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How To: Check & Change Your Vehicle's Serpentine Belt, Tensioner & Idler Pulley


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    • By Counterman
      As luck would have it, I have the perfect serpentine-belt story to demonstrate: 1) the strange side of automotive repair; 2) the crazy things you have to deal with as a counter professional; and 3) that professional technicians can make mistakes, even when we don’t realize it.
      A few years back, a friend of mine had driven to Georgia for a month-long visit with family. While they were down there, one of the front brakes locked up. They took the car to a local shop, which quoted them a lot more money than they could afford to fix the car. Since they were a close friend, and since I always looked for an excuse for a road trip, I agreed to help.
      I was confident in their description of the problem, and even though I had never worked on the vehicle – a 1991 Lincoln Town Car – I was sure the problem was either a caliper or a hose. I bought all the brake parts I could possibly need, rented the cheapest econo-box car I could find for one way, filled the trunk with parts and tools and set the cruise control for Georgia.
      As soon as I arrived, I transferred my cargo to the Town Car, turned in the rental and went to work. All I needed to do was fix it just enough so the car would make it back to Ohio and the comfort of my shop. I slapped on the caliper, bled it out and it was ready to go. However, before hitting the road, I did a quick check-over of the rest of the car.
      My only serious concern was the serpentine belt. It was severely cracked and worn – probably one of the worst I had seen. I envisioned it falling apart somewhere in the mountains, so I thought it was best to replace it. On the way to the freeway, I stopped at one of the large auto parts stores and bought a belt. Since I hadn’t planned on this, I also had to buy a serpentine-belt tool.
      The belt took me longer than normal to replace because the accessories on the bottom of the engine were difficult to get to, but I could see them well enough to know the belt was on correctly, and all the pulleys and tensioners seemed OK. I started it up, the belt ran true, so I was good to go. The freeway was still a couple miles and a half-dozen traffic lights away. Sitting at the very last light before 600-plus miles of open road, the car suddenly started making a terrible noise under the hood.
      The rhythmic nature of the noise told me something was wrong with what I had just done. I dodged the entrance ramp for the side of the road. The new serpentine belt had completely shredded and fallen apart. I removed the remains of it, and luckily still had the old one in the trunk. I double-checked all the pulleys and tensioners and could see no problem, so I reinstalled the old belt.
      Clearly, it couldn’t have been my mistake, so I blamed the belt for being defective. But, I still wanted a new one for the trip, so I returned to the auto parts store. I explained the problem, but they didn’t have another one. They refunded my money with no questions asked – which was, from a standpoint of customer service, the correct thing to do, and from my standpoint, also correct since a defective part wasn’t my problem.
      With no option for a new belt, I had no choice but to cross my fingers and make the trip. I made it back without a single problem. The next week I took the car into the shop to properly finish up the brake work and install another new belt. This time the car was on the lift, so I draped the belt in place from the top, and as I always do, raised the car up so I could loop the belt around the accessories on the bottom.
      Then I saw the problem. It turned out the correct belt for the car was a seven-rib belt. Someone in the past had installed an earlier-model A/C compressor that had a six-rib pulley, and they had installed a six-rib belt so it would work. Oops. In my apparent haste, I didn’t notice that when changing the belt. Of course, a six-rib belt works fine on seven-rib pulleys. But when the seven-rib belt was forced to work on the six-rib pulley, it shredded like cheese going on a pizza.
      The counter professional where I bought the belt didn’t question whether or not it was defective. He just refunded my money. But he could have questioned it and maybe he should have, and not necessarily with the intent to say I had made a mistake, but in the interest of figuring out what had happened. Admittedly, I was surprised by the “defective” belt, but my confidence got in the way of common sense. Had I been questioned, I may have thought a little harder and began to wonder if indeed I had missed something. Well, we all make mistakes.
      Selling Serpentine Belts
      So, what goes into selling serpentine belts? The application is normally the easy part unless you have a crazy story like mine, but you may often be asked how to tell if the belt is worn out. Small cracks in the top surface of the teeth are normal and common, even with low miles on a belt. When the cracks extend all the way down to base of the teeth, that’s a belt that should be replaced.
      The more prevalent indicator, however, is the cross-section of the teeth. When they’re new, the belt teeth aren’t pointy. They are squared-off at the top, and the cross-section of the belt will mate perfectly in the pulley grooves, providing maximum contact area. When the belt wears, the teeth become pointy and the cross-section of the belt changes drastically, reducing the contact area.
      These visual inspections almost always allow you to make an easy decision about the belt. However, if condition ever is in question, and the vehicle owner isn’t sure of age or mileage, then it’s time to replace it. But the belt isn’t the only factor. Idler pulleys and tensioner pulleys are ideal upsell recommendations. Any loss of proper tension and any misalignment – both of which can be caused by worn idler or tensioner pulleys – will cause premature belt wear and/or noise.
      Noise is the big one, and usually the first thing that makes people think about replacing the belt. Serpentine belts normally run very quiet, which is one of the reasons we like them so much. Any squeaking or chirping usually gets blamed on the belt, and usually it’s the reason they’re replaced. Make no mistake: A worn belt certainly can make noise, but usually it’s in combination with other factors.
      It’s not uncommon to install a new serpentine belt to remedy a squeaking noise, only to find the noise is still there. In most of these cases, the belt truly needed replaced, but think of the perception by the customer. If they’re not aware of the other factors involved, they’re going to blame it on the quality of the belt. It happens often. Go figure! Who would ever claim a new serpentine belt was defective?
      As I previously mentioned, incorrect alignment or incorrect tension can and will cause noise. In addition to pulley and tensioner condition, when the belt is installed, it makes a great straight edge. If it’s not perfect, then something is misaligned.
      The most common culprit for noise, however, is dirt, debris and particles lodged in the accessory pulleys. If you don’t see it at first, look closer. It often collects in the base of the pulley grooves. As innocent as it may look, it will cause you to pull your hair out chasing a noise.
      There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to clean them, but the bottom line is that it simply doesn’t matter. Clean is clean. Here’s the catch. Often, the debris is embedded in the grooves to the point where you have to dig or scrape it out with a pick, then follow it up with a wire brush. It’s not always fun, but it’s the only way to ensure no noise from the belt. You can use any solvent or degreaser you want, but that’s just the finishing touch. The physical debris must be removed, all the way around each and every pulley.
      When it comes to upsells, belt tools are nice to have in stock. These are generally just for releasing the tension on the belt, but there’s another tool that’s a long metal rod with two metal “fingers” on the end. They are designed to grab and maneuver the belt, so you can install it in cars with very limited space to work. These can be a real lifesaver.
      If the car has more than one belt, it’s a good idea to recommend all of them at the same time. If one is worn out, the other most likely will be too. It’s almost always a dirty job too, and one that causes a lot of skinned knuckles because you’re working in such a tight space. Shop towels and mechanics gloves are a great recommendation. If they don’t want gloves, point them to the nearest drug store to pick up Band-Aids on the way home. They’ll probably need them!
      Last but not least are stretch belts. All the same rules for wear and inspection still apply, but there’s no tensioner. They have an elastic core that allows them to keep tension on the pulleys. They work great. Period. But installation is different. You absolutely must use the correct tool. It’s not that the tools are earth-shattering wonders; they simply provide a smooth ramp to guide the belts in place. If you do it any other way, you risk damaging, and most likely will damage, the belt. 
      Oh yeah, and for the record, I didn’t put another six-rib belt on the Town Car. I installed the correct A/C compressor pulley and put a seven-rib belt on the car. The way it should have been.
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    • By Counterman
      The University of the Aftermarket Foundation (UAF) has introduced a new corporate-support aspect to its popular UAF Coffee Club recurring-donor program.
      Called the BARISTA level, the new donor program provides organizations with a pathway to join individual donors in “pouring it forward” to benefit of the automotive aftermarket through education.
      “We are excited to offer this unique new program to give aftermarket organizations a chance to ‘expresso’ their support and help provide scholarships and educational opportunities for the next generation of industry professionals,” said Mike Buzzard, UAF trustee and chairman of the UAF Coffee Club sub-committee.
      Organizations that donate a minimum of $3,600 to the UAF that is earmarked for the Coffee Club campaign will be recognized as BARISTA at the UAF Coffee Club event during AAPEX on signage, the UAF Website, UAF newsletter and other UAF communications. BARISTA donations apply toward Lifetime Trustee status.
      “BARISTA donors will join UAF Coffee Club members at a special networking event at AAPEX which has proven to provide a valuable venue and professional connection springboard for those new to aftermarket careers to interact with industry veterans,” said Buzzard.
      To learn more and become a BARISTA, contact UAF Executive Director Jennifer Tio at [email protected] For more information about the University of the Aftermarket Foundation and its available scholarships, or to make a donation, visit
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    • By OReilly Auto Parts
      How To: Change the Oil and Filter On a 2004 to 2011 Ford Focus
    • By Counterman
      The process of cooling the inside of a vehicle is the same process that’s used to cool your home, and they both include the same basic elements: a compressor, a condenser, an evaporator and a system of hoses or tubes. In both situations, the A/C system isn’t producing fresh cold air. Instead, the system is taking existing hot air, removing the heat and moisture, and recirculating it as cold air. 
      While all of the components play an important role, the process wouldn’t be possible without refrigerant. The reason the system uses refrigerant instead of say, water, is because refrigerant has a very low boiling point. So, it’s easy to boil the refrigerant into a vapor – which enables it to quickly remove heat from the air – and to repeat this process over and over.
      Up until the mid-1990s, the most widely used refrigerant was CFC-12, which most people refer to as R-12. The EPA considers R-12 an ozone-depleting chemical and a potent greenhouse gas.
      In the United States, R-12 has been banned for use in newly manufactured vehicles since 1994, but you might come across some pre-1994 cars and trucks that still use it if they haven’t been retrofitted to a non-ozone-depleting refrigerant. And if they haven’t, you might want to recommend a retrofit parts kit if your store carries them.
      Vehicles produced after 1994 use HFC-134a, more commonly known as R-134a. While R-134a isn’t considered an ozone-depleting refrigerant, it is a hydrofluorocarbon, which is a group that generally poses a very high potential to contribute to climate change, according to the EPA. This is commonly referred to as GWP, or global-warming potential. Automakers began transitioning to R-134a with 1992 model-year vehicles, and by the 1995 model year, all new vehicles sold with air conditioners in the United States used R-134a.
      Starting in 2012, the automakers began shifting to HFO-1234yf, more commonly known as R-1234yf. This is a far more environmentally friendly alternative to the aforementioned refrigerants. While R-1234yf is mildly flammable, it isn’t considered an ozone-depleting refrigerant. According to the EPA website, R-1234yf has a GWP of 4, compared to 1,430 for R-134a.
      The Chemours Company, which manufacturers Opteon YF refrigerant for automotive A/C systems, estimates that more than 80 million light-duty vehicles on the road today in the United States were factory-filled with R-1234yf refrigerant. That number will continue to grow, as Chemours estimates that 95% of vehicles manufactured for sale in 2022 will use R-1234yf as part of their original-equipment design.
      “The advantage with R-1234yf is that it has a zero ozone-depletion potential, and it has an exceptionally low global-warming potential,” says Christina Spalding, business development manager, thermal & specialized solutions, at Chemours. “This is why we’ve seen a significant number of U.S. car manufacturers converge on R-1234yf, even though fundamentally there’s no mandate requiring them to do so.”
      Chrysler was an early adopter of R-1234yf, going all the way back to the 2014 model year. The list of automakers using R-1234yf in vehicle models in the United States today includes Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and others.
      It’s just a matter of time before R-1234yf is found in the majority of vehicles in the overall U.S. fleet, explains Constantine Giannaris, North American mobile marketing consultant for thermal & specialized solutions at Chemours.
      “We encourage retail stores and shop owners to make the investment [in R-1234yf supplies] sooner rather than later to begin reaping the benefits now and into the future,” he adds.
      Aftermarket Opportunities
      While working on R-1234yf systems isn’t much different from R-134a systems in terms of operation or theory, identifying the refrigerant and recharging the system have some new twists.
      To determine if a vehicle was factory-filled with R-1234yf, there’s a label under the hood that indicates the type of refrigerant that the vehicle uses. (This information also is available in the owner’s manual.) This is an important point, because it’s illegal to use R-134a in vehicle that was factory-filled with R-1234yf.
      If your store isn’t seeing a lot of demand for R-1234yf yet, an easy to way to dip your toe in the water is to stock R-1234yf cans. Chemours offers its Opteon YF automotive refrigerant in self-sealing 12-ounce and 28-ounce cans. Purchasing R-1234yf in a can doesn’t require EPA 609 Technician Training and Certification, which means anyone can purchase them. However, DIY demand for R-1234yf is small compared to the more mature R-134a DIY market.
      Even so, you might have some DIY customers who want to “top off” their R-1234yf systems. In these situations, make sure your customers know that they won’t be able to use an R-134a charging hose to connect to the service port on an R-1234yf vehicle. While R-134a and R-1234yf air-conditioning systems are very similar in terms of their overall design, the respective service ports are different, to prevent the refrigerants from being mixed. To recharge an R-1234yf system, your DIY customers will need a gauge-and-hose set with hose couplers that fit an R-1234yf service port – another potential sales opportunity for your store. 
      That said, you also might want to tell your customers that simply topping off the refrigerant might not solve the problem if the air conditioning isn’t working. It could be a mechanical or electrical issue, or a refrigerant leak (the most common cause of cooling problems). If a refrigerant leak is suspected, you can recommend an ultraviolet leak-detection dye or an electronic leak-detector tool. There are some kits out there that include the dye, the injection gun, UV glasses and even a fluorescent light to help them find the leak.
      On the DIFM side, your professional customers will need a new recover/recycle/recharge (RRR) machine to service R-1234yf vehicles, although there are some machines on the market that can service R-134a and R-1234yf vehicles.
      Chemours Opteon YF offers 10-pound and 25-pound cylinders for use with RRR machines. The cylinders are for professional technicians, as they need EPA Section 609 certification to purchase them. The 10-pound cylinders by far are the most popular, according to Giannaris.
      With approximately 15 million R-1234yf passenger vehicles coming out of their factory warranty each year, aftermarket demand for R-1234yf refills and service is growing steadily. For parts stores that haven’t started stocking R-1234yf cylinders yet, Spalding recommends “planting the seeds” with their DIFM customers.
      “If you’re selling cylinders of R-134a, those are potential customers for cylinders of R-1234yf,” Spalding says. “Ask your customers if they are seeing the increase in vehicles containing yf at their shops. I think there is a lot that a retailer can bring to their customers in terms of educating them about how the market is changing and how the fleet is changing. If you recognize a customer has been purchasing R-134a from you for quite some time, asking them how you can help them transition to R-1234yf can go a long way.”
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    • DIY like a pro! Shop from over 1,000,000 Repair Manuals at eManualOnline.com! As low as $14.99 per manual. Shop now.


      DIY like a pro! Shop from over 1,000,000 Repair Manuals at eManualOnline.com! As low as $14.99 per manual. Shop now.


      DIY like a pro! Shop from over 1,000,000 Repair Manuals at eManualOnline.com! As low as $14.99 per manual. Shop now.

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