Dear Car Talk:
My brother has a 2006 Toyota RAV4 with 125,000 miles. We think he has a clogged heater core. The Toyota maintenance schedule calls for changing the coolant every 100,000 miles; he takes his RAV4 to the local Toyota dealer and has followed the schedule. He still has a clogged heater core. They have tried to flush it, to no avail. Now they are telling him he needs the heater core replaced. It's a nine-hour job and could cost up to $2,000. What should he do? -- Paul
Buy some blankets.
Yeah, that's a terrible job. It requires taking out the entire dashboard. And then when you're all done, 15 hours later, if you haven't stabbed yourself with a screwdriver, you end up with a pile of nuts and bolts left over. So you want to avoid that job if at all possible.
Your brother might want to try to find an independent mechanic who is a little more motivated to work with him. If I were working on this car, I'd try everything I could think of before I started pulling out the dashboard. First, I'd double-check to see if the heater core is actually the cause of the problem; it's possible there's something else preventing the passenger compartment from getting heat. I've seen a bad thermostat or a failing water pump cause a lack of heat. I've also seen a bad blend door in the ducting system keep warm air from flowing into the passenger compartment, even when the heater control on the dashboard is set to "hot."
So first check to see if the heater core is working. Once the car is warmed up, feel both of the hoses that attach to the heater core (one goes in, one comes out). If only the hose going in is warm, then the heater core isn't working. But if they're both warm, then hot coolant is flowing through the heater core and your problem is somewhere else.
If the heater core fails that test, I'd make sure the heater core isn't air-bound. If the dealership flushed it, it's possible there's still air trapped in the core.
These heater cores are particularly hard to bleed, because they're up high -- higher than the rest of the cooling system. So they tend to trap air. We've resorted to removing a heater hose and filling the heater core with coolant through a funnel to get all the air out.
If your brother is a good guy, and he didn't give you too many noogies when you were a kid, maybe the flush did work, and there's just air blocking it now?
If you've successfully bled out the air, another thing a mechanic can try is doing a more intensive flush. For instance, you can remove the hoses and hook up a small, low-pressure submersible pump to one of them. Drop both hoses and the pump in a bucket of chemical radiator flush, and just let it pump slowly through the heater core for hours. If you see some rust and gunk collecting in the bucket, then keep going. And then reverse the direction and pump it the other way. Do that a few times if it seems to be helping.
Maybe you'll unclog it enough that, when combined with a pair of Bronko Nagursky long underwear, it'll be enough to get him through the next few winters. And if not, my next suggestion would be to go back to the dealer and trade it in in the summer. Good luck.