Diagnose Yourself: Belts and Hoses

A close up of a vehicles serpentine belt on pulleys is shown.

We’ve all been there, that moment that can cause extreme frustration, a loud and overbearing screeching noise from the engine. It might have started from a simple, occasional squeak, which resulted in the loud noise that it evolved into. After taking it to a mechanic and $50 dollars later, you find out that the loud noise was just a worn-out belt that stretched, resulting in the belt ever so slightly slipping over the pulleys. This is an annoying problem that could’ve been solved with a 15-minute check on your engine’s belts and hoses. This is just one example of the simple things every vehicle owner can do to maintain their engine preventing annoying problems such as this one.

The main reason why problems like this go unchecked until they fail is that people don’t really know what they’re looking for when it comes to certain aspects of the engine. But there is a fatal flaw in this thinking. People don’t realize that “fix it when it breaks” can lead to more damaging problems in the future. So, in light of this, we have broken down two very simple and easy areas of the engine that, with five or ten minutes, can be checked and diagnosed. The areas discussed are belts and hoses, we’ll first go into a brief summary of what each item does, the damage it can cause if it breaks, then discuss the key signs of wear on each.

Serpentine Belts

What Does a Serpentine Belt Do?

This first part on the engine is the part that eventually can make a horrible noise after years of use. In order to understand why it can make this noise, we need to understand what it does. The serpentine belt is a single, continuous belt that drives multiple pulleys. The pulleys are attached to different parts of the engine that need the power to work — power steering, alternator, water pump, air conditioning, etc. There is one easy way to understand what a serpentine belt does. With the car turned off, we know that it can be difficult to turn the wheel, even impossible for some when the car isn’t moving. But after starting up the car what happens? The engine turns over the serpentine belt at a high RPM, (revolution per minute), turning the power steering pump at high speeds, sending hydraulic fluid to the steering rack, assisting the ability to turn the wheel on a car. And wham! The wheel is smooth as butter when making turns.

The serpentine belt applies this principle to other parts of the car that are attached. Typically, it pushes pressurized fluid to the part that it’s attached to, enabling it to activate. The water pump, which could be the most important thing the serpentine belt operates, is typically run by the serpentine belt. The water pump is the part that shoots cool water inside the engine, cooling it down so that the engine doesn’t overheat and potentially warp or break. This is where we get to the part where we discuss the damage a broken serpentine belt can cause.

A hand is holding a serpentine belt, which is a common part to crack within the belts and hoses in a Cincinnati, OH vehicle, over the engine bay of a car.

What’s the Damage Doc?

Apart from the damage, the serpentine belt can cause on our ears; a worn serpentine belt can cause some damage to the engine. The first problem you may encounter is a lack of interior amenities; for instance, because the belt is attached to the air conditioner compressor, you can lose the effectiveness of the A/C.

The serpentine belt is also attached to the alternator, which charges the engine. You can see things like the headlights and interior lights dim, the cigarette lighter’s effectiveness weakens, and worst of all, the car battery eventually losing charge and dying. But even more damaging than these is that dreaded water pump we mentioned. Due to most cars running the water pump off the serpentine belt, if it is slipping, the water pump might not turn as effectively as it should. This would cause the engine to overheat. Now, unless the belt is completely off, or barely turning, the car will completely overheat, which is unlikely. But it can cause the engine to run slightly hot, which is not good for the engine in the long run. So how do we tell that the serpentine belt is worn? Notice the next key signs of wear.

Signs of Wear and Tear

It is fairly easy to check the state of the serpentine belt due to the fact that on most cars, the serpentine belt is right behind the radiator, located in front of the engine. Sometimes though, the serpentine belt is on the left side of the engine looking at the engine by the shock tower. There is generally a decent amount of room between the metal wall of the car and the serpentine belt.

Most times, when you buy a car, especially off the showroom floor, the owner’s manual has a chart outlining the service interval. Many people think that this chart is a scam, trying to get people to buy things for their car that’s not needed. But really, this chart is a general timeframe that a part can last for, so the manual takes that time frame into account and schedules a replacement before then. So even though you may not be experiencing problems yet, you’ll more than likely experience them in the future. And because of the relatively low costs of a serpentine belt, it’ll be worth it to change it out during the due date.

Another sign of wear is cracking or splitting on the serpentine belt itself. This means that it’s starting to show dry rot, stiff parts on an otherwise loose belt. A serpentine belt should always be loose and flexible before attaching to the pulleys. It should have a little bit of twist on the belt itself while on the pulleys with the tensioner pushing down on it. But if you can twist the belt past 90 degrees, then it’s time for a replacement. Again, all of these things are easy to check and can save you time and money. What about the hoses? What do they do on a vehicle?

Coolant Hoses

What Do the Coolant Hoses Do?

As we mentioned before the water pump pushes cool water into the engine to cool it down. But how does the car cool down and circulate this water over and over again? That is the job of the radiator, it uses the cool air and fans to lower the temperature of the water. But why do we mention this when talking about hoses? The coolant hoses that we are mentioning here carry this coolant from the engine to the radiator then back to the engine. So, it is critical that the hoses are not clogged by junk or cracked and leaking so that it can receive the coolant efficiently.

What’s the Damage?

A mechanic is replacing a coolent hose in a car.

As we mentioned, the coolant hoses can affect the overall performance of the engine. If the hoses get old and collapse in on itself, it will prevent the coolant from flowing through the engine, causing it to overheat and eventually die. Due to the hoses always coming into contact with hot coolant, they are constantly expanding and contracting. So, when the hose can’t take the pressure, it collapses in on itself. But how can we tell if it’s time to change the hoses?

Signs of Wear and Tear

Due to the nature of expanding and contracting of the hoses, the rubber will start to become soft and slightly malleable to the touch. To first find the hoses, you need to locate the radiator. This is always behind the bumper in front of the car. On both the top and bottom of the radiator, there should one hose sticking out of both ends. These are the main hoses that carry the coolant around. A very important point we want to keep in mind is to let the car cool off completely before doing any of these tests. Any visible signs of cracking or warping is a sign of immediate replacement. You can also squeeze the hose and feel the stiffness of the rubber. After squeezing, it should bounce right back to its original shape. If it collapses after squeezing, not returning back, you know that the hose it shot, needing replacement.

What’s Your Self-Diagnoses?

For those of us who have older cars, and even those who don’t, it’s important to do check-ups every once in a while, to make sure our car is running as it should. As mentioned, many of these checks can be very simple and easy to do. Five minutes now can save you an afternoon, or longer wasted waiting for a tow. So, make sure you bring in your car to Kings Ford Quick Lane, here in Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to get these matters resolved as quickly as possible.

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