There are many different mechanisms at work in your car, and most parts rely on the engine to keep them operational. A serpentine belt, or drive belt, is responsible for transferring the energy generated in the combustion chambers to the different components of your car. In early automobiles, each separate part had its own belt, but these days motors are far more complex and separate belts would take up too much room. Instead, one belt is used to deliver power to all the different aspects of a vehicle, from the alternator to the cooling fan and the water pump, among other accessories.
How often should the belts be inspected?
Drivebelts are made of rubber, which means they will wear out over time. This is why it is especially important to examine the belt regularly for signs of damage. A mechanic will check the belt during routine service, but it is wise to keep an eye on the belt in between these intervals. The belt is typically located at one end of the engine block and will wind around a number of pulleys. Check for cracks, tears, missing chunks and stiffness as well as making sure there is enough tension in the belt.
What will happen if the belt breaks or is too loose?
A loose belt is just as dangerous as a broken one. A broken or loose belt will not be able to deliver power to your car's many accessories. If the vehicle is already running when the belt snaps, the water pump and cooling fan will stop working and your engine will quickly begin to overheat. You may also lose power steering and other important equipment that will render your car undriveable until the belt is replaced.
Are there any warning signs when the belt is starting to wear out?
A constant squealing noise when the car's engine is running is a pretty clear indicator the belt is wearing out. The noise will often escalate when the car makes a turn as well as when it is first started. This sound doesn't necessarily mean the belt will need to be replaced. It could just be misaligned on one of the pulleys. Misalignment is typically due to pulleys that are out of line with one another. Sometimes all you need to do is correct the alignment and the belt will be fine. However, if it is not corrected right away, misalignment can damage the belt and you'll need to replace it.
What else can damage the belt?
Worn belt tensioners could also be the cause of belt failure, as they can lead to looseness, excessive vibration and other issues. A rattling sound may indicate issues with an automatic tensioner. You should inspect the tensioners for cracked arms whenever you inspect the belt. Idler pulleys can be harmful to the belt as well if they wear out or break.
Typically, these parts are susceptible to damages when you're running most of the accessories and putting the car under excessive stress. Driving in stop-and-go traffic with the air conditioner on is a good example of when idler pulleys can break.
If you find problems with any of these parts, it is best to replace them as soon as possible. While you're at it, you might want to get a new belt as well. The defective parts may have started to weaken the belt, even if there is no visible damage.