97 Astro: Can leaking head gasket cause engine seize-up?

97 Astro: Can leaking head gasket cause engine seize-up?

Postby by-default [OP] » March 28th 2010, 3:28pm

Right now I'm working on a 1997 Chevrolet Astro with 207,000 miles on it.
My parents had someone install a rebuilt engine in it maybe about 30,000 miles ago, but we do not trust the shop that did it, and have no way of knowing if it was truly a rebuilt engine, or just a used one.

:( We've got a problem with the head gasket allowing coolant to leak into one or more cylinders. I guess I first started noticing the white smoke at the end of last summer, but didn't pay any attention to it at the time. The van has around 9,000 more miles on it since that time. Oh, one other point. The coolant was changed, for the first time since the engine rebuild, just before all this head-gasket issue started. We started noticing coolant disappearing and thought there was a leak, sometime in January. Lately it has gotten worse. In late February the van was driven on a 1200 mile trip, and upon returning, the coolant was down more than 1/2 gallon.

Also around January, we started having a "Service Engine Soon" light and rough running. A local shop checked it out and said the trouble code indicated a misfire on cylinder 3. It doesn't happen all the time. Sometimes it runs really smoothly and gets well over 19 mpg (which was as high as we ever got with this van for some reason), and sometimes it runs poorly and gets much lower gas mileage. During the 1200 mile trip I mentioned, it was running poorly for most of the time.

Last weekend, after a week of spring-like weather, we had a snow storm, with temperatures around 10 to 30 degrees and strong winds. Saturday night I took the van in to work. I stayed there for three hours, and when I came back out, the van would not start. A fellow employee helped me try to jump-start it, but we had no luck. Using his pickup and some small jumper cables, we charged it up for a while. He was revving his engine, and when I tried to start the van, his engine went way down and his headlights dimmed, but the van still wouldn't crank. He got a bigger truck and bigger jumper cables and we tried again, but it still would not start.

Sunday afternoon, the weather was better, so my brother and I took a battery charger up there and charged it for 15 minutes, then measured voltage when trying to start it. The battery voltage dropped to just over 7 volts when attempting to crank, but it still wouldn't crank. We then had the battery tested, and it tested good. We even tested the battery by installing it in the other van (1986 Astro) and cranking it three times for four seconds (the other van wouldn't start because the fuel pump was not installed at that time). My brother said after he did that test, the battery voltage was only 0.1 volt lower than before the test. This battery is only one month old, with a 700 cranking amp rating.

We ordered a new starter and put it on Friday evening. We also measured resistance of the battery cable from the battery to the starter. My ohm meter showed 0.11 ohms. After installing the starter, the van started up, and that's when we noticed the bad white smoke coming out of the tailpipe, and realized where our coolant has been going. Anyway, after that we made several short trips with no problem, then a longer trip driving for more than an hour at speeds up to 75 mph. We got there and shut off the van. About 30 or 40 minutes later, someone asked to borrow my van because everyone else was parked in, and when she tried to crank it, it wouldn't crank, just went clunk and the lights went dim. On her third attempt, it did start, and I told her to keep it running when she got into town. She brought it back and turned it off and again the van sat for an hour or more, then it was time to go and I went out and tried to start the van, and the same thing happened. I tried twice and it didn't want to start at all, then I paused for long enough to tell someone the trouble with the van, then I tried it again and it started. So anyway, we made one stop on the way home, but left the engine running.

So this is my theory: The head gasket leak has gotten big enough to leak quite a bit of coolant into the #3 cylinder (based on what they told us about the misfire condition), and while running, the leaking coolant passes out the exhaust, but after shutting the van off when the engine is hot, pressurized coolant keeps leaking into the cylinder for quite a long time, and condenses into a big puddle in there. Then when I try to start it, the engine seizes because there is so much (non-compressible) coolant in the cylinder.

Does this make sense? Or might I still have worse engine problems? I don't want to do a top-end rebuild and then discover that I really needed a complete rebuild. The only other engine problem we have is possibly an oil leak, but we think not a very bad one.
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Re: 97 Astro: Can leaking head gasket cause engine seize-up?

Postby rev_les » March 28th 2010, 4:06pm

It is possible to hydro-lock an engine.When you go in to change the head gaskets, make sure you didn't bend any valves or push rods. Once the heads are off, make sure the crank turns freely, hopefully the cylinder isn't rusting. Be sure to do an oil change after you fix it.Good luck with it!
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Re: 97 Astro: Can leaking head gasket cause engine seize-up?

Postby AstroSafarifam » March 29th 2010, 1:36am

That does sound like your No3 cylinder has hydro locked your engine, with it being full of coolant and having no place to go the coolant is preventing the crank from moving. One way to check it is to pull the spark plug and turn the engine over, before you crank the engine remove the coil wire so it won't start, then crank the engine if coolant comes out you will have a good spary or gyser from that cylinder. I would check all the cylinders on that side of the engine, if it is the head gasket and internal that is where the coolant is going
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Re: 97 Astro: Can leaking head gasket cause engine seize-up?

Postby Big_kidBig_kid is online! » March 29th 2010, 4:09am

Check for water in your oil. If you're losing enough coolant in a cylinder to hydro lock the engine, it's going to work past the rings and get into the crankcase. If it's hydro locked then an hour later it'll turn over, that coolant went somewhere- and it wasn't out through the exhaust.

Pull the #3 spark plug & see what it looks like.
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