Discover Copper Online

Spring 1998

Copper Is Cooler for Cars

Why Radiators Fail

The main threat to radiators is insufficient and/or degraded coolant, says NARSA's Wayne Juchno. When coolant level is low, the engine's heat can generate superheated steam that attacks the plastic inflow and outflow tanks connected to the core. Two other threats to both aluminum and copper radiators are external corrosion, often due to road salt, and vibration, which generally increases as vehicles age. Vibration can damage or loosen the fins inside cores.

Radiators with aluminum cores fail due to deposition of an aluminum silicate that impedes heat transfer, according to Lee Campbell. He's the quality assurance manager for Thermal Components, Montgomery, Alabama, a supplier of aluminum and copper tubing and radiator cores made of either material.

When aluminum radiators are filled with hard water, common in much of the nation, a white oxide of aluminum is created that slows heat transfer. Also, galvanically driven erosion-corrosion can damage aluminum radiators when particles from the copper cores in car heaters migrate into the radiator's cores.

Only 5% of radiator failures are due to manufacturing defects, says Campbell. When he was asked which material would he prefer if his car required a replacement radiator, Campbell answered, "Copper!"

About eight million car radiators are replaced annually, and the vast majority of replacements are made of copper and brass, according to Wayne Juchno, executive director of the National Automotive Radiator Service Association (NARSA), East Greenville, Pennsylvania. This means that the owners of those cars gain the benefit of coolerrunning engines because of the high heat transfer properties of copper. And, copper-brass radiators are superior in other ways (see sidebar below).

About 95% of the original radiators in American cars and light trucks are made today with cores of aluminum, which does not transfer heat as well as copper.

Corrosion is the major cause for replacement of aluminum original-equipment radiators; front-end collisions account for about 16% of all replacements. According to Juchno, if radiators are maintained properly, such as by regular flushing and replacement of antifreeze, they should last seven to ten years. However, their average life is much lower. Juchno says that leaking aluminum radiators can be repaired, although many car owners opt for replacement.

NARSA has about 1,600 members in 40 nations ranging from mass manufacturers of replacement radiators for popular cars to specialists who fabricate replacements for antique vehicles or luxury imports. For instance, ABC Radiator, Stockton, California, manufactures, installs and repairs radiators for antique cars, trucks and motorcycles, according to owner Ed Fortune. And they can cost a small fortune: for example, $2,800 for a new copper-brass radiator for a 1926 Paige Brothers' truck.

Frank Anfuso, Sr., Highway Auto Repair, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, insists that copper is superior to aluminum for radiators. For over 60 years, his shop has fabricated original-equipment copper radiators and oil coolers for midget, sprint, vintage and stock racing cars. "One big problem with aluminum radiators," says Anfuso, "is that their performance degrades when they are filled with hard water because a white mineral powder is formed inside the core; this powder film impedes heat transfer. This doesn't happen with copper."

Israeli Radiators for BMWs

There are also firms that specialize in copper replacement radiators for luxury foreign cars. Santa Monica Radiator in California obtains the all-copper replacements it installs in German luxury cars from a kibbutz in Israel, according to the firm's co-owner, Chuck Perliter. The kibbutz buys its copper strip from Ratcliffs Canada, Inc., Richmond Hill, Ontario. According to Ratcliffs' sales manager, Bill Nimmo, 90% of its output goes to manufacturers of replacement radiators, which use a tellurium copper, C14500, for the fins and a yellow brass, C26000, for the tubes and headers.

The great majority of both original and replacement radiators in large trucks and off-road vehicles are made of copper and brass, according to Art Desjardins, sales manager, Active Radiator, Philadelphia. Desjardins cites surveys that show that truck operators overwhelmingly prefer all-copper-brass radiators. Active Radiator also obtains its copper and brass from Ratcliffs.

Universal Auto Radiator Company, another major supplier of replacement radiators, mostly of copper and brass, also supplies original-equipment radiators made of copper and brass. They cool the engines of off-road vehicles, boats and auxiliary pumps, according to Peter Rossin, president of the Pittsburgh-based manufacturer. In addition to Ratcliffs, Universal also obtains copper and C26000 brass from Outokumpu American Brass Company, Buffalo, New York.

Universal is close to commercializing brazing as a replacement for soldering in making copper radiators. This will greatly increase the appeal of copper over aluminum for radiators because brazing provides a stronger, more durable assembly.

ABC Radiator: 209/463-7401
Active Radiator: 800/783-4030
Highway Auto Repair: 610/866-0988
Outokumpu: 716/879-6763
Ratcliffs: 905/883-7575
Santa Monica Radiator: 310/395-2196
Thermal Components: 800/233-3201
Universal: 412/481-9440

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