The purpose of a timing chain/timing belt is to ensure that your engine runs in perfect unison as it synchronizes a bunch of gears and levers. As such, the chain/belt is one of the most crucial parts of your engine, if it fails suddenly, chances are that your engine is in great danger.
The difference between a chain and a belt is obviously the material, and the fact that the belt sits on the outside of the engine, while the chain goes into the engine because it needs proper lubrication. A belt used to be a quieter solution, but newer cars equipped with chains are as quiet as their belt counterparts.
If you want to determine if your car is run by a chain or a belt, all you have to do is to look at the side of the engine, if there is a plastic compartment directly near the engine, chances are you are looking at a timing belt.
Besides the compartment itself, the best way of telling is to consult the owner’s manual as all owner’s manuals list such information in the engine section.
The purpose of a timing belt/chain
A timing belt/chain is tasked with connecting the crankshaft to the camshaft in a synchronized manner. These components ensure that the timing between opening and closing of the engine valves is as precise as possible so the fuel can enter as efficiently as possible.
This entire operation is somewhat similar to bicycle pedals. In an effort of achieving maximum efficiency, modern-day cars offer belts or chains that are as synchronized as best as they can be. When the pistons rise and fall, the spark plugs have to ignite the fuel mixture at an exact moment in time.
This is called engine timing, and any issue with the timing can be easily heard from the outside. If your timing belt/chain is slightly out of wack, your engine will run rough, but it is not something catastrophic as long as it stays just slightly out of wack.
If the timing messes up completely, the pistons and valves will not be synchronized, and this can be terminal for your engine. More often than not this results in bent engine components and huge chunks of metal pumping through your engine which can eventually destroy the engine completely.
Advantages of a timing belt over a timing chain and vice versa
Now, when you are completely aware of the purpose of a chain/belt, now it’s time to ponder over the differences between the two, and the reason why a belt is better than a chain, and vice versa. These are the two most common engine timing methods, but there is a thing called ‘’pushrod V8’’ which uses a completely different timing solution.
The most obvious differentiating factor between these two timing methods is the construction. A timing belt is made out of industrial-grade rubber which ensures quiet operation and it is a lot easier to replace because it runs outside the engine which enables easy access.
A timing belt is a durable timing solution that is also a lot cheaper to replace as well. A timing chain on the other hand is made out of metal which ensures even greater durability. But it does cost more to replace because it runs through the engine itself, and this requires partial disassembly of the engine.
As mentioned previously, a timing chain used to be a lot louder, but nowadays chains have reached a level of comparable quietness. A chain is also lubricated when it passes through the engine, and because of this a chain usually lasts longer than a timing belt.
Timing chain/belt replacement
Both the belt and the chain require a replacement from time to time, but a big difference between the two is that you can generally expect that a well-maintained timing chain should last twice as long as a well-maintained timing belt.
That being said, a timing belt replacement should be scheduled into your car’s service intervals every 60k miles or about three years at a time. But a timing belt should be inspected on an annual basis because it plays such a massive role in the engine running process.
As far as timing chains are concerned, they also need an annual inspection to ensure that everything works smoothly. One of the biggest issues with a timing chain is not the chain itself, but often it is the chain tensioner that tends to break first.
Regardless, you ought to ensure that the oil quality you are using is as best as it can be because low-grade oil can shorten the lifespan of the timing chain considerably.
How much does it cost to replace a timing belt/chain?
While you are replacing your timing belt, you should also replace your water pump as the labor included requires the disassembly of both. As such, some reputable manufacturers such as Bosch sell timing belts and water pump combos at around $100-150, and the labor costs are usually around $100.
On the other hand, a timing chain costs way more money to replace because it costs double as much and it requires quite a bit of labor. That being said, you are often looking at a $1000+ bill for a chain and water pump replacement altogether.
Can you put a timing belt on a car equipped with a timing chain?
Timing chains cost way more money, but they are more durable. If you are planning to equip a chain-fitted car with a timing belt, you better skip it as it is not possible since the timing chain passes through the engine, and a timing belt does not.
Such a process would be extremely uneconomic and quite possibly terminal for your engine. Maintaining your chain/belt is one of the most important aspects of car maintenance and should never be taken lightly.
What are the signs of a bad timing belt/chain?
There are many different ways one can identify a faulty timing chain/belt. If your engine misfires or it simply runs poorly on idle, chances are that your belt/chain is out of wack. If you come across metal shavings in your oil, this is a sign of bad engine timing.
Uneven revs, ticking sounds, and such are also obvious signs that there might be an issue with your chain/belt. Whenever you experience any of these, you should inspect the car immediately as your engine can be in great danger of literally exploding.