The serpentine belt, in some cases, can be extremely important while, in others, almost insignificant. At least, that’s how it is in regard to potential engine damage if it breaks or if you drive without one. But whatever the case may be for your specific vehicle, can you drive without a serpentine belt?
One thing is for certain; you won’t go far without a serpentine belt.
In case your car’s serpentine belt powers only the alternator, the power steering pump, and the AC compressor, you can drive a car without it, but not for long, plus the steering wheel will be very hard to turn. However, if the serpentine belt also powers the water pump, which is often the case, you can’t drive the car without it.
Serpentine Belt Explained
A lot of the car’s auxiliary systems and mechanical components run in a spinning motion, just like the engine. That means the simplest way to power them is to mount a pulley on each of them and run a belt from the crankshaft to them so that they run every time you start the engine.
Also, the serpentine belt is not to be confused with the timing belt, which powers the camshafts and has timing teeth that synchronize the crankshaft/pistons with the camshaft/valves.
Coming back to the serpentine belt, some of the components serpentine belt powers include the power steering pump, AC compressor, water pump, alternator, and in older cars, the radiator fan. However, the combination of these components can be different between car models.
For example, some cars have two serpentine belts where one is used to power only the AC compressor or only the alternator, while the second one powers the rest of the auxiliary systems.
However, some cars power the water pump off the timing belt and possibly some other components as well, which could be powered by the serpentine belt in other cars. The point is there are around half a dozen different belt combinations.
The serpentine belt will also run over one or more tensioner pulleys and one or more idler pulleys. The tensioner pulleys are spring-loaded and keep the serpentine belt tight, while idler pulleys are mounted on the engine block and are there only to route the serpentine belt. In other words, they are dead pulleys that don’t serve any purpose other than changing the serpentine belt’s path.
The said belts also come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from length, width, material, and even the mating surface shape. Most modern cars use a flat serpentine belt that typically has longitudinal grooves, while older cars use V-belts.
And although some might argue that V-belts are not the same thing as serpentine belts, they do serve the same purpose, with the only difference being the mating surface shape. The modern, flat serpentine belt is also called a Micro-V belt because those grooves we mentioned are in a V shape.
Can You Drive Without a Serpentine Belt?
As we already mentioned, the answer to the question “can you drive without a serpentine belt” depends on what it’s powering in your specific car. But let’s say that in the best-case scenario, it only powers the alternator because that’s the only component a serpentine belt can power without powering anything else.
In case some of our readers don’t know, the alternator is an electricity generator that charges the battery and powers all the electrical components in your car, including those related to the engine, like spark plugs, various sensors, the ECU (engine control unit), etc.
Also, if you are asking yourself, “can you start a car without a serpentine belt” the answer is positive. If we were to remove the serpentine belt or remove the alternator, the battery, if it’s healthy, would still hold enough charge to start the engine and keep it running. However, even if the battery was brand new and fully charged, you would be lucky to get 2-3 miles of driving before the battery drains and the car dies.
However, if the battery runs other auxiliary systems, which is the case in almost all cars built after the year 2000, the story is much different. For example, if the belt runs the power steering pump, you will be able to drive the car, but the steering wheel will be near impossible to turn. That’s especially true in newer cars that have a lot of positive caster.
Furthermore, the AC won’t work because it’s run off the serpentine belt as well, at least in most cars. But that’s not a big concern since you shouldn’t turn the blower, AC, lights, or any electrical system because without a serpentine belt, the alternator isn’t working, and you will drain the battery quicker.
And the most crucial component the serpentine belt powers, although not always, is the water pump. The water pump circulates the coolant through the engine in order to maintain it at its optimal working temperature, but more importantly, to keep it from overheating.
Considering that the water pump, in this case, isn’t working, the engine will overheat in a matter of minutes or in a matter of seconds if it has already reached the operating temperature.
Needless to say, you can’t drive with an overheating engine because it will stall very quickly, plus the overheating will quickly cause irreversible damage, or in the best-case scenario, $1,500 to $4,000 worth of damage, sometimes even more.
Lastly, if you are curious to find out what the serpentine belt powers in your car, simply do a quick google search with your car’s name, model year, and the term “serpentine belt routing.” Once you find a diagram, you will see all or some of the following terms.
- WP – Water Pump
- ALT or GN – Alternator
- PS – Power Steering Pump
- A/C – AC Compressor
- IDL – Idler Pulley
- TENS or TS – Tensioner Pulley
- CS – Crankshaft Pulley
Q: What happens if your serpentine belt breaks while driving?
If the serpentine belt breaks while driving, the first thing you will most likely notice is that the steering wheel has become extremely heavy because the power steering pump isn’t working. After that, the AC will stop working if it is on, and a minute or two later, the car might start overheating. Next, how far can you drive without a serpentine belt? You can drive for a couple of miles at most until the battery dies because the alternator isn’t working unless the engine overheats before that.
Q: How long can you drive without a serpentine belt?
You can drive for a couple of miles at the very most without a serpentine belt, but it’s much more likely that the car will stall after only half a mile. Also, if the serpentine belt is powering the water pump, the engine will overheat much before the car stalls.
Q: What happens if you don’t have a serpentine belt?
If you don’t have a serpentine belt because you removed it, the engine will still start assuming the battery is healthy. However, because the alternator isn’t working, the engine will drain the battery in a matter of a couple of miles if the engine doesn’t overheat before that, assuming the serpentine belt powers the water pump too.
Q: Can I drive with a broken serpentine belt?
Yes, technically, you can drive with a broken serpentine belt. But before you even think of starting the engine, make sure you remove all the pieces of the broken belt from the engine bay. After that, the car will still start if the battery is charged, but it will die after only one to two miles if the engine doesn’t overheat before that.
Q: How much does it cost to fix a serpentine belt?
Depending on what kind of car you drive, the cost to replace a serpentine belt can be anywhere between $50 and $200. For example, if you drive an older Honda Civic or any other small hatchback, the cost most likely won’t be over $70 to $100, while for virtually any premium European vehicle, the cost will be closer to $150 or $200.
In the end, we can safely say that yes, you can drive a car without a serpentine belt regardless of what kind of auxiliaries it’s powering. However, you won’t be driving for a long time because the battery will drain after only 1-3 miles, and the engine might overheat if the serpentine belt is powering the water pump.
In case you know, the serpentine belt isn’t powering the water pump in your car; it won’t hurt much to drive the car without one for those couple of miles before the battery dies. But before you do, make sure you can turn the steering wheel easily enough for the drive to be safe.
On the other hand, if you are not sure what it’s powering or you know for certain it’s powering the water pump, then it’s not worth the risk because driving your car in such a condition will irreversibly damage the engine.