You're at your mechanic and he or she comes to you with a laundry list of items they say are "critical" to the life of the car. You maybe came in for an oil change or something relatively simple. Some of these items are going to be upsells.....items that certainly would benefit your car but aren't necessarily needed right now. One item that does not fall into this category is your timing belt, or cam belt. Yep, if you've got a car with 4 wheels there's probably an 80% chance your car uses a timing belt, and it's not the one you think it is. When and if you've ever opened your hood you might have seen a belt in the front or side of the engine. That's not your timing belt. Your timing belt is not viewable because its typically under lots and lots of plastic dust and oil shields. That's why servicing it can be expensive. Lots of pieces have to come off to get to the belt so it can be an involved process. Your competent mechanic can have it knocked out in 4-6 hours without a problem.
So, why should you care you ask? Well, your timing belt controls how the valves in your engine operate in relation to how the rest of the engine is moving internally. Sometimes as pieces move inside the engine they can briefly take up the same space as they cycle in and out or up and down. If your timing belt were to break these very metal pieces could ram into each other which, trust me, you do not want happening. You have no warning when this happens. The belt will literally snap and you will probably hear the sound of metal on metal. Even if you don't hear anything the engine will stop running and it will not re-start. If this happens expect to pay between $1,100-2,500 to replace valves that got bent or pistons that broke when they rammed together. To put it into perspective, it would generally be easier and cheaper to replace the entire engine rather than fix this, depending on how much a replacement engine ran you.
Now that you're freaked out about all this let me give you a few pieces of helpful information. The engine in the scenario I described above is called an "Interference engine." Not all engines are interference engines. It depends greatly on what type of car you have. If your car does not have an interference engine if/when the timing belt ever breaks the engine simply turns off and theoretically no actual damage is done. If you're curious you can certainly email me and I'll research your make and model to find out which type you have. Also, above I said you've got about an 80% chance of having a timing belt. Well, the other 20% could come in the form of a timing chain or actual gears turning gears. These systems are heavier and often take up more space. You'll find timing chains in a lot of trucks and some SUVs. The plus of a chain is before they break they typically start making a lot of noise and sound like a clattering chain. They can also last a very long time making a lot of noise before they actually break. The noise comes from the chain stretching out over time making more contact than it should. This is your warning sign that it's time to replace it.
So how much can you expect to pay for this timing belt you can't see that you didn't know you had? Well that's going to vary a great deal again on what type of car you drive. Email me and I can research some typical costs for your type of car. Large engines that use timing belts seem to cost a little more in my experience. The belt itself only costs between $25-90 but the labor involved is what you're paying for. Also, here's another item to be prepared for. Your timing belt has to be tight. There's a piece in your engine called the tensioner that....you guessed it, holds tension on the belt. Well, this little guy has been putting pressure on the belt ever since the engine was put together the very 1st time. They wear out. You've got about a 60% of having to change the tensioner when you change the timing belt. They range in price from around $40-150 depending on your car. It's worth it. If you cut corners here and just replace the belt the tensioner could fail causing the very damage you're paying to prevent. So for a very rough estimate here you can expect around $300-700. Yikes!!! That's a lot of money.....believe me, I know. I've owned 29 cars and most of them came with no history. Well I worry about this kind of thing so I've had timing belts changed or changed them myself in more instances than I'd care to mention.
The upside to this whole thing is you don't have to worry about this very often. Most cars call for the timing belt to be replaced every 60,000 miles. The good news, and why I have the all important disclaimer at the bottom, is the belts are usually good to 90,000 miles. Now that does not mean you can push it and feel confident. I would follow your recommended manufacturer's specs for your car. Just know that's it's not an item to ignore. Yes, I know all about turning up the radio to make the bad noise go away. You won't hear this one and it'll leave you stranded and cash strapped for sure.