Timing belts are one of those essential auto parts that tend to be overlooked by vehicle owners. However, certainly not by auto service technicians who know that inspections are crucial in terms of timing belt maintenance. Virtually all passenger cars and light trucks on the streets of Raleigh have timing belt or timing chain systems; the only exception to this rule would be a plug-electric such as a Tesla or Nissan Leaf. Which are powered by motors instead of internal combustion engines.
The bottom line of the timing belt mechanism is that your car will not run without it. The starter may still function and the engine may come alive briefly before shutting down, but that’s about it. A crucial aspect of engine function consists of the crankshaft rotating in sync with the camshafts. Which in turn moves the pistons along with the valves as they open and close. Unlike the drive, alternator, accessory, and serpentine belts, timing belts are generally covered by plastic guards. Although, in some older and classic models there may be metal guards.
What Happens When Timing Belts Fail
Imagine you are driving around the North Hills or down Glenwood Avenue when you feel vibrations coming from the engine. You may also feel that the engine is not performing as it should when you try to accelerate. The last thing you hear before the timing belt snaps is a terribly loud noise. This is when you know the timing belt snapped. Your vehicle will need to be towed away, and this is when you hope for the best in terms of potential engine damage.
Timing belt maintenance is intended to prevent a situation such as the one above. These parts are not meant to last forever; if you look at your owner’s manual, you will see a recommended schedule for replacement. In a reasonably modern Nissan Sentra, for example, replacement is recommended when the odometer reaches somewhere between 60,000 to 90,000 miles.
Why Timing Belts Need Replacement
Most cars have timing belts made of hardened rubber strengthened with advanced materials such as fiberglass and Kevlar. Some cars do not have a belt at all; the system is driven by a timing chain made of specialized alloys. Chain drive systems are found in some luxury models made by Alfa Romeo, BMW, Mercedes Benz, and some sporty Ford Fiesta and Focus models for European markets. Metal timing chains are far more durable and will not need replacement until after 200,000 miles or simply never; however, they need slightly different maintenance in terms of lubrication.
Timing belts are not supposed to last forever. Although some drivers are able to detect signs that the timing belt is deteriorating, you really do not want to push your luck with regard to waiting until the odometer is closer to the upper range of the automaker’s recommendation. It is important to remember everything that is taking place under the guard that covers the timing belt: high temperatures, tension, friction, and contamination. These are all factors that will wear the belt material down and make it weaker; the teeth may also suffer cracks at the point they join the belt, thus decreasing performance and creating a driving risk.
Basic Timing Belt Maintenance
Checking the condition of the timing belt is all about preventive maintenance. If the auto technician senses that something is off with the timing of the pistons and valves, this may be a good reason to pop off the guard and take a look at the belt. In the case of chain drive vehicles, a certain noise would suggest that lubrication is needed.
Looking at the maintenance record of the car and comparing it to the automaker’s schedule will let auto service technicians know when a visual inspection should be conducted. The chain drive of a Ford F-150, for example, needs to be looked at after 200,000 miles.
Making the Decision to Replace Timing Belts
A sudden snap is the worst-case scenario as it relates to a timing belt. Since replacement costs just a few hundred dollars for most vehicle models, it is better to get it out of the way if you intend to keep the car on the road for an additional 50,000 miles at least. Taking the risk of ignoring replacement when the belt looks like it is starting to deteriorate may result in thousands of dollars worth of work if other engine components are damaged by the snap.
If your car is leased or if you are thinking about turning it in for a newer model in the near future, you may be able to skip timing belt replacement for the time being, but only if the technician sees that it is still in good shape.