Keep in mind that I am only a "shade tree" mechanic, but I do have some experience with this very problem...Take the radiator cap off and look in the filler neck with the engine running. BE CAREFUL!!! If you see bubbles sniff around the filler neck and see if it smells like exhaust gases...like burnt gas. If this is the case, the head gasket or the head itself is the culprit. Exhaust gases will blow passed the gasket/crack in the head and pressurize the cooling system. This pressure probably found a weak spot in the heater core and that would explain the steam. There may be other explanations but this is what happened to me today. When I identified the smell of exhaust gases coming from the radiator,it was evident that the problem was with the gasket/head.
Keep the overflow tank filled to its FULL line. Find the highest point in the cooling system; open it very slightly. Sometimes the highest point is the radiator cap. Sometimes the highest point is at a hose clamp. Very rarely there is a bolt that is meant to be loosened to let air out of the cooling system (example 1995 Mustang) You will hear air coming out. Keep filling the overflow tank. Then re-tighten the part that you opened. Also you will want to have the car's heater on HIGHEST/HOTTEST while doing this because the heater is connected to the cooling system.
A little water coming from the muffler for the first few minutes after you start the car is normal. Water vapor condenses inside the exhaust system when you stop the motor, and is expelled the next time you start. If there is a lot of water coming out, and it keeps coming even after the car is thoroughly warmed up, then it could be coolant leaking into the cylinders from a bad head gasket or a cracked block. You can have a mechanic do a pressure test on your cooling system to test for this. He also can test for the presence of exhaust gasses in the cooling system.
When the fluid in the cooling system heats up, it expands, causing the pressure to build up. The cap is the only place where this pressure can escape, so the setting of the spring on the cap determines the maximum pressure in the cooling system. When the pressure reaches 15 psi, the pressure pushes the valve open, allowing coolant to escape from the cooling system. This coolant flows through the overflow tube into the bottom of the overflow tank. This arrangement keeps air out of the system. When the radiator cools back down, a vacuum is created in the cooling system that pulls open another spring loaded valve, sucking water back in from the bottom of the overflow tank to replace the water that was expelled.
You have a leak in the cooling system. It could be from a number of sources such as, radiator, radiator hoses, heater core, heater hoses, water pump, intake manifold gaskets, head gaskets, cracked heads and probably a few more. Have the cooling system pressure tested to determine where it is leaking from and don't wait.
Pressurize the cooling system. If you see coolant leaking out, you have a leak. Use a flashlight to determine where it's coming from. If the coolant is leaking out through the radiator fins, it's a leak in the radiator. Harbor Freight sells a pressure tester for ~$85, or you can probably rent one from an auto parts store.
This is might also be the time to check your cooling system for any possible leaks. A leaking heater core in the winter time can be dangerous, because you are exposed to the coolant fumes in a closed environment. If you suspect a leaking system, drive with fresh air coming in from your vents or a window slightly open.
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