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ROAD & TRAVEL Car Care: Winter Engine Check

Prep your engine hoses for winter

Double-check belts and hoses first

No motorist relishes the inconvenience and hazard of being stranded on the road. Yet, year after year, the nation's motoring clubs echo the same service call reports.

These organizations respond to more than 50 million annual customer calls, and they estimate one-fifth could be avoided if car owners inspected tires, belts and hoses, and had them replaced before they failed unexpectedly.

The Gates Corporation, the auto aftermarket's leading supplier of engine belts and hoses, says at least 30 percent of all belts and hoses are changed at failure, rather than on a preventive maintenance basis.

To help motorists avoid car problems this winter, Gates advises some simple cooling system preventive maintenance procedures to ask your service technician to perform this fall.

Look for belt cracks
The serpentine or V-ribbed engine belt drives the water pump, power steering pump, air conditioner compressor, alternator and fan (if it's not electric). When the belt on a serpentine drive breaks, it's the equivalent of as many as three regular V-belts breaking at the same time. Without the belt, the accessory drives won't work.

Gates engineers recommend changing serpentine belts every four years, regardless of appearance. They should be inspected at 60,000 miles.

If more than three cracks per inch are evident on the grooved underside of the belt, more than 80 percent of its service life is gone, and replacement should be considered.

Serpentine belts usually are tensioned by a spring-loaded idler mechanism that contacts the smooth backside of the belt. Although the tensioner is designed to last for the life of a vehicle, it can fail for several reasons including misalignment, loss of damping, pulley bearing failure and internal spring wear. It can easily be replaced the same time the serpentine belt is changed.

Feel for hose degradation
Until recently, the most common method of checking an engine coolant hose was to visually inspect its outside cover for signs of wear, or "ballooning."

However, after four years of testing, Gates engineers identified the primary cause of coolant hose failure as an electrochemical attack on the tube compound of the hose.

The phenomenon, known as electrochemical degradation, or ECD, produces fine cracks, or striations, in the tube wall. These cracks extend from the inside to the outside of the hose tube, near one or both ends of the hose. The coolant seeps through these cracks and attacks the hose reinforcement as it wicks along the length of the hose. The condition eventually results in a pinhole leak or a burst hose at failure.

The best way to check coolant hose for the effects of ECD is to squeeze the hose near the clamps or connectors. If the ends are soft and feel mushy, chances are the hose is under attack by ECD.

A replacement interval of four years for all coolant carrying hoses — especially the upper radiator, bypass and heater hoses — can help prevent unexpected failure from ECD.

Gates says the incidence of hose failure increases sharply after four years for most vehicles.