your vehicle and prevent more expensive and serious repairs down the road. 

That being said, every person you talk to has a different opinion on how frequently a vehicle should be serviced. To make things more complicated, vehicle manufacturers develop their maintenance schedules instructing you to perform certain service items at specific mileage intervals. In some cases, the recommended intervals from the manufacturer are not frequent enough.

So, what should you believe? There are a lot of variables that impact how often you should get your vehicle serviced. In this article, we are going to clear up the confusion so you know when it’s time to get your car to the shop.

Why is regular maintenance important?

People get sick and go to the doctor when there is something wrong. The doctor may diagnose you with an illness and recommend a treatment to make your symptoms better or go away altogether. They also may recommend lifestyle changes to reduce the damage done to your body.

 Your vehicle, like your body, is comprised of many different interconnected systems that can wear out, become run down, or fail if they are not taken care of, abused, or grow older. Preventative maintenance helps slow the progression of issues that come from years of operation and exposure to the elements, keeping your car running as it should for longer. While it may seem expensive and pointless to replace and service things that aren’t broken, the money you spend on maintenance will almost always be less expensive than fixing a component when it fails. Not to mention, the time you spend without your vehicle will be much more if it needs an extensive repair. 

What services are considered “regular” or “preventive” maintenance on my car?

Most of the systems within your vehicle are subject to wear and tear that comes from its regular operation. They utilize fluids to lubricate and cool (oil, coolant), and expendable parts that wear out due to friction (brakes, clutches). Any of these changeable components that lose effectiveness over time fall under the preventative maintenance umbrella.

How often should I have my car serviced?

It depends. Each regular service item has a different interval, and the interval will vary depending on the vehicle, engine, age, and mileage. The list below will highlight the more common maintenance items that most cars require, as well as our recommended service intervals. Remember, all vehicles follow slightly different guidelines. These are our recommendations for getting the most out of your car. 

Oil Changes

Red-oil-dipstick

The oil keeps the moving components in your engine lubricated and cool. Over time, it becomes less effective and needs to be changed. Most modern vehicles have an oil change interval between 5000 and 12000 miles based on factory recommendations. Synthetic oil used in modern vehicles is much more resistant to breakdown and remains effective significantly longer than conventional oil. 

Regardless, the more frequently you perform oil changes the better. Many new cars use downsized, turbocharged engines to squeeze out the most power and fuel economy possible. While highly efficient, these engines produce a lot of heat that can lead to more rapid oil breakdown. 

At Becker Service Center, we recommend changing your oil at a minimum twice per year if your car uses synthetic oil. For conventional oil, we suggest an oil change every 90 days.

Brakes and Brake Fluid

brake fluid reservoir

Every time you drive, the pads and rotors in your braking system are exposed to extreme heat. There is no set interval for brakes due to the variability in their wear (a pickup truck that tows frequently will wear through brake pads faster than a small commuter car). Brake fluid is responsible for transferring and amplifying the input from your foot into the breaks, stopping the car.

The best way to keep track of when your brakes need service is to have them looked at every time you come in. At Becker Service Center, we will measure the remaining pad material when you bring your car in for any maintenance item and let you know when they need to be replaced. Brake fluid should be replaced every five years to maintain optimal functionality.

Automatic Transmission Fluid

Automatic transmission fluid, or ATF, keeps the moving components in the automatic transmission lubricated and prevents wear and tear. The interval for flushing the transmission and adding new ATF is much larger than motor oil changes. 

We recommend an automatic transmission flush every 50,000 miles at Becker Service Center. However, if the fluid looks dark or smells burnt, the ATF should be changed sooner to prevent damage to the transmission. 

Differential and Transfer Case Fluid

Differentials and transfer cases route power from the engine to the wheels and use a gear oil to keep the moving components lubricated. Drivers neglect the fluids in these units frequently. Performing transfer case and differential fluid flushes should be on your regular maintenance list. 

We recommend changing the differential and transfer case fluid every 30,000 to 50,000 miles to prevent premature failure.

Manual Transmission Fluid

Another frequently overlooked service. Like other fluids, manual transmission gear oil becomes less effective as it gets older. Old fluid can damage gears and synchros, making your gear shifts rough and eventually causing severe damage to the transmission. 

At Becker Service Center, we recommend performing a manual transmission oil service every 30,000 – 60,000 miles to keep your transmission working as it should. 

Coolant Flush

coolant reservoir

Flushing the coolant and replacing it with fresh antifreeze is an important regular maintenance item. Old coolant loses its anti-corrosive properties. Corrosion in the cooling system causes coolant lines and flanges to rust or break down, requiring repairs. 

We recommend a coolant flush every 5 years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. 

Power Steering Fluid Flush

Like all the fluids on this list, the power steering fluid loses its functionality over time. It can become abrasive and wear out your power steering pump faster. Some modern cars have moved away from using a hydraulic power steering pump, opting for an electric-assist system that forgoes the use of fluid. We recommend changing your power steering fluid every 30,000 miles. 

Fuel Injection Cleaning

Over time, fuel injectors can become clogged. When injectors are not working as they should, you will notice a drop in performance while you drive. and engine with clean injectors will perform best.

At Becker Service Center, we recommend getting your fuel injectors cleaned every 60,000 miles. 

Tire Rotations

tire on car

Rotating your tires preserves their tread life, prevents uneven wear, and makes your vehicle safer by preserving handling. The type and frequency of tire rotation depend on a vehicle’s drive (front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive). 

We recommend a tire rotation every 6 months or as needed, depending on the vehicle. 

Timing Service 

timing belt

The timing system keeps the intake and exhaust valves timed correctly with the bottom end of the engine. Timing system issues or failure can result from a variety of issues ranging from rough running up to severe engine damage. Timing intervals are highly vehicle-dependent. Its best to follow factory recommendations, but in some cases, it is advised to perform a timing service even more frequently. Have your mechanic keep an eye on your timing components every time you have work or service done. 

Let Becker Service Center Handle All Your Maintenance 

Our team of ASE-certified technicians will keep your car up to date on service and maintenance. Trust your vehicle to our Naperville repair shop. Call or schedule an appointment today!