Timing Belts: How deep do I go??

Posted: August 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

So you’ve reached the advent of timing belt replacement on your ride. What you’re due to find out is that the traditional Timing Belt replacement job often includes much more than just a simple timing belt and the labor to swap it out. Before you know it, estimators will often have added pulleys, water pumps, and seals to the price. Why??

First, the short answer…

The timing belt wraps around two or more shafts that are internally bathed in smokin-hot engine oil (the crankshaft and camshaft/s). The oil seals that keep the inside wet with oil and the timing belt dry (as engineer intended) are inexpensive yet crucial for timing belt survival.  Several other pulleys that spin along on bearings (idlers, tensioners, and the water pump. The associated bearings and seals WILL most certainly outlive ONE timing belt interval (intervals are typically 60K, 90K, 110K, 120K) HOWEVER, the probability of them outlasting TWO timing belt intervals is significantly lower AND the RISKS associated with one of these timing belt associated components failing can be a risk of catastrophic engine damage.

Now the longer answer…

On the main drive belt system a very common replacement item on almost all makes and models is the belt idler or tensioner pulley. These pulleys are used to reposition the belt to ensure that enough “wrap” is made between the belt and driven pulleys such as those driving the power steering pump, water pump, alternator, and air conditioner. Often the tensioner mechanisms fail and the belt is sent flopping around uncontrolled at high speeds until it is shredded into its destruction. At the heart of tensioner or idler pulleys is a small bearing that bears the brunt of every drive impulse or literal yanking of the belt by driven components and hiccups of the engine. These little bearings fail frequently and also send the belt system that they serve into its catastrophic demise.

So far, we have merely been discussing the main belt drive system often referred to as the serpentine belt system. This system exists as a veil hiding a deeper level of pulleys and components behind a cover. This is the timing belt system. There are simply more layers of outer components (such as the belt system already discussed) that have to be peeled back to access the timing belt and related components. More layer equals more labor. A job with more labor is always associated with greater cost and down-time which equates to a greater overall significance of the repair and potential system failure. To sour the stigma even further, there have been many engine designs over the years that allow the engines to “crash” internally if the timing belt fails at speed resulting in the need for a new engine.

A prior boss of mine once explained to a customer that, “of course it failed, it was made by humans”. He simply reiterated that from design through every intermediate step of manufacture and assembly to packaging, transport, delivery, and final installation our pesky humanoid imperfections have contributed enormous opportunities for error. Unfortunately, the scientific study of this error, the quality control and quality assurance programs, while extensive and elaborate, can’t catch or trap all of these errors and inevitably they are passed on to you, the end user. What makes any automotive technician nervous, is their collective experience with these errors and their ability to mitigate them for the customer’s ultimate satisfaction. This compels a tech to recommend everything under the sun, or in this case, under the timing cover. So now your estimate has grown to include a water pump, a tensioning pulley, a hydrauic tension damper, an idler pulley, and the good ole toothed belt. But don’t stop me there… What about chemical degradation? Have you ever seen what gasoline, motor oil, or even old coolant can do to the wrong type of rubber or fabric? Its not pretty and usually means failure due to softening, swelling, or embrittlement. With the threat of chemical degredeation and convenience of access when combined with timing belt disassembly, we often end up adding camshaft seals, crankshaft seals, and on notorious models such as Subarus, oil pump resealing to the estimate.

The moral of this story? A timing belt replacement is worthy of an extensive discussion and explanation between the professional and the customer. Far too often, a never before customer calling for an estimate, a “price shopper” as we call them, will end up finding the lowest cost at the competitor who conveniently leaves some of these components off of the estimate and doesn’t explicitly notify the customer. Competition in the auto repair business comes in specific variables. These variables are labor rates, part quality, included services, and the subtle practices of the estimator himself. Once you know exactly what you need and what you are getting in an estimate, a price comparison should be conducted with the questions; what is your labor rate? and what make of parts will be installed? Aside from these variables, the amounts of labor and the appropriate parts to be included have been standardized in the business and are only manipulated by unprofessional individuals or people trying to upsell without explanation.

The “Dealer Trick”

No, I don’t mean the fast moves of a card shark in Vegas. I mean the tactics used by many dealership service departments to suggest a lower or, at least competitive price for service. Let me first remind any new readers that I am not a dealer-hater. They are a necessary cog in the auto-service business sprocket and a welcomed competitor. The fact of the matter remains it is difficult for dealerships to compete for service/repair business from their position of corporate rigidity, higher costs, and higher expense. What does that mean to the consumer? Nothing more than a mere illusion of superior quality or service. That said, when a delaership quotes a timing belt replacement and includes nothing more than the timing belt and labor, they are often baiting the client with the intent of either up-selling them face-to-face when they drop the vehicle off or calling them shortly after with an up-sell pitch… The bait and switch. The problem is that the client has often budgeted a certain amount for the repair and was not given enough information initially to make the proper decision, declines and ends up with an inferior service and an elevated future risk of failure likely to occur outside of both factory and service warranty.

Ultimately, the decision belongs to the customer and the gravity of the options should merely be explained thoroughly by the professional. At Finn, we will take the time to quote multiple levels of timing belt replacement. One including just the belt. The next including a timing-kit comprised of a belt, tensioner, and idler. The final including a water pump and cam/crank seals. The decision of which level to pursue is made by the customer after a candid explanation is made by the technician.

Happy motoring!


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