Is it time to change your timing belt?

Are all your summer plans running smoothly? Or have there been little hiccups along the way (ummm, rain)? In continuing the "chicken talk" from my previous two articles, many of you know my son got chickens this spring - before the coop was built and with a spring consisting of late snow and a lot of rain. Bad timing. Our chickens are "free-range" in our yard - they poop everywhere and eat everything (including my lovely plants). But they have become our little pets and are really great to have around, even our dog loves them! While we were away from our house last week, the neighbor's dogs came by for a visit. We don't know the details but we do know that one of our chickens was killed by the dogs. Our whole family, even our dog, is sad because they have become our sweet pets. If we had been home, could we have prevented the tragedy? Or if they were in the backyard, would the same thing have happened? If it was nighttime and they were in their coop (yes, it's finally built!) the dogs would not have gotten one. Certainly it was bad timing and we are hoping it doesn't happen again.

Timing is a funny thing. Along with it comes the shoulda, woulda, couldas in life. But there isn't anything we can do about past problems or mistakes except learn from them and take precautions so they don't happen again. Is your timing ever off? Today we are going to dig deeper into timing - as in timing belts. Perhaps if you can understand their job and importance you will be encouraged to be sure they are well maintained.

What do they do?

All the parts of your engine work together so your vehicle runs properly. Your engine has cylinders. Each cylinder contains a piston which travels up and down. Intake valves at the top of the cylinders open at a precise time to let in air and fuel. They then close at the right time to allow the combustion cycle. Finally, they open again to let out exhaust after that fuel has been burned. This cycle happens thousands of times per minute. The timing belt is responsible for rotating the shafts that control the valves. In doing so at precisely the right time, it choreographs the entire process.

What can go wrong?

There are several things that can go wrong with a timing belt. If the timing is off, you won't have a dead chicken … but you will have a dead engine. This would be a bummer if you want to go anywhere this summer.

Timing belts are made of very tough and flexible rubber material. They are made to last a long time. But they eventually wear out and can break. The consequences of this happening can be disastrous. In some engines, the valves protrude far enough into the cylinders that they could come in contact with the pistons. So if your timing belt breaks in this case, the pistons will smash into the valves. Valves can bend or break. And if the engine is spinning fast enough, the broken parts will shred the cylinder head as well. If all of this happens, you can expect to see dollar signs add up because it is a very expensive repair.

On some engines, the water pump is driven by the timing belt. If you have a leaky water pump, the coolant inside will contaminate the timing belt and could make it fail more quickly. Timing belts are hidden under a protective cover; some are easy to inspect while others are not. This is why it is so important to be sure they are replaced on schedule as part of your maintenance program.

When should you replace them?

In an ideal world you would want to get the most life out of your timing belt before replacement since it is an expensive maintenance service. But we don't live in an ideal world. If we did, we would certainly have had the chicken coop before we got chickens … or at the very least, had a "normal" spring so we could build the coop in a timely fashion. In an ideal world, we would still have ten chickens instead of the nine we have after the recent tragedy.

Since we are in the real world you must take precautions with your vehicle and make sure it is properly maintained. Manufacturers give you recommendations on how often the timing belt should be replaced. For some engines it's at 60,000 miles. For others it's at 90,000 miles or more. You'll want to consult your owner's manual for specifics on your vehicle and perhaps start saving money for this service if you are approaching recommended replacement time. The cost of replacing the timing belt varies for each vehicle depending on where it's located and the make/model of the vehicle that you have. Generally speaking, it is a labor intensive service and one of the most expensive maintenance items you'll need. But the alternative of having it break and leaving you stranded or with really costly repairs is much more expensive.

Where do you get them replaced?

Do you normally have all of your maintenance done at the dealership? Do you do this because you know they will use factory parts and they are confident with your make/model vehicle? Just because it is a maintenance issue does not mean you must have the service performed at a dealership. Most independent repair shops employ quality technicians with the ability to work on all makes and model vehicles. Many of them also use quality parts and direct from factory parts. And perhaps even a greater benefit is that they may even offer better warranties and more competitive prices. So if you are in the market for a new timing belt or if that maintenance service is on your radar in the future, consider alternatives to the dealership.

Your timing may not always be spot on - but when it comes to timing belts, you can do your part in preventing future problems and expensive repairs.

By Jeana Babcock

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