There is a lot of confusion when it comes to timing belts and timing chains, even among some in the industry.
There are some critical differences between the two that make quite a difference in how the car drives. Let’s take a look at the differences between timing belts and timing chains, and which is better for different situations
What is a timing belt
Timing chains, not timing belts, were the standard as automobiles rose to the level of being a necessity in modern life.
The first American vehicle that had a rubber timing belt was made by Pontiac. As car engines began to get more complex, and the role of cars in peoples’ daily lives increased, the timing belt was one of the major innovations of the mid-1960s.
One of the main draws to this new invention was the fact that timing belts are generally pretty quiet (certainly a plus down the line as it became standard for people to play the radio and recorded music in their cars).
These days, rubber timing belts might have fiberglass or Kevlar coatings for added durability.
They are known to be very quiet as they rotate, but they do wear out over time. Most vehicle manufacturers recommend that timing belts are changed between 60,000 and 100,000 miles, though there are exceptions, both higher and lower.
Notes on timing belts:
- Typically, they should be changed every 100,000 miles or less, closer to 60,000 in some models
- They are built around hydraulic timing tensioners. This keeps a steady movement through the engine cycle and keeps the whole ‘time’ thing on track
Generally, all engine parts that are controlled by the timing belt, such as those hydraulic tensioners and water pumps, need to be changed at the same time as the belt
What is a Timing Chain
Think back to the bicycle you had as a kid. Likely, one of the first things you learned about it was that it ran on a chain, and that if the chain came off or broke, the entire operation was screwed.
Timing chains in automobiles are the same way. Timing chains are louder than timing belts. They are also heavier, and more consequential when broken. Drivers may suffer other problems with their engine if the timing belt breaks.
The biggest benefit of the timing chain is that with luck, it can last for the life of the engine. There is rarely a guarantee for this, but generally timing chains don’t need as much attention as timing belts.
Timing chains also have tensioners that keep them functioning properly and help to prevent loosening.
Timing chains are extremely dependent on oil pressure in the engine. Low oil pressure, or inconsistent oil pressure, can cause the chain to not work right and can offset the timing system. If the problem isn’t fixed quickly, the driver may see immense engine and mechanical issues that will be a headache to take care of.
Generally, timing chains aren’t affiliated with the water pump. This is good because it means that if one screws up, it isn’t going to immediately affect the other one.
What happens when a timing belt or timing chain break?
The main cause of timing belts breaking is extra tension.This can cause the chain to snap, and happens most often right when the driver starts or turns off the car. In these scenarios, the engine isn’t idling or in any type of a routine so the odds of something going wrong are much higher.
When this happens, you better hope you have a non-interference engine. In this case, all you need to do is get a new timing belt. If that is not the case, you might have extreme engine damage that can cost a fortune to fix, especially if the car is revved at the time of the break.
You will probably notice that the piston goes to crap when the timing belt breaks. The rod can damage the engine block and oil pan, severing the engine from being functional. This is a worst-case scenario. But the results can be so bad that its best to make sure that the timing belt is changed when it needs to be.
The breaking of a timing chain is slightly less dramatic, but can still have negative consequences.
If you are driving fast when it happens, there’s a good chance that pieces will fly into the engine and cause a bunch of damage. It may even wrap itself partially or fully around the engine or other parts, pretty much making them completely ruined.
If the driver is cruising along at slow speeds, the damage probably won’t be so bad. It goes back to that whole bicycle analogy.
When the chain comes off, it is noticeable immediately but you aren’t completely screwed. Just get it fixed or get a new one right away and the engine should still function properly.
Timing chain vs timing belt: which is better?
This is the million-dollar question. It really depends on the type of vehicle, its age, and the type of driving that the vehicle is used for. Generally, timing chains tend to be better for a lot of cars under V-8s because they are more modern and are made of rubber. The downside here is that if you own the vehicle for a long time, replacing the chain is going to have to happen. This is the nature of the beast.
Debate on this topic is likely to continue for years to come. But here we have established that timing belts were developed later, after vehicles had a chance to evolve more and modernize.
Like all parts of modern cars and trucks, timing belts need upkeep, more so than timing chains. But it is possible to have a great vehicle with either. If you don’t mind doing maintenance, timing belts are the way to go. But for those looking for a one and done situation, stick with the timing chain.
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