Inspect, Repair or Replace Your Vehicle’s Fan Belt Yourself

The classic signs of a worn fan belt have you roaring down the highway, only to notice that the car, truck, or SUV seems to lose power with each passing mile. Your temperature gauge may slide up and your battery light may come on – in the middle of your trip – as you press the accelerator farther and farther down just to achieve a reasonable speed. You are scared to stop the car for lights or stop signs because you fear the vehicle will stall, and it will. Getting it started again may be no easy task. In fact, unless you replace a bad fan belt, you may end up stuck and in need of a tow truck plus a decent-sized repair bill.

But you don’t have to wait until the fan belt goes that far. You should check your fan belt, one of the parts of a car, truck, or SUV that is most apt to fail over the course of a lifetime, on a regular basis as part of basic vehicle repair. You don’t need to be a professional mechanic to check the fan belt or even to replace it, if needed. All you need is your hands, your eyes, and a tool or two along with a replacement fan belt, which you need to match to your make and model of vehicle. Your local auto parts shop will help you find it. The cost to replace a fan belt can run anywhere from $15 to $40, depending on your make and model. If you have a mechanic do it, you not only have the cost of the belt, but anywhere between a quarter hour to a full hour in labor fees.

Other indicators of a bad fan belt include a real, piercing squeal – sometimes referred to as a deafening screech – as you start the vehicle and sometimes, as you operate it. Low power, even if it is not as serious as what you read earlier, may be a sign as well. So can rising engine temperature even when you check the radiator and coolant to find it all appears fine.

The vehicle must be off to work on this or just about any other repair. Open your hood, preferably with the engine cool enough to work. You should be able to spot the fan belt fairly quickly. Your owner’s manual may specify this component so check the manual if you have trouble locating it.

The fan belt threads around three structures in a sort of triangular pattern. It’s usually found near the front, near the radiator that lines the front of the car where the grill is positioned. Frequently, the fan belt sits between the radiator and the engine. Run the belt through your hand – most move with the vehicle turned off. Too taut and you have a problem. But too loose, and you have more problems. Yours should have a bit of play but not too much.

Visually inspect the belt as you run it through your hand. Any signs of significant wear tell you it’s time to replace the fan belt, which is far less expensive to replace with the vehicle still operational than once you’re stuck by the roadside. If the belt is cracked or frayed, it must be replaced immediately; you simply never know when it will go. If there is too much slack, you may be able to use an industrial pair of scissors to remove some of the extra belt, but this can be more time-consuming than replacing a belt outright. In my experience, it is easier to replace a fan belt than repair it.

If you have to replace your fan belt, take a very good look at how the existing belt sits in place. If you have a digital camera, take some pictures of how the belt now sits. You can transfer those images into your computer and print them out as a guide for how the new belt should look when you are finished.

It’s also not a bad idea to consult the most knowledgeable folks behind the counter in an auto parts store. I’ve had them offer to accompany me out to the parking lot, help me locate the fan belt, and even aid me in removing the old belt and installing the new one. Never underestimate the value of a smart auto parts clerk. It helps to offer them a little thank you afterwards since they are saving you time and money; if they won’t accept a cash tip, maybe return with coffee and doughnuts or something else to show your appreciation.

A frayed fan belt can usually be pulled away or cut free. But regardless of how you remove the existing belt, you will need to remove the large nut that usually holds the assembly in place. You may need to use a commercial spray that loosens recalcitrant hardware to get the retaining nut off with a socket wrench (the size of wrench you need truly varies between vehicle models). Once the nut is off, you can thread the new fan belt into place and replace the bolt. Remember to consult your owner’s manual as you work. Sometimes, too, you will find an installation diagram either packed into the fan belt box or right on the outside of the package. Use it!

One final note, however, that may prevent you from undertaking the replacement of a fan belt yourself. On some vehicles, the fan belt is not positioned in a way that makes it easy to access. I had one old GM car that literally required you to jack up the vehicle, remove a front wheel, and come at it from below. This is a nightmare and probably should not be done by anyone other than a professional. While it’s possible to still replace it yourself, getting under a vehicle that is jacked up is hazardous work and not recommended.

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