If you're old enough to remember the good old days when you changed your own fan belts, then you can also remember the bruised knuckles and cursing that went along with it. And to make matters worse, there were often two or three belts to change.
Now, instead of separate belts for each component, most cars today use a single wider, multigrooved “serpentine” belt, named for the way it snakes around multiple pulleys.
Serpentine belts are easy to change because today's automatic belt tensioners eliminate the need to loosen bolts or pry components into position for retensioning. Just rotate the tensioner, remove the old belt and install a new one. When the belt ribs are seated into the pulley grooves, release the tensioner and you're done.
Start with a premium belt
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Premium vs. economy belt—back side
The premium belt has an embedded fabric backing and higher-quality rubber compounds that resist oil, coolant and heat. The economy belt has no fabric and is made from lower-quality materials.
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Premium vs. economy belt—front side
The premium belt has cogs molded into the ribs. The economy belt has none. Cogs increase belt flexibility, reduce heat buildup and dramatically increase belt life.
You can buy a very inexpensive, economy-grade serpentine belt — but you shouldn't. The serpentine belt drives your generator, power steering, air conditioning and water pump. In other words, a belt failure can leave you stranded, and the towing charges will cost far more than the typical price of a premium belt. Here's how you can tell the difference between premium and economy belts:
1. Cogs. The manufacturers of premium belts mold cogs into the ribs of their belts. The cogs allow the belt to flex more easily, reducing heat buildup.
2. Fabric backing. Fabric adds stability and durability to the belt, resulting in better performance and longer life. The economy belt has no fabric backing.
3. Compounding. Premium rubber compounding isn't something you can see, but higher-quality compounds are more resistant to oil and coolant leaks and heat. They're also quieter.
Most economy and original equipment belts have a life of 30,000 to 40,000 miles (follow the manufacturer's schedule for belt replacement). Premium belts have almost double that life. The longer life easily justifies the slight additional expense.
The right tools make it a do-it-yourself project
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Photo 1: Follow the belt routing diagram
Examine the decal that shows the belt routing. If yours doesn't have one, draw one before you start the job.
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Photo 2: Remove the belt
Using the serpentine belt tool, rotate the tensioner to remove belt tension. Remove the old belt. Slowly release the tensioner.
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Close up of belt tensioner
The leverage of the serpentine belt tool makes it easy to move the tensioner.
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Photo 3: Place the new belt
Using the belt placement tool, route the new belt around the belt path. Rotate the tensioner again while you load the belt around it. Double-check to make sure the belt is aligned with all the pulleys and that it follows the correct path. Slowly release the tensioner.
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Serpentine belt tool and belt placement tool
Inexpensive specialty tools greatly simplify changing the serpentine belt.
You can replace a serpentine belt with ordinary hand tools. But we don't recommend it. The spaces are often tight and the belt-driven devices difficult to reach. Using a serpentine belt tool to loosen the tensioner and a belt placement tool to position the belt, we completed the entire job in less than 15 minutes, without breaking a sweat (or a knuckle). The serpentine belt tool comes with an assortment of sockets, making it the perfect choice for all the cars in your family. The two extension bars can be configured to reach the tensioner at the proper angle, and the extra-long handle provides maximum leverage so you can release the pressure easily. The belt placement tool allowed us to remove and properly place the new belt without reaching down into the pulley area.
Note: If your car requires the removal of an engine mount in order to remove the serpentine belt, or the belt's just nearly impossible to get at, we recommend you leave the job to a professional.