Timing Chain: What Is It and Common Problems?


The timing chain is one of the most commonly misunderstood car components. Let’s take a closer look at what it is and some of the problems you might encounter with it.

The timing chain is a critical engine component. When it fails, the damage can be catastrophic, resulting in bent valves, damaged pistons, and in some cases, total engine failure. However, regular service and maintenance can help a timing chain last the car’s entire service life.

This article will give you a brief overview of the timing chain function and some common problems. I will also share some tips on keeping your timing chain in good shape and avoiding potential problems.

What Is the Timing Chain, and What Does It Do?

The timing chain is a metal chain that connects the crankshaft to the camshaft in an engine. The crankshaft is the shaft that the pistons connect to, and the camshaft is the shaft that opens and closes the valves.

The timing chain’s job is to make sure that the valves open and close at the right time. It does this by rotating the camshaft at half the speed of the crankshaft.

The timing chain is tucked away in the engine’s timing cover, which is usually made of plastic or metal. This cover protects the timing chain from debris and oil leaks.

It is also worth noting that some cars come with a timing belt instead of a chain. The timing belt is made of rubber and looks like a giant serpentine belt. The chain is much more durable than the belt and can last the engine’s lifetime, whereas the timing belt needs to be replaced every 50,000 miles or so.

Still, that does not mean that the timing chain is immune to problems. In fact, there are a few common issues that may occur. Let’s talk about those now.

Read: Timing Belt vs. Serpentine Belt

Failing or Damaged Timing Chain Symptoms

When the timing chain decides to call it quits, there are a few symptoms that will let you know something is wrong:

  • Engine noise
  • Check engine light
  • Engine misfires
  • Decreased fuel economy
  • Difficulty starting the engine

Below I will explain each of these symptoms in more depth.

Read: How Much Does It Cost To Rebuild an Engine?

Engine Noise

One of the most common symptoms of a bad or failing timing chain is engine noise. Usually, this noise will be most pronounced when the engine starts. The rattling may go away after the engine has warmed up, but it will come back once the engine is turned off and allowed to cool down again.

The Difference Between an Engine Knock and Timing Chain Noise

Most people often confuse timing chain noise with an engine knock, but there is a way to tell the difference.

An engine knock is usually caused by a problem with the pistons or connecting rods. It will sound like a knocking or tapping noise and will be more pronounced when the engine is under load (accelerating, going up a hill, etc.).

The noise from a bad timing chain will be more of a rattling noise, and it will be pronounced when the engine is idling.

Check Engine Light

As you’d imagine, the check engine light will turn on when there is a problem with the timing chain. It’s important to note that this light can come on for several reasons, so don’t just assume it’s the timing chain causing issues.

If the check engine light is accompanied by any of the other symptoms on this list, it’s a good indication that the timing chain is indeed the problem.

Read: What Are Bad Tensioner Pulley Symptoms?

Engine Misfires

Several things can cause engine misfires, but a failing timing chain is one of the most common causes.

If the timing chain is loose or damaged, it can cause the valves to open and close at the wrong time. This will result in an engine misfire and can potentially damage the valves.

Decreased Fuel Economy

A timing chain that is not functioning correctly can also lead to decreased fuel economy. That’s because the engine will have to work harder to compensate for the misfiring cylinders.

Over time, this can lead to increased wear and tear on the engine and, eventually, decreased fuel economy.

Difficulty Starting the Engine

In some cases, a failing timing chain can prevent the engine from starting. This is usually because the timing chain is so loose that it jumps a tooth on the sprocket, causing the engine to be out of time. If this happens, your engine will not be able to start or run properly.

These are just a few of the most common symptoms of a bad or failing timing chain. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to have the problem diagnosed and repaired as soon as possible.

Read: What Does The Service Engine Soon Light In My Car Mean?

How To Keep Your Timing Chain in Good Shape?

The best way to avoid having to replace your timing chain is to prevent it from going bad in the first place. Below are a few tips to help you keep your timing chain in good shape.

Change Your Oil Regularly

Keeping the engine oil fresh and topped up is one of the best ways to extend the life of your engine. This is because oil is responsible for lubricating and cooling the motor, and it also helps to remove contaminants from the engine.

Over time, oil breaks down and becomes less effective at doing its job. This can lead to increased wear and tear on the engine, ultimately leading to timing chain problems.

For most engines, it’s recommended that the oil be changed every 5,000 miles or so. However, it’s always best to check your owner’s manual for specific recommendations.

Read: Why Car Blowing White Smoke After Oil Change?

Use the Right Oil

Motor oils are not all created equal. Different oils have different properties, and some are better suited for your specific engine than others.

When choosing an oil for your engine, it’s essential to choose one designed for high mileage engines. These oils contain additives that help protect against wear and tear, and they can also help extend the life of your motor.

It’s also important to make sure you’re using the correct oil weight. Using the wrong oil weight can damage your engine and lead to timing chain problems.

Check Your Timing Chain

It’s a good idea to check your timing chain periodically to make sure it’s in good condition. This is especially important if you live in an area with a lot of dust or other contaminants in the air.

Over time, dust and debris can build up on the timing chain and cause it to wear down prematurely. If you notice any signs of wear or damage, it’s important to have the problem fixed as soon as possible.

Have a Timing Chain Kit on Hand

If you live in an area with a lot of dust or you tend to do a lot of off-roading, it’s good to have a timing chain kit on hand. These kits contain everything you need to replace the timing chain, and they can be a lifesaver if your chain breaks while you’re out on the trail.

What Causes the Timing Chain to Break?

The most common cause of a timing chain failure is wear and tear. Over time, the timing chain stretches and wears down. As a result, one of the connections will eventually break. Contaminated oil and contact with foreign objects can also contribute to timing chain failure.

Contaminated oil is one typical reason for timing chain breakage. If the oil is not changed frequently enough, it can break down and become contaminated with debris. This can cause the timing chain to break down prematurely.

A timing chain can also break if it comes into contact with a foreign object. This is usually due to an accident or engine failure. 

How Long Can You Drive with a Bad Timing Chain?

You may be able to drive for a short distance with a broken timing chain, but it’s not something that you should rely on. The best thing to do if your timing chain breaks is to have it fixed as soon as possible.

You risk damaging your engine if you continue to drive with a broken timing chain, which could eventually lead to engine failure. The cost of replacing an engine can run into the thousands, depending on the car you are looking at and where you live.

A new timing chain replacement will cost you between $500 and $1000, depending on the make and model of your vehicle. In the long run, that will be much less than the cost of replacing an engine.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article has helped you understand what a timing chain is and what can break it. Remember, it’s always best to have the problem fixed as soon as possible to avoid further damage to your engine.

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