Timing Chain Replacement – Cheap Fix Or A Hole Through Your Pocket?

by Conner Mckay

For a car to run properly it needs an engine. For an engine to operate in its best shape it needs every single one of its components to be in their respective ‘A’ games. This goes for the timing chain, too. It’s seemingly a piece of straightforward equipment and is sort of the same as the chain in your bicycle. Just as how a bicycle can’t move without a chain, your car’s engine must get a timing chain replacement should it fail, too.

Well, one could argue that it’s even more important. To emphasize the importance of the timing chain for your engine to work, let us just say your engine will not work without it. Understanding this, a timing chain replacement is not going to be cheap.

Nothing that’s been broken is ever good. The same is true with the timing chain. Even if your car did run without a timing chain, the outcome is not going to be great. The damage is going to spread through your engine like wildfire. And before you know it, your timing chain replacement is not an option anymore, as your whole engine might need to be replaced.

To find out more on the timing chain replacement cost and what a timing chain is in general terms, let us just go a bit deeper. The only way to understand why your timing chain replacement costs so much, and why can’t you just ignore the replacement and drive without a timing chain, we need to understand more about it. So let us try to get into,

What Is A Timing Chain?

The first-ever cars ever made used timing chains. Up until the early 1990s, cars were equipped with timing chains. The chain’s reputation broke with the introduction of the timing belt. From the mid-1990s to this day still, most manufacturers equip their cars with timing belts. But now, timing chains are making a comeback as more customers are asking for durability.

All this talk about the timing chain has got us thinking. So what exactly is a timing chain? Just like a bike chain, your car’s timing chains are connected to two cogwheels. One goes at the end of the camshaft, and the other end is attached to the crankshaft. The only difference in appearance when considering bike chains and timing chains is that timing chains are a heck of a lot bigger than bicycle chains.

These things are made to last. Also, the size allows it to pull a lot more load. So what is this huge load? Timing chains are connected to the camshaft and the crankshaft. This is to make sure the camshaft and crankshaft operate in sync with one another. Since the timing chain links both together, they can mirror each other’s movement and work in perfect timing.

Timing chains are made with heavy-duty metal. They are built to stand the test of time. That is one of the reasons most car owners have not even heard of the timing chain. They are never bothered by it when compared with other components of the engine. The only maintenance a timing chain requires is lubrication. Lubricating a timing chain when required reduces the wear it is going to see with time.

What Does A Timing Chain Do?

A timing belt‘s only task – which is similar to that of a timing chain – is to keep the camshaft and crankshaft in line. If these two aren’t working in symphony, that is when trouble starts. Before going any further, let’s take a look at the basics since camshaft and crankshaft are two terms that are constantly going to be popping up.

How long does a timing chain last?

Camshaft And Crankshaft

The engine’s power is produced through the pistons. All these pistons inside the engine work alongside the camshaft and a crankshaft. The up and down motion of the pistons generates power. The crankshaft translates this power and turns it into rotational motion. The crankshaft is responsible for powering your wheels. Altogether, the crankshaft then restarts this process by moving with the camshaft through that aforementioned timing chain.

On the other side of this, we have the camshaft. The camshaft is responsible for the intake.  The camshaft opens and closes the intake and exhaust valves. This is happening for each and every cylinder. When the valve is open, a mixture of air and fuel enters the cylinders. After the fuel burns, the camshaft is responsible for opening its valve for the exhaust gases.

Timing Chain

Back to the timing chain. The tasks the camshaft and the crankshaft does are definitely impressive. But it is worthless without a timing chain. If the camshaft brings fuel when the pistons are compressing the fuel-air mixture is going to be worthless. In the same way, if the piston compresses and the fuel-air mixture is not there the compression is not going to combust anything.

The timing chain, when connected to the camshaft and the crankshaft, is responsible to make sure this is done right. When the camshaft and crankshaft are aligned perfectly, the fuel-air mixture will arrive when the piston compresses, hence generating power.

Most cars consist of metal gears that are attached to the timing chain. This way, the timing chain has a good grip on the gears and the engine works smoothly. Some cars have plastic gears. The problem here is if the engine overheats, the plastic is going to melt. When the plastic melts, the timing chain does not get a good grip and starts to slip. This often leads to significant engine damage.

Does Your Car Have A Timing Belt Or Timing Chain?

As mentioned earlier, manufacturers started using timing belts over timing chains. That doesn’t mean all carmakers switched to timing belts. Some manufacturers continued to use timing chains. The Audi A series was one of the popular models that consistently delivered timing chains. Also, BMW, Ford, Fiat, and Chevrolet are all companies with certain models being equipped with timing chains.

Timing belts appeared in the latter of last century, and today almost all makes and models of middle-class cars are equipped with belts. The advantages of timing belts are that they are made of resilient, durable materials, which makes them much quieter than chains, and that replacing them is relatively simple.

You can easily find out if your car has a timing belt or chain. If you don’t want to google and scroll through every car model, just pop the hood open. Do you see a plastic cover on the side of the engine? Then your car has a timing belt. If you don’t see such a thing your car has a timing chain.

What Are Timing Belts?

Just like the timing chain the timing belt serves the same purpose, to keep the camshaft and the crankshaft working in sync. Instead of being made out of metal, timing belts are made from reinforced rubber. This synthetic material is made of rubber and nylon. The nylon provides additional strength to the timing belts.

These timing belts are built with a side containing teeth like serrations. These serrations allow the belt to get a grip so the timing belt can keep the timing right.

Chain Or Belt – Which Is Better?

There is no correct answer to this question. Both the timing belt and timing chain come with their own set of pros and cons. Which is better really depends on the requirement.

Timing chains and timing belts differ when it comes to the material used and the duration it lasts. Since the timing belt is made out of rubber, it is much more silent than timing chains. This is because rubber is much smoother than metal. Speaking about rubber, it is also lighter than metal. This is another advantage for timing belts, as they are lighter than metal. Another significant advantage timing belts offer is that they do not require any lubrication.

So with all these advantages why would anyone use timing chains. Easy answer – durability. The durability of a timing chain trumps all the advantages offered by timing belts. They do not freeze and are not subject to thermal effects. Even if the engine overheats you’ll hardly be able to see any effect on the timing chain.

On the other hand, if the engine overheats, the rubber-based timing belt is prone to hardening and cracking. Timing chains hardly ever stretch, which is another advantage. But most of all, if you maintain properly and drive accordingly, timing chains are simply immortal. They are built to stand the test of time and if maintenance is done accordingly, it could last as long as the engine.

Disadvantages Of Timing Chain

Of course, timing chains have their own share of disadvantages. The metal exterior is dangerous to the engine. So if they ever do break, they get lodged in nooks and crannies of the engine and often cause irreparable damage to the engine. They are noisier compared to timing belts. Timing belt replacement is not easy either. They require special knowledge and are much harder to replace compared to timing belts. And last but not least they are very expensive to replace.

When To Think About A Timing Chain Replacement

Though timing chain replacement is not something anyone expects to encounter, it is best to know what to look out for. If you can spot the signs of a bad timing chain you could start thinking about a timing chain replacement. If you can find out a bad timing chain in time before it snaps, you can save yourself from being stalled in the middle of the road and especially avoid serious engine damage.

Stretched Timing Chain

Over time, your timing chain will eventually wear out. After this happens you’ll notice a decrease in fuel economy. The drop in fuel economy happens since the accuracy of the valve timing decreases. Moreover, you will also be able to notice reduced power at low engine speeds and an increase in roughness. If you focus on the engine’s sound you’ll be able to notice a rattling sound. It’ll be more evident with the hood open.

Engine Misfires

The reason why the engine misfires are, again the timing chain. The chain is probably worn off, that it is skipping a gear on the camshaft or the crankshaft.  This causes the engine’s timing to fall out of calibration and often results in a misfire. This may also lead to your engine performing poorly when you try to accelerate. Generally, it would misfire under stress.

The most likely cause is damage to the timing chain. It is best to get the timing chain replaced before it snaps. If the timing chain breaks, the loose metal rolling around inside the motor can lead to serious engine damage.

Metal Shavings In Oil

If you do maintenance according to your manufacturer you’d probably change your engine oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. If you check the oil, you might spot metal shavings in the oil.

Over time, oil begins to separate as it heats up and is exposed to natural solvents found in gasoline. With a worn timing chain, pieces of metal find their way into your oil pan and get mixed in with the oil.

This could also be the cause of other worn metal in your engine. Any component with time starts to deteriorate. This is seen as metal shavings in the oil. If you find metal shavings in your oil, it is best to get a mechanic to inspect your engine.

Check Engine Light Is On

If you see your check engine light on certainly means something is wrong with your engine. This doesn’t necessarily mean your timing chain is faulty. It could be any component of your engine. Even with the timing chain not working as needed, the check engine light will illuminate.

Check Engine Light - Timing Chain Replacement

The computer onboard usually is programmed to check emissions to detect problems. With a stretched or damaged timing chain, incomplete combustion occurs inside the engine. This is evident from the emissions which are diagnosed by the onboard computer and this results in the check engine light.

Engine Will Fail

With a broken timing chain, your engine is not going to start.  If the belt is already broken, the engine won’t have enough compression to start. If it breaks while driving, the contact could damage the pistons. The pistons get damaged due to the valves. The valves will probably be bent themselves. This could potentially ruin your engine.

Ending up with a broken timing chain before you even go a drive is highly unlikely. You seldom encounter a broken timing chain before you start the car. It is stressed just as you start to accelerate and could break before you even pull out of the driveway if it was ruined previously.

Rough Idling

If your engine is idling rough, it could be several different problems. A faulty timing chain could also be the cause. Your car isn’t supposed to be rough when your engine is doing nothing. But vigorous vibrations or rumbling could mean that your engine is definitely suffering.

Once you start the car and before you even step on the gas you feel heavy vibrations, your engine is definitely messed up. It is best to let a mechanic take a look at it as soon as possible.

These problems often get overlooked especially because it doesn’t stall your car immediately. You tend to drive through the pain instead of spending time on repairs. The problem is that the more you postpone inspection the more chances that your engine could get damaged. Attacking an issue at its roots is always better than facing the worst-case scenario. You could end up with a load of metal instead of a functioning engine.

How Often Do You Need A Timing Chain Replacement

It is impossible to give an accurate value on how long your timing chain is going to last. More often than not, it could last the lifetime of a car.  Timing chains do not need to be replaced unless you suspect anything wrong with it. Timing chains can last up to 300,000 miles. But the average is closer to 100,000 miles.

Your best option is to find out your manufacturer’s recommendations. Most manufacturers recommend a timing chain replacement between 80,000 and 120,000 miles.

If you are driving an older vehicle or a vehicle with a lot of miles under its hood, you better keep an eye and an ear out for symptoms of a bad timing chain. With a little concentration, you can easily spot a failing timing chain. This way you will be able to figure out when to go for a timing chain replacement.

Timing Chain Replacement Cost

There is no way to accurately give a number on timing chain replacement cost. It differs with the model of the car and labor costs in different areas. Timing chain replacements aren’t cheap though.

The average cost of timing chain replacement will range between $910 and $3,000. The labor costs are estimated between $550 and $1,050, while parts are priced between $410 and $550.

It actually depends on the car you drive anyway. If you drive a 2012 Honda Accord, you are looking somewhere close to $810. If you own a 2002 Ford F150, you are going to have to pay up to $1,200. For a timing chain replacement on a 2005 Ford Mustang GT, it’s going to cost upwards of $2,000.

It really depends on the car you drive. It is also noteworthy that labor costs range from $70 to $150 per hour depending on the area you reside.  This will substantially change timing chain replacement costs.

If the timing chain has jumped, it’s often that many of the surrounding parts are also affected. So, more parts may have to be replaced. This is often a case with a timing chain replacement. In most cases, the water pump, chain tensioner, drive belt, and thermostat are going to need replacement.

These could easily add up to another 500$ bill. This could be avoided in most cases if you can spot a failing timing chain early.

Why Do Labor Costs Add Up So Much?

The main reason for such a high labor cost is the time that needs to be spent on replacing a timing chain. A timing chain replacement could easily take between 4 to upwards of 8 hours.

First off, the timing chain cover should be removed. There are different size bolts, so their locations should be embedded in your memory. Next, locate the marks on your crankshaft and camshaft gears.

These gears are connected by the timing chain so that the position of the piston (connected to the crankshaft) correlates directly to the opening of the fuel and exhaust valves (operated by the camshaft) to keep your engine running smoothly. Locate the brighter segments in the chain which are used for alignment.

These are the steps to follow before even starting to remove the timing chain. This is followed up by removing the existing timing chain and replacing the new one. This will probably give you an idea of why timing chain replacements are so costly. That’s even if the timing chain itself is relatively cheap.

This is almost impossible for someone who is not an expert in the field of mechanics. It is best to leave timing chain replacements to a professional. A misplaced timing chain or incorrectly fitted timing chain could cause more good than bad.

Even though the cost could be astronomical, and nobody keeps an extra $3,000 lying around for a timing chain replacement, you must get your timing chain replaced if deemed necessary. Only by replacing your timing chain will you be able to save your engine. An engine rebuild cost could add up to much higher values. Or, you might even need to scrap your entire car. Find a mechanic if you think you need one.

Facts on Timing Chain Replacement

  1. Timing chains are designed to last as long as the car does, but if they fail, the damage can be difficult to fix.
  2. A timing chain links the crankshaft and camshafts in the engine, and it opens and closes the intake and exhaust valves at the right time during the combustion process.
  3. A qualified mechanic needs about 5 to 8 hours to replace a timing chain, along with its tensioners, guides, and sprockets.
  4. If chain guides wear out or tensioner springs lose their strength, the chain can come off, causing damage to the engine.
  5. Replacing a timing chain can cost between $1,600 and $1,800 if done by a mechanic, and about $600 to $800 if done by a knowledgeable individual.
  6. Timing chain replacement cost depends on several factors, such as make and model, the complexity of the timing system, and the number of parts that need replacement.
  7. Some car models are easier to work with and have simple timing systems, making replacement less time-consuming and more affordable.
  8. The price of the parts needed for a timing chain replacement varies, with cheaper brands starting at around $20 and more expensive ones at $740 or more.
  9. Labor cost is a significant factor in timing chain replacement, ranging from $15 to $210 per hour, with an average of $60 per hour.
  10. In some cases, it’s recommended to replace the entire timing assembly, including the tensioner and sprockets, to avoid potential issues and save on labor costs in the future.

Timing Chain Replacement – Summary

Having the need to replace a timing chain is very rare. If you start seeing symptoms that your timing chain is going bad, you might consider a timing chain replacement. Timing chain replacements aren’t cheap, but not replacing a timing chain when needed could end up in unrepairable damage to your engine.

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Henry Dunn 10/04/2021 - 4:25 am

What is the best brand of timing chain for my i30 2012 1.6 deisal?1945@gmail.

Gman 12/24/2021 - 11:21 am

I keep reading two types of material on chain or belt on our 2015 ford fusion Titanium with 2 litre engine. Any mechanics out there that know for sure if it’s a timing chain or timing belt. Also how much to replace with water pump and pulleys etc. appreciate feedback.


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