Welcome to Goof of the Month: our monthly dip into the world of automotive cluelessness, fearing for the worst, and stories about the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.
This month, automotive technician John Kennard gives us a good story that nicely illustrates the age-old adage that you can “Pay a little now, or a lot later.”
It started with a busy customer who stopped by Kennard’s service centre for a seasonal tire swap, a little earlier this year.
“This customer runs his own delivery service,” Kennard explains. “He’s got a number of Ford vans, and we do most of the servicing and maintenance on them. I think it works well for him, since we’re just down the road from his building, and sometimes, he even has his drivers pick their work vans up here when they start their afternoon shift, if we’ve had them in for servicing that morning.”
As a colleague pulled the delivery van into the shop for its tire swap, Kennard noticed an unusual sound coming from under the hood. He took a closer look while his fellow technician worked on the tire and wheel change.
“We go over every customer’s vehicle as best we can, every time we can, and even if they’re just in for an oil change or tire swap,” Kennard says. “Many drivers only have their car on a hoist once or twice a year these days, and we like to make sure we make the best use of that time to find any problems that need addressing.”
Eventually, Kennard tracked down the unusual sound from the engine bay of the delivery van. The cause? A badly worn serpentine belt tensioner. This is a spring-loaded component that’s rigidly mounted to the engine on one end, and has a pulley wheel on the other. The engine’s accessory belt rides over that pulley, and the tensioner’s spring-loaded action keeps that belt tight at all times.
“It’s fairly common to see these tensioners wearing out and needing some attention on these Ford V8 engines as they age. These vans tend to have one of two V8 engines, and this issue isn’t uncommon on either. The tensioner in this case, can wear to the point that they rub into the timing cover, on the front of the engine. The solution is easy – just have the tensioner changed ASAP if it starts making any unusual sounds, and usually, that’s the end of it.”
Kennard advised the customer that his delivery van needed a new belt tensioner, and that it would cost about $150 to replace it. It’s a relatively quick and easy job. Kennard offered to book an appointment for the following morning, and suggested that he drop the van off after-hours so the repair could be completed quickly the next morning, to minimize downtime.
The customer declined Kennard’s offer – citing a week that was just too busy.
“It was funny, he literally said he ‘couldn’t afford the downtime.’ That’s understandable for a busy business owner,” Kennard notes. “So, I told him to call me when he had a little more time, but not to wait too long. I know his vans get run around the clock, so I mentioned he’d best make an appointment very soon. We could get the parts in quickly, ahead of time, and have him back on the road very quickly.”
The customer left with his warm-weather tires mounted, and a bad tensioner. Kennard didn’t hear from him for several weeks.
When the customer called back – nearly a month later – it was to book an appointment to check up on a loss of power steering, a battery warning light, and a newly discovered oil leak.
“I took his call for this appointment actually,” Kennard says. “And I remember thinking ‘uh oh’ – because I’ve seen this enough times before.”
Here’s what happened: as Kennard warned his customer, the belt tensioner wore through the front timing cover of his van’s engine. The timing cover, by the way, is a sort of shield that protects some internal engine components – including the timing chain, which is a very important part of the engine.
The van arrived several days late for its appointment, and Kennard called the customer with the bad news.
“Because this van continued to be used with a bad belt tensioner, the timing cover was destroyed.” Kennard says.
“The tensioner wore completely through the timing cover, exposing the timing chain, timing chain guides, and other parts, to potential damage.”
In human terms? Imagine walking around with a small chunk of your rib-cage missing, exposing the vital parts within to the elements.
So, the van now needed a new timing cover, a new belt and tensioner, an oil change, some attention to the cooling system, and more.
The bill? About $1,500.
“This customer could have saved about $1,350 by having the tensioner replaced. He didn’t, so the result was extensive damage. It’s about five hours of labour alone to change the timing cover. If he’d just replaced the $150 tensioner on time, that would have been the end of the story.
“This is why it’s always best to find and address small problems with whatever you drive, while they’re still small.”
Pay now or pay later – you decide. But when your mechanic suggests making an appointment sooner than later, you’re likely best to heed their advice.