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A New Perspective: What is a Serpentine Belt?

Serpentine belt replacement tips

A serpentine belt powers up many vehicle accessories or “peripheral devices” (like the power steering pump, the air conditioning, the alternator, and more). The setup of the belt varies vehicle to vehicle, and the average replacement/repair cost is about $200.

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There are plenty of car owners who head to search engines with this question: Why is my car possessed? 

When the serpentine belt isn’t working, it might seem like your car is being taken over by a spirit from another world! This is because this one small part allows various components to work.

The serpentine belt can be connected to the power steering pump, the air conditioning system, the alternator, and other vehicle amenities and parts. 

In fact, serpentine belts are so fun that some cars have two. For instance, a series of manual transaxle Fords had two. BMW cars often have two as well.

These serpentine belt systems are fairly new as far as automobile technology goes. 

They offer some advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes they don’t hold up over time, so knowing when to replace the belt and how much it might cost you will provide fruitful in your car ownership journey.

Advantages of the Serpentine Belt

When driving a car, many people don’t give the serpentine belt a second thought. We did, however: What is the serpentine belt?

In older cars, there were several belts that worked together. They took up a lot of volume. From a design standpoint, that’s bad news. The serpentine belt, however, is simpler. It’s thinner and can be held with a higher amount of tension without getting all stretched out.

For the car gurus, this is old news. They know that the higher tension keeps slippages from occurring, helping the belt to last longer along the way. They even remember V-belts. In the past, V-belts turned around on themselves – this problem is forgotten with the serpentine belt.

What are the Disadvantages of the Serpentine Belt?

When everything is powered up by one single part, if this part breaks, there goes your car. This is why some people have their hesitation about the serpentine belt.

The following pieces may be powered by a serpentine belt:

  • Power steering pump
  • Alternator (electric)
  • Air conditioning system
  • Air pump

The list goes on and on. 

Now, imagine if you were driving and the serpentine belt was no good. All at once, the vehicle could have problems with the cooling system, the power steering, and more. When all those lights and sensors go off, the dashboard starts buzzing and dinging. That’s when people think their car is possessed!

The worst thing is that if the car’s serpentine belt busts in a certain way, that $200 repair could actually be a lot higher. For instance, if the car overheats as a result – that’s additional damage! 

Common Serpentine Belt Questions and Answers

Beyond knowing what a serpentine belt is, and what pluses and minuses it presents, car owners have plenty of questions about the part.

What happens to a car when the serpentine belt breaks?

When the serpentine belt breaks, you will lose vehicle features and the car will most likely not run. You won’t have power for the air conditioning, the steering, or even the car itself if the alternator goes with it!

What are the signs of a bad serpentine belt?

Basically, if the belt goes, you will observe the following:

  • Loud noise (squeaking) from the engine
  • Failure of air conditioning or power steering
  • Engine runs hot or overheats
  • Power for lights, radio, or other features dips and comes back or shuts off altogether

Is a serpentine belt the same as a timing belt?

No. The timing belt powers the crankshaft so the valves in the engine open and close appropriately. The serpentine belt takes power from the engine to distribute it to other parts of the vehicle for a safe and comfortable ride.

Replace Your Serpentine Belt When Necessary

When reading up on the serpentine belt, you might be wondering how often it should be replaced.

The belt is long and made of rubber. The serpentine belt should be replaced before it snaps. It provides power to various parts of the vehicle such as the power steering and water pumps.

Sometimes people reference the belt by calling it the fan belt (accessory belt). They say that because the belt powers the accessories and fans (i.e., radiator fan).

Again, this is a fairly efficient system until it all falls apart. The serpentine belt goes, and it seems like everything else goes with it. When that happens, other parts of the car (to which the serpentine belt is connected) could fry at the same time, resulting in a costly repair bill.

Unlike the timing belt, which is toothed, the serpentine belt has V-shaped grooves. In fact, both belts require similar maintenance schedules, so if you’re doing one, you may as well consider doing the other.

The average serpentine belt should make it at least 60,000 miles, if not to 100,000. As the miles climb, if the mechanic or dealership advise you to change the serpentine belt, just do it. Just don’t get tricked into doing it too often. You don’t want the belt to snap while you’re out on the open road, though.

Warnings that the Serpentine Belt Needs to be Replaced

There are plenty of warning signs that a serpentine belt needs to be replaced.

You have to open the hood and check out the belt for yourself to know. If this is already overwhelming you to think about, call a mechanic or a friend who is pretty good with cars.

You need to see if there are signs of problems on the belt. There could be cracking, fraying, or a glazed appearance on parts of the belt.

Another major symptom that the belt is going to go is a loud squealing noise that comes when you start the car, especially on a day that’s not even cold. If you hear that noise when turning sharp corners or making a U-turn, ask your mechanic to check out the serpentine belt as soon as possible.

If the belt is gone, you might notice that accessories don’t work right. You’re not getting the power steering (the wheel feels impossible to turn), the car is overheating (temperature gauge is on high), or the air condition compressor is inoperable (car blows hot air when AC is on).

If your car is designed well, you may see the check engine light illuminate, alerting you that something is amiss and a mechanic must be brought in to resolve the problem.

When you do head to the mechanic for the serpentine belt repair, expect to pay about $200 for the replacement. However, if other parts of the car are damaged due to the serpentine belt’s problems, you may end up paying a lot more. Ask the mechanic about a warranty on the repair job.

Older Vehicles Do Not Have Serpentine Belts

If you’re driving a very old car, you might not even have a serpentine belt. Instead, you could be dealing with what’s known as a V-belt. They’re smaller and skinnier. They usually connect to just one accessory instead of several. Because of this, there could be several V-belts in a single engine.

Signs Your Car Needs Some Serpentine Belt Love

When it seems like everything about your call is falling apart at once, you may have a serpentine belt problem on your hands. Here’s what to look for:

Hot air blows from the AC unit.

You don’t want to drive around warm cities like Chicago without an air conditioner in your car, do you? That’s what might happen if your car doesn’t get the serpentine belt repaired. Not only will the AC stop operating, you could damage it by trying to run it.

Squeaking Noise

If you hear that loud squeal when you start up your car, the serpentine belt may need to be changed.

The sound could be an indication that the belt is slipping. If you’re lucky, it just needs to be tightened or set back on course. If not, a full replacement will be in order. Don’t sit on this one, folks! You will be rewarded by responding quickly.

Power Steering Problems

If the power steering is going, you may have a bad serpentine belt. The accessory is powered by the belt, so if the belt doesn’t turn the right gears so to speak, it’s just not happening.

If it’s just the power steering that’s not working, though, it’s probably NOT the belt. Check with the power steering fluid and then call a mechanic if you can’t figure it out from there.

The engine is running hot.

An overheated engine is never fun. A bad serpentine belt could cause the problem. This is because it powers up the water pump. Without it, the engine’s not getting the cooldown it needs to keep on roaring.

Serpentine belts do crack.

If the belt has cracks on it, then it’s absolutely time to get it replaced.

Dead Battery alert pops up.

When the battery is fried, it might be the alternator. If the alternator wasn’t getting enough power in the first place, it might have been the serpentine belt. The spark plugs will do you no good at this point, and you can forget about listening to the radio or powering up the high beams.

Serpentine Belt Replacement Fees

Once you know what a serpentine belt is and how it operates, you might be curious about how much it costs to replace the belt.

The good news is that the part itself isn’t very pricey! The part can be purchased from a dealership, auto parts store, or junkyard for $25 to $100. Throw in another $100 or so for labor, and you’re looking at a grand total of roughly $200, give or take.

If you drive a car with two serpentine belts, that could double the price of the repair. If your car is a foreign model or requires a hard-to-find belt, that might drive up the costs as well.

Fixing the belt takes about two hours. Some mechanics and gearheads talk about this repair being a quick DIY job. That may be true if you already have the experience, practice, knowhow, tools, and garage space. It’s a one and done. However, if you’re new to car repair, go see a professional!

There are plenty of repair manuals and parts and pieces that can be obtained for somebody dead set on doing this repair themselves, but it’s not recommended.

Additionally, you should expect the costs to be a lot higher if the belt actually snapped or came off. When the belt is just not in good shape, the mechanic can fix that fairly quickly and for a low price. If there’s damage, such as an overheated car, or burnt-out pumps, that will be another story.

Serpentine Belt Replacement or Junkyard Bound Vehicle?

There comes a time in every vehicle’s life when the car just isn’t what it used to be. 

The average car today lasts about twelve years on the road. With the increasing changes in technology, mankind may see this number improve in the near future. However, for now, twelve years is pretty good.

If the serpentine belt needs replacement, but so do the brakes, tires, and head gasket, it might be time to let this car go once and for all.

Then again, if the only thing you’re in for is getting the serpentine belt swapped 1-2-3, then you’re in the luck. 

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