If you’ve just received a quote for replacing your timing belt, chances are you’re checking the depths of your wallet, cutting open piggy banks and turning sofas upside down just to find a bit of spare change.
You’re probably also wondering, “Am I getting ripped off?”.
The truth is, timing belt replacement costs can be several thousand dollars, though they usually sit somewhere between $500 and $2000 depending on your vehicle.
As you’ll find out soon though, that’s a whole lot better than the bill you’re in for if your timing belt slips or snaps!
What Is A Timing Belt?
Your vehicle likely has a number of belts that keeps the car running. You’ve probably heard of fan belts, cam belts, air con belts, alternator belts, power steering belts, drive belts, and serpentine belts. That’s a lot of belts.
It also leads to a lot of confusion, when your last belt replacement cost you $80 and now you’re staring down the barrel of $1000 plus for the next one…
Let’s shed a little light on that.
What’s With All The Different Belts?
Drive belts and fan belts are the same thing. They are typically installed in a vehicle’s engine to run the alternator, power steering, or air conditioning. That means that an alternator belt is a type of drive belt.
Depending on your vehicle, you might have one belt for each of these three systems. Alternatively, you might have one long belt that runs all three, which is called a serpentine belt.
Timing belts, also known as cam belts, are a completely different beast altogether.
What Exactly Is A Timing Belt Then?
Timing belts work to keep your engine in sync. There are hundreds of moving parts in your car’s engine, and it's crucial that they all work in time. The timing belt controls the timing of the crankshaft and camshafts (hence it sometimes being referred to as a cam belt).
You should bear in mind that not all vehicles actually utilize a timing belt. Instead, many modern vehicles use a chain system instead, which unlike timing belts are not prone to snapping and don’t require regular replacement at regular intervals. They do, however, come with their own set of potential issues. Consult your owner’s manual to see which type of system your vehicle is fitted with.
How Do I Tell Which Is Which?
The general rule of thumb is that if you can see a belt when you open up the hood, it’s a serpentine or drive belt. Timing belts are a much more intricate and sensitive mechanism, and are hidden behind the cam cover on the side or front of the engine.
How Do Timing Belts Work?
The timing belt is made of rubber, and synchronizes the rotation of both the crankshaft and the camshaft. It also controls the timing of the engine’s valves which allow fuel and air into the cylinders. The fuel is ignited in the combustion chamber by the firing of your spark plugs, and during this combustion, the valves push the pistons down.
For the combustion process to take place properly, the timing of the opening and closing of the valves needs to be accurate. Both the valves and the pistons need to be in the right position, as they do not all fire at the same time.
To even out the power sent to the crankshaft, each cylinder fires at a different time, and this process needs to work in sync. If not, your vehicle can experience timing issues and the engine won’t run properly.
The timing belt also in most cases runs the water pump. The water pump controls the flow of coolant around the engine. If this isn’t operating correctly, you run the risk of your engine overheating.
Why Do I Need To Replace My Timing Belt?
Just like many other parts, timing belts are subject to wear and tear and need to be replaced at regular intervals. As you can see, the timing belt system is crucial to many functions inside your engine, so regular maintenance is incredibly important.
If your air con belt snaps, then you’ll probably just lose the ability to switch on your AC. If the timing belt snaps however, you could cause serious, irreparable damage to the engine. That’s not the only risk that timing belts pose though. Whilst they can snap, they are also known to slip if the teeth of the belt wear out.
Both of these are somewhat common occurrences in poorly maintained vehicles, as timing belts are made of rubber and rubber naturally breaks down over time. Plus, the belt is constantly run at high speeds, and is subject to a lot of heat from inside the engine. These two components mean that your vehicle’s timing belt needs to be replaced at regular intervals.
When Do I Need To Replace My Timing Belt?
In most cases, there isn’t an obvious sign that your timing belt is coming close to the end of its life. Whereas a drive belt may start to squeal as it wears, telling you it's due for replacement, timing belts typically don’t offer this kind of warning.
Unfortunately, they kind of just break when they break. That’s why timing belt replacement has become part of your regular, preventative maintenance. It might seem like quite an expensive repair job to be considered part of your regular maintenance, but trust us, you don’t want the bill for repairing your engine if the belt breaks.
The specific interval completely depends on your vehicle, so check your owner’s manual to be sure. A general rule for many years has been every 60,000 miles, but some modern vehicles can run as far as 75,000-100,000 miles before replacement is required. There is also an age element to consider, as even if you drive very little, the rubber can still break down. Your vehicle’s manual will likely express this as a ‘whichever comes first’ recommendation, such as every 75,000 or 5 years, whichever comes first.
What Happens If The Timing Belt Breaks?
This is the last thing you want. Though in some rare cases (typically at a low speeds), you can get away with no or minimal damages, generally when your timing belt breaks your engine will suffer some pretty serious damage.
The valves and pistons are no longer running in sync, and they’ll collide with each other. This can damage and destroy both the pistons and the valves, and very regularly damages the engine’s cylinder walls.
Worst case scenario: the camshaft can break or get damaged, and this is not a cheap repair.
Symptoms Of A Bad Timing Belt
Even with proper maintenance, timing belts can go bad. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, it could be a sign of a bad belt, and you should go into your local garage immediately, before anything worse happens.
If the teeth on the timing belt are worn, it can begin to slip away from the gears. If this happens, one of the cylinders can open and close at the wrong time. This causes the mixture of air, fuel, and spark to be off, resulting in a misfire.
When the teeth slip and fail to grip the gears, the various engine parts that the belt is rotating are inevitably affected. If this impacts the camshaft timing, the engine can begin to jolt and even stall.
Low Oil Pressure
One of the timing belt’s jobs is to spin the gears of the camshaft. In serious cases where the timing is off, it can skip gears and break pieces off of the camshaft. These can get inside the oil pan and result in a drop in oil pressure in the bottom of the engine.
This is a pretty serious issue, as it can cause the motor to cease and fail entirely.
Smoke Coming From The Engine
If you see an unusual amount of smoke coming from your exhaust pipe, this is always a cause for concern. In cold, wintery weather it can be difficult to determine if this is just water vapor or actual smoke, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. If it looks like more than usual, or the smoke is grey or blue, get your car checked out urgently.
If your timing belt is causing issues, the valves that let exhaust gases out of the cylinders (and air in) will become unsynchronized, which result in these air and exhaust gases being let in and out of the cylinders at the wrong time. This is then seen as excessive smoke coming from your tailpipe.
Broken Valves Or Pistons
If this happens, it’s already too late. Your timing belt has probably snapped, the crankshaft and camshaft have come out of sync, and the pistons have come into contact with the valves.
If you experience or suspect this has happened, the best thing to do is to shut off your engine altogether to prevent any further damage.
Timing Belt Replacement Cost
Unfortunately, most timing belt replacement jobs aren’t cheap. They can be anywhere from $500 to $2000+ plus, depending on a few key factors:
- Vehicle make and model
- Labor costs
- Parts replaced
As a general rule, older or more common vehicles are cheaper to maintain, especially when it comes to replacing the timing belt. For example a 2005 Volvo XC70 might be less than $600, whereas a 2014 VW Jetta is likely to be over the $1000 mark.
A second major factor that influences the cost of timing belt replacements is the amount of labor required. Many modern engines are a pretty tight fit inside their engine bay, making this job seriously difficult due to access issues.
Some engines, such as Nissans RB line, have the cambelt assembly right at the front of the engine, however many vehicles (particularly front wheel drive cars) have transverse engines. This means the cam cover is typically squished up against other components on the driver’s side of the motor.
Speciality and luxury vehicles tend to be more difficult to get to, especially if they have large engines. These types of cars often require a specialist mechanic, driving labor costs up even further.
It’s Not Just About The Belt Though
The main reason timing belt replacement repairs can cost so much though is that you’re often not just replacing the belt.
The timing belt system also consists of a series of tensioner and idler bearings, which help guide and drive the belt. It’s often recommended that these are replaced at the same time as part of routine maintenance.
Same goes for your water pump. If your water pump fails (and it eventually will as it wears over time), then replacing this unit involves removing the timing belt anyway. This is why a lot of mechanics recommend replacing the water pump at the same time. In addition, there are a number of oil seals that can only be accessed when the timing belt assembly has been disassembled, so these should be replaced also.
So, very quickly the repair jumps from just one belt to also including a water pump, 3 or 4 bearings and a couple of oil seals, plus the labor costs involved in replacing all of those parts as well. That’s why there’s so much variance in timing belt replacement costs.
As you can see, timing belt replacements can be a pretty costly exercise. That said, shelling out for that maintenance cost up front can (and will) save you thousands of dollars in repairs from the belt snapping.
In many cases once this happens, it’s too late. The cost of repairing such damages are often more than the vehicle is worth. If that’s the case, you should consider junking your car – give us a call to find out how!