September 25

2009 Dodge Sprinter Rear Heater



Mark: Hi, it's Mark Bossert. I'm here with Bernie Pawlik, Pawlik Automotive in Vancouver, Vancouver's best auto service experience. Twenty five time winners of best auto repair in Vancouver as voted by their customers. And we're talking cars. How are you doing Bernie? 

Bernie: Doing very well. 

Mark: So today's victim is a 2009 Dodge Sprinter that had a heating problem. What was going on with this vehicle? 

Bernie: Yes, the vehicle came to our shop. It's a vehicle we regularly service. And the owner had noted that the coolant level was going down, there was a warning light on the dash came on. They added some coolant to the cooling system. And then the level went down again, the warning light came on. So they brought it into us to have a look at and figure out what was going on. 

Mark: This is kind of like a radiator heater issue, although they're not exactly the same system. How do you go about testing this?

Bernie: Yeah, so obviously a coolant leak. First thing we start with a visual inspection and we look around. Can we see a leak? Is there anything dripping? Nothing was evident. So we attached a pressure tester. So what that does is it puts pressure in the cooling system. Normally when an engine is running as the coolant warms up and heats up, it's under pressure.

That actually keeps the cooling system more effective than if it wasn't under pressure. So we pressurize the cooling system and look for a leak. And so we did that and we looked and we looked and we looked and we looked and we couldn't find a leak. And by the way, when the vehicle came in, we had to add probably at least 3 litres of coolant to the cooling system to fill it up.

So clearly there was a leak. But we, you know, after half an hour, an hour of the pressure tester on, we weren't able to see anything, which was kind of odd. 

Mark: What might be the cause of that? You've probably seen this before. 

Bernie: Yeah, well, you know, coolant leaks, they'll either leak from some of the main components, maybe a gasket, the radiator, water pump, the heater core can leak inside under the dash.

This vehicle has a rear heater as well, so there's another system of, you know, pipes and hoses and a heater core in the back. There's, of course, the cylinder head gasket, which is often a cause of a leak if you can't see the coolant leaking out, the engine could be burning the coolant. 

But that's usually accompanied by a few things. Steam coming out of the tailpipe. So you get a lot of white smoke if it's really bad. And of course, in this case, this vehicle had gone through many litres of coolant over a period of maybe a week or more. So there should be smoke coming out the back. There wasn't, and the engine was also running smoothly. 

Again with a bad head gasket leak. You'll often get you know a rough running engine because, you know, obviously coolant doesn't burn very well if it's introduced into the combustion chamber. So it was a bit baffling. And so we just left the pressure tester on. I figured, you know, at some point the leak will reveal itself. And eventually it did. 

Mark: So what did you find? 

Bernie: Yeah. I had the pressure tester on. I figured I'll just go out for lunch and come back and we'll see where things go. It's obviously got to show up somewhere. So I noticed a stream of coolant coming down under the middle of the vehicle and it was right in the area of the rear heater box.

So I go, okay, there it is. The coolant leak is the rear heater core. Now why it took so long to show up, it was evident after we disassembled things and looked at it. Because as I say, it was very unusual because it was not a drip on the ground until, you know, quite some time went by. 

Mark: So what did you find as far as what kind of repair was needed?

Bernie: Yeah, so the actual heater core was leaking in the back. But it actually ended up being a little more extensive than that. I'll just get into some pictures right now. 

So there's a picture of the actual heater box. We actually ended up replacing this whole unit at the end of the day, and you'll see why. But the coolant, actually, this box is sealed. Then the coolant didn't actually leak out till the level got up about, up around where this plug is here, I'm moving the mouse pointer around. So it actually filled up this whole box full of antifreeze and coolant. 

2009 Dodge Sprinter Rear Heater

This is the coolant drain bucket. We put this underneath, I'm thinking this is probably three gallon, 10 12 litre kind of bucket, maybe even larger. This is all the coolant. A few bits dripped out when we disconnected the hoses, but this is all a coolant that was actually sitting inside the heater box when we took it out. So explains why we couldn't find the leak because it was all accumulating in the bottom of this sealed heater box. 

2009 Dodge Sprinter Rear Heater

There's the inside of the heater box. So. You know, the coolant level was actually up, probably, I'm moving the mouse point around, you know, sort of three quarters full. And this is, of course, an electric fan motor, which was now submerged in antifreeze.

2009 Dodge Sprinter Rear Heater

This is the heater blower controller or resistor, again, submerged in antifreeze. You can see kind of a... greenish colour to it. This is another electronically actuated component. This is the heater control valve. So it's pretty complicated. There's a lot going on here. A lot of electrical items that are, we're now soaked in an antifreeze and water mixture and basically ruined.

So, the option we went for was just to replace the entire heater box, which you can buy from Mercedes or Dodge. And we just went for that whole unit because that was kind of the best option to replace it. 

Here's actually a better close up of some of the components. You can see this greenish colour here. This is like damage to the copper wiring. And of course, this greenish colour here on the blower resistor again, damaged. So those are the readily viewable things. And just a final picture. 

2009 Dodge Sprinter Rear Heater

This is a view of the actual heater box sitting under the vehicle. So, as I said, you know, nothing actually showed up till it filled the box half full and started leaking out of the actual electrical connector plug. That's where the stream started coming down. You know, a little drain hole in the bottom of here was probably possibly been a good idea. At least it would drain the coolant out. 

2009 Dodge Sprinter Rear Heater

This is sitting under the middle of the vehicle. This is a large passenger van. So it's like a 11 or 12 seat passenger van. So it needs a heater in the rear. So there's our show. 

Mark: So this being summer, they wouldn't have necessarily been running the heater in the summer?

Bernie: No, exactly. Exactly, but coolant still circulates into the heater core area, although there is a heater control valve. So that would actually shut the flow off to the heater. But nonetheless, the system is still under pressure to one side of the heater control valve. And so if the heater core is leaking, it's still going to leak the coolant out. It's not actually just flowing coolant through the heater. It would just be leaking out.

So, yeah, exactly. That's why, because getting your point, if it was a winter time, you turn it on, there would probably be steam coming out in that area. And then you would know, hey, there's something going on with the heater here.

Mark: In a way, this is really kudos to the owners for checking their coolant levels fairly religiously to notice that they're going down because wouldn't this have caused an on stream problem with the coolant level being low. Now, it's going to start destroying other components as well. 

Bernie: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Now, you know, it's good that the owners heated the, because there's a warning light that comes on. So this is a good thing. You know, some vehicles don't have warning lights, but most vehicles do nowadays, and I mean, it's a smart thing to know your levels down. So they, you know, they were smart enough to, Hey, the warning lights on. Let's fill it up. So they were smart to do that and not go, Hey, let's just keep driving. 

It's a defective warning light. It's always always good to heed your warning lights, you know, because maybe the warning light has a defect. We do find that from time to time a vehicle, the low coolant warning light will come on and the actual coolant level is full.

And that's because the actual switch in the reservoir tank, will actually be defective. But again, it's good to replace that because you want to know when it's low. So, yeah, very smart because if you let the level run low, then you're going to overheat the engine, costs way more money, like way, way, way more money.

Mark: This in itself, though, this wasn't necessarily a cheap repair?

Bernie: No, it wasn't cheap. I mean, the whole heater assembly was pretty expensive. But, you know, buying individual components and changing each piece would have cost more money. And we could have tried to source a used one, but, you know, these people will probably keep this van for many years.

So why risk a used part when you know, you never know when the heater core and that one's going to go bad. So you're going to sell it in a week, or that's the only thing available then, you know, used might be a better option. 

Mark: Was there any way that could have prevented this kind of damage?

Bernie: No, this is just a thing. Heater cores will just leak. You know, your best thing with keeping your cooling system maintenance, like repair costs down is regular cooling system flushes, but they're not required very often. Almost every vehicle nowadays, Sprinters included, have very long life antifreezes in them.

So they could, they last for 5, 10 years. You know, 200,000 kilometres type of thing there. It's not like the olden days when you and I had black hair, when it was kind of a routine to flush your cooling system once or twice a year. I mean, it's great we've got away from that. Because imagine the waste of all that antifreeze and most of it probably just went down the drain and out in to the waterways anyways, the way we used to take care of things. But yeah, antifreeze, they last a long time, but nonetheless, flushing it is a good idea to do. You know, every few years. 

Mark: And how did it work after all your repairs were done? 

Bernie: That was good. The one little glitch we did have is the blower fan inside the box wouldn't turn on because it actually blown a fuse. Which, of course, the fuse is there, you know, there's obviously a short circuit with all that antifreeze in there, or, you know the component was damaged. So blew the fuse. So fix the fuse went fine. No more leaks. And this component should be good for years and years and years to come. 

Mark: So, the fuse was inside that heater box? 

Bernie: No, no, the fuse is located in a fuse panel and I'm not sure where it was located. But most vehicles, there's several fuse panels and they just get more and more. It's incredible. Some vehicles probably have like 100 fuses. It's just boggles the mind. 

Mark: So how reliable are Sprinter vans? I know we've had quite a few podcasts about them. 

Bernie: They're generally pretty good. You know, the engines have issues. We've talked about them many times. We service a few vehicles for this particular organization and their engines have actually been fairly trouble free compared to some of them. But, yeah, they have their, they have their long list of issues, but they're pretty decent van for fuel economy and size. But you will have more expensive repairs than you would on, say, some other brands of vehicles. Just because the 3 litre engine, you know, it's got a few issues. 

Mark: If you're looking for service for your Sprinter van in Vancouver, BC Canada, the guys to see are Pawlik Automotive. You can book online at their website, Or you can call them (604) 327-7112 to book your appointment. You have to call or book ahead somehow because they're always busy. Pawlik Automotive in Vancouver. Thanks so much for watching and listening. We appreciate it so much, and thank you Bernie.

Bernie: And thank you, Mark. Thanks for watching.

About the author 

Bernie Pawlik

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