Timing Chain Problems? 5 Most-Common Issues & Fixes

There are many reasons that you can have issues with the timing chain, and it can cause many problems for your engine.

The timing chain in your engine supplies a direct connection between the crankshaft and camshaft. When the crankshaft turns from combustion, the timing chain moves the camshaft.

In this article, we’ll cover the most common problems and how to fix each.

Before we get stuck in – if you’re a newbie to mechanics, check out our past article to learn more about what a timing chain actually is. 

#1 – You Have Normal Wear and Tear On The Timing Chain

The timing chain connects the crankshaft to the camshaft. As the crankshaft turns from combustion, it will also turn the camshaft.

The camshaft touches pushrods or directly touches the intake and exhaust valves in your cylinder head that allow the combustion process to take place.

The timing chain is comprised of metal links that can stretch over time due to heat and wear from contact with the gears on the crankshaft and camshaft.

The loss of exact tension from the normal wear and tear on the timing chain can cause a few different problems:
  • Excessive engine noise that sounds like a rattling or ticking
  • You may get a Check Engine Light (CEL) to appear
  • Your engine could occasionally misfire or backfire
  • You may see a decrease in fuel economy and a loss in power or performance
  • Your engine may have trouble starting
  • Your engine may run hotter than normal and eventually overheat

How to Fix It

Normal wear and tear on the timing chain is going to occur as you use your car. There are two fixes with a timing chain: adjustment or replacement.

Your car’s engine may have the ability to adjust the timing chain for proper tension or alignment between the gears on the crankshaft and camshaft.

The adjustment process may require the removal of one or more covers and specialized tools to move the timing chain alignment.

Each car will be different, so it is best to study the process required for your car before starting or take your car to a qualified mechanic who is familiar with the process.

If there is no adjustment in your timing chain, it may just need to be replaced. It may require the removal of accessories like the alternator, water pump, and more to access where the timing chain is in the engine.

Always use high-quality parts when replacing the timing chain and its related components as they are critical for your engine performance.

#2 – Your Engine Oil Is Contaminated

Your timing chain uses the engine oil to stay lubricated and reduce its temperature. If the engine oil is contaminated with dirt and debris, the timing chain may show signs of increased wear until the point it starts to fail.

How to Fix It

If the engine oil is contaminated with dirt and debris, the engine oil filter is either full or not filtering correctly.

If the filter element is full, it won’t collect the dirt and debris in the engine oil and the contaminants will continue to bypass the filter and spread throughout your engine. If the filter isn’t working correctly, it will also allow contaminants to spread throughout the engine.

Fixing the engine oil contamination requires the engine oil to be drained and refilled with new engine oil. You will also need to replace the current engine filter with a new filter.

If the engine oil shows signs of contamination soon after being changed and the filter replaced, there is another problem to diagnose.

Metal flakes in the engine oil may be from a worn bearing or a failed component inside the engine. It may be time to talk to a qualified mechanic who can investigate the source of the metal shavings and then determine a course of action to fix the issue.

#3 – Your Timing Chain Wasn’t Installed Or Adjusted Correctly

Timing chains are simple to install, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be installed incorrectly. They align with teeth on the gears for the crankshaft and camshaft, which sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

The crankshaft and camshaft must be aligned correctly, which is usually done via marks on each component showing alignment. Some gears have small adjustments that can move the opening and closing timing on the intake and exhaust valves ahead or behind.

If the adjustment is incorrect, or the alignment is not correct, your engine could have problems starting or running well.

You could experience a loss of performance and a decrease in fuel economy. In the worst case, the incorrect alignment could open the intake or exhaust valves at the wrong time causing contact with the engine’s pistons in the cylinder bores. It could cause catastrophic damage to the valves, pistons, and more.

How to Fix It

If the adjustment was done incorrectly, it should be redone correctly. That’s assuming that no damage has occurred beforehand.

If the installation was incorrect, it also needs to be done correctly. The timing chain needs to be removed and installed correctly with the alignment markers in the correct orientation.

#4 – You Have A Failing Timing Chain

Normal wear and tear on the timing chain can take hundreds of thousands of miles to get to the point of failure.

As the timing chain approaches a failing point, if it will ever fail, it will offer signs of a problem in the future.

  • You should start to hear more noise from the area where the timing chain is located.
  • You may get occasional misfires or backfires.
  • The engine may get harder to start, and it may have a reduction in power or performance. The operation will definitely have a negative change, but it won’t have failed yet.
  • You may also see shavings in the oil indicating the timing chain is approaching a failure point.

How to Fix It

If you see shavings in the oil or having more and more problems with the engine relating to the timing chain, it’s time to remedy the situation with a new timing chain.

It’s best to replace the timing chain before it fails. It’s a large job that you can do yourself, but if you’re not confident in the process take it to a qualified mechanic in your area.

#5 – You Have A Broken Timing Chain

A broken or failed timing chain isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a significant problem.

When the timing chain breaks, it will usually fall into the engine. That may cause it to contact the crankshaft and cause damage to the crankshaft.

As the timing chain controls the movement of the camshaft, the broken chain can cause the cylinder head valves to stay in the open position. They might contact the pistons during start-up or as the engine spins.

A broken chain will prevent the engine from running, and in most cases from starting. The starter can still turn the crankshaft, but the valves won’t open to allow fuel in the cylinders or combustion to happen.

How to Fix It

There is only one way to fix a broken timing chain, and that is to replace it. The larger problem with a broken chain is that it can cause significant damage to adjacent components.

  • The chain can fall into the engine and become lodged between the crankshaft and the engine block.
  • It can allow the cylinder head valves to stay open, and they may contact the top of the pistons. That may cause the valves to become bent, and then they will need to be replaced.

A broken chain can cause a chain reaction (no pun intended) of significant damage that may result in the complete engine being replaced.

The cost to repair each component that becomes damaged in the melee after the chain breaks may add up to more than just replacing the whole engine as one unit. In either case, it’s going to be expensive and no fun to deal with.

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