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Heater Core: How To Replace It and What It Costs

A vehicle's heater core warms the cabin (passenger compartment) using the hot air generated by the engine. It is part of a vehicle's air conditioning system that helps defrost or defog the windshield, improving visibility, particularly in cold weather and winter. A heater core typically increases a vehicle's cabin temperature to provide comfort using the energy of the engine coolant.

While a heater core helps greatly in winter months, its functions are beyond safety, improving air quality in a vehicle cabin and providing comfort. It also serves several other functions all year round. This article explains the multiple functions of a vehicle's heater core, where it is located, how it works, signs of failure, and the replacement cost implication of a failed heater core.

What Is a Heater Core?

A heater core is an important component of a vehicle's air conditioner system that heats the passenger compartment and demists the windscreen. It is similar to a radiator in terms of design. However, unlike a radiator that works by cooling a car's air conditioner system's coolant, the heat core warms a vehicle's interior using hot coolant from the engine. A heater core is also smaller than a radiator.

The heater core has several functions, the primary ones being to provide safety and comfort. It improves visibility when operating a vehicle under adverse conditions, such as snowy conditions. The heater core does this by defrosting the ice and removing condensation from your windows and windshield. Also, a car heater core helps maintain a cozy temperature in a vehicle's interior and provides comfort for the occupants in cold weather conditions. Furthermore, the heater core can serve the purpose of an engine radiator if a vehicle's radiator malfunctions, but only to a certain extent because the heater core is not big enough. Besides, it has limited cold air passing through it and will not cool large amounts of engine coolant as much. This function can be activated by turning on the heat in the vehicle's cabin, which cools the engine coolant and, in turn, cools the engine.

How Does a Heater Core Work?

A car heater core primarily works as a heat exchange. It extracts the heat generated from the engine for use by the vehicle's climate control system to warm the air flowing into the passenger's compartment. Typically, the heater core is plugged into a vehicle's engine with special heater hoses, through which it is fed with engine coolant. When a car heater is turned on, the air is forced over the heater core by the vehicle's heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) blower fan once it (the heater core) absorbs the heat from the engine coolant. The air is heated in the process, which warms up the car as it transits through the vents into its interior.

A heater core comprises an inlet tube and an outlet tube, among a few other components, and it operates similarly to a radiator. The hot engine coolant goes through the inlet tubes and transits through the outlet. When the blower fan pushes air over the heater core, it transfers heat from the hot engine coolant and distributes it into the vehicle's passenger compartment. A vehicle dashboard's temperature dial controls the blower fan, hence the heat output when the fan pushes air through a heated heater core. The dial allows drivers to adjust the fan speed and cabin temperature. In addition, drivers can choose where to direct the warm air within the passenger's compartment using this dial. Note that a heater core can blow cold air if a vehicle has thermostat issues and low engine coolant levels.

Where Is The Heater Core Located?

A car heater core is commonly located in the dashboard right inside the cabin. It is specifically situated behind several other components of the dashboard on the passenger seat side. As a result of its location, it is challenging to access the heater core in many cars. Technicians usually have to remove the dashboard and several other components before reaching the heater core when it is due for replacement or maintenance. While removing heater cores from several cars is labor-intensive, a few other motor vehicles have their heater cores under the hood and can be easily accessed from there.

Signs You Need a Heater Core Replacement

Signs You Need a Heater Core Replacement

You can tell that your car needs a heater core replacement if you notice any of the following:

  • The Vehicle Is Losing Coolant Constantly - If you find yourself adding engine coolant to your radiator almost all the time, it could be a sign of leakage in the heater core. Engine overheating can occur when the antifreeze leaks out, and there is a high chance that the coolant you pour into the radiator will leak through the heater core. A heater core replacement is recommended when this happens.
  • The Vehicle Smells Oddly - A leaking heater core will cause antifreeze to seep into the cabin, and you may perceive an unusual strange smell in the vehicle's interior. In most instances, the smell is sweet, but in other cases, your car may ooze out a burning smell if the heater core is overheating. This indicates a faulty heater core and must be replaced immediately.
  • Fluctuating Vehicle Temperature - Ideally, your vehicle temperature should be constant when operating the car. A constantly fluctuating temperature in your vehicle could mean your heater core is bad and needs a replacement.
  • The Vehicle is Steamy or Misty - Steam can appear in your car vent or fog on your windows and windscreen if your heater core is bad and needs a replacement. This is a sign that the antifreeze is leaking into the cabin and causing condensation.
  • Cold Air Blows Through the Cabin - Feeling cold air in the passenger cabin while the heater is on is a telltale sign of puncture or damage to the heater core. When there is a puncture, the heat will not be evenly distributed, and cold air will be blown into the cabin.
     

How Much Does a Heater Core Replacement Cost?

Although several factors can affect the cost of replacing a vehicle's heater core, it could cost anywhere between $750 and $1300 or even more if hiring a professional. The exact cost largely depends on factors like the technician's location, the heater core's price, labor rate, vehicle make and model, and the brand of heater core a person chooses to get. The best way to know how much your car heater core replacement will cost is to obtain quotes from multiple technicians.

Conclusion

The heater core is a paramount component of a vehicle's HVAC system, forcing warm air into the passenger cabin to provide safety and comfort. It can become damaged or bad over time, and replacing it is advised before you get stuck in your driveway with a freezing front seat during winter. Common signs of a bad heater core include perceiving a sweet smell in your car (ripe-like fruit gone bad), fogged windshield and windows when driving, and constantly adding engine coolant.

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