Last Updated on October 14, 2020
Today’s vehicles utilize an elaborate network of sensors, modules, and wires to assist an engine in achieving the highest degree of operational efficiency. The sensors contained within this network monitor a number of values related to critical engine operation, and relay data to their corresponding modules for interpretation.
However, as is often the case with any electronic component, sensors do fail on occasion. When any one of an engine’s onboard sensors fail, the potential exists for the onset of numerous symptoms, which often vary in severity.
One such sensor which is prone to failure is the engine coolant temperature sensor. Read on to learn about the symptoms of a faulty coolant temperature sensor, and what the average cost of replacement is.
How an Engine Coolant Temperature Sensor Works
Internal combustion engines rely upon the use of coolant to regulate operational engine temperatures. Coolant cycles through an engine’s cylinder heads and block, where it picks up heat that is produced as a byproduct of the combustion process.
Coolant is then directed to the radiator, where incoming airflow dissipates heat stored within the coolant. As its name would suggest, a vehicle’s coolant temperature sensor monitors the temperature of the coolant flowing throughout an engine.
This information is then relayed to the vehicle’s ECM (Engine Control Module), where it is used as an input when determining how best to regulate various engine functions. These functions include fuel metering, EGR operation, and fan engagement.
In most vehicles, the coolant temperature sensor can be found near the engine thermostat. On many late-model vehicles, this sensor is often threaded into the thermostat housing itself.
For a more technical explanation of how the sensor works, check out this video:
Bad Coolant Temperature Symptoms
With time, coolant temperature sensors in many vehicles have a tendency to fail. In most cases, this comes as a result of continuity loss within the sensor itself.
When this occurs, a false temperature value is sent to the vehicle’s ECM, which leads to improper system response. As a result several symptoms often present themselves in short order.
The following are 5 of the most common symptoms associated with a failing engine coolant temp sensor.
#1 – Check Engine Light
One of the most common symptoms associated with engine coolant temperature sensor failure is the sudden appearance of a check engine light. By its nature, a vehicle’s on-board diagnostics system stores trouble codes associated with many component failures and electrical circuit related problems.
If a vehicle’s ECM detects the delivery of irrational data from one of its sensors, a check engine light is illuminated. This light will remain on until the offending code is cleared, or the corresponding malfunction is remedied.
#2 – Poor Fuel Economy
Another symptom commonly associated with the failure of a coolant temperature sensor is poor fuel economy.
This stems from the fact that coolant temperature sensor feedback plays a vital role in the calculation of fuel delivery and timing. More often than not, a faulty engine coolant temperature sensor will incorrectly reflect a cool temperature reading.
When a permanently cool signal is sent by a coolant temperature sensor, a vehicle’s ECM attempts to compensate for this condition by dosing more fuel than is needed. In the end, this is reflected by more frequent trips to the pump.
#3 – Dark Color Exhaust Output
As previously mentioned, a faulty coolant temperature sensor that has defaulted to a permanently cold reading will typically cause an engine to over-fuel (aka: run rich). As a result, excess unburnt fuel is passed downstream, where it often ends up entering the exhaust system.
When this excess fuel burns within a vehicle’s exhaust system, dark grey or black colored smoke is produced as a byproduct. In severe cases, this smoke can become very dense, and quite noticeable to anyone nearby.
#4 – Engine Overheating
One of the most severe symptoms of coolant temperature sensor failure is engine overheating. While some vehicles utilize an auxiliary temperature sensor to regulate fan operation, the vast majority of makes and models rely upon the engine coolant temperature sensor to sustain this function.
If an engine coolant temperature sensor of this type fails, it is common for the vehicle’s engine fan to be inoperable. As a result, engine temperatures begin to spike, risking damage to other components.
#5 – Hard Start at Certain Temperatures
Though not as common as other symptoms, a hard start condition is occasionally presented by a faulty coolant temperature sensor. In most cases, this condition will present itself only when a vehicle’s engine is at one particular temperature, whether hot or cold.
On most occasions, this is the result of a sensor which is providing a continually hot reading, even when an engine is actually cool. As a result, this typically renders a lean condition, which exponentially increases crank times.
Engine Coolant Temperature Sensor Replacement Cost
The cost associated with coolant temperature sensor replacement can vary significantly from one model of vehicle to the next.
While the coolant temperature sensors found on many vehicles are relatively simple to replace, others can be quite difficult to access. The actual cost associated with the purchase of a coolant temperature sensor can also vary by vehicle.
On average, the cost of a coolant temperature sensor ranges from $20-$80, while the cost of labor ranges from $50-$250. In total, one could expect to pay $70-$330 to have their engine coolant temperature sensor replaced.
Can You Drive With a Faulty Coolant Temp Sensor?
While a vehicle with a faulty coolant temperature sensor can often be driven from one location to the next, doing so is not advised. With time, many of the individual symptoms of a failing coolant temperature sensor can become problematic themselves.
An inoperable fan caused by a faulty coolant temperature sensor will quickly result in engine overheating. As a result, additional problems, such as head gasket leaks, can arise.
Likewise, abnormally high fuel rates caused by skewed data from a faulty sensor, can lead to the superheating and failure of a vehicle’s catalytic converter.