Replacing Engine Accessory Components

Written by on December 8, 2013 in Campskunk with 17 Comments

I have had my 2003 Chevy Roadtrek for seven years and 113,000 miles now, and I have no complaints about the engine and transmission. All those years and miles, and I’ve never put a wrench on either, except for maintenance. What I have had to do, however, is replace some of the accessory drive components. Here’s my history with maintaining these items, along with a few pointers on how much use you can expect out of each.

Here's a typical serpentine accessory drive setup. Alternator is upper right, power steering right below that, air conditioning compressor is lower right, and the water pump pulley is in the center just above the crankshaft pulley.

Here’s a typical serpentine accessory drive setup for Chevy 6.0s. Alternator is upper right, power steering below that, air conditioning compressor is lower left, and the water pump pulley is in the center just above the crankshaft pulley.

Accessory drive components are those things that are mounted on the front of the engine, and are driven by the serpentine belt, changing the engine’s kinetic energy into various other forms of energy to help run your vehicle. They include the water pump, the alternator, the power steering pump, and the air conditioner compressor. Each is vital to operating your vehicle, and they’re all mounted in a modular fashion so that it’s not major surgery to replace them.

The two most vital are the alternator and the water pump/radiator fan. Back in the old days when cars were simple, there were three pulleys on the front of your car’s motor, and a V-belt, the precursor of the modern serpentine belt, running around them. The crankshaft pulley drove the alternator and water pump, and you had circulation for your engine coolant and air through the radiator, and electricity to run your ignition system. That’s basically all a car needed to keep running. Today, cars are too heavy to steer without power steering, and we’re all wilting blossoms who can’t live without air conditioning, so now we have four vital components, not two.

You may think it a bit excessive, but I replaced my alternator and fuel pump (an electrical pump in the fuel tank) a few years back while they were still going strong. Each of these is in the $150 price range. Throwing money away? Maybe. I will never know for sure, but losing either of these two components will stop you dead on the road wherever you are.  I go places where it’s a hundred miles or more to the nearest auto supply place, so I didn’t want to take a chance. They were middle aged by average component life standards (they’d both be expected to last about ten years), and I didn’t want to worry. So far so good – the new components have performed faultlessly.

Each of the other three components were replaced when they failed. The water pump started leaking three years ago, a little early since they usually last ten years or more, and it was an anxious moment when I looked down and saw the water temperature gauge in uncharted territory. One nice thing about the Roadtrek having an onboard supply of water is that you can just keep putting water in the coolant reservoir until you get to a place where you can repair your rig.  Water pumps cost maybe $60-70.

Your average power steering pump. The pulley goes on the shaft, and fluid reservoir encloses the whole pump assembly.

Your average power steering pump. The pulley goes on the shaft, and fluid reservoir encloses the whole pump assembly.

The power steering pump didn’t exactly fail – it started leaking after eight years or so, and I hate a messy engine, so I replaced it a couple of years ago. They’re really nuisance money- maybe $40 for a rebuilt pump with reservoir, ready to bolt on, so it was an easy decision.  The air conditioning compressor crapped out a year and a half ago, but I’m never in too hot a climate, so I just waited until I got back to my relative’s house in Florida for a convenient workplace rather than replace it while on the road.   They’re a trifle spendy – about $220 for the compressor, and figure spending $300 by the time you buy all the other stuff and get it recharged with Freon.   But it sure is nice to have air conditioning again after a few months without it.  AC compressors usually last a dozen years or so – less in Florida where they’re in use almost all year.

Is this a lot of work? Accessory component failure is frequent enough to be annoying, but it’s what you do unless you want to trade your vehicle in every year or two and let someone else worry about it. I am closing in on 140,000 miles and am very happy with my rig. All in all, I spend a lot of time enjoying it, and relatively little time working on it and spending money on it – a much better ratio than back when I was young and my cars were all older than I was.  You just have to realize that component failure is part of the automotive life cycle.

To keep your serpentine belt drive system happy, you also have to keep your eye on the idler and tensioner pulleys. These position the belt to best drive the accessories and also maintain proper belt tension. They are also nuisance money (less than $50), last ten years or so, and bolt on easily.

And now my power steering pump is starting to make some bearing noise on cold mornings. I looked at the receipts I saved – yep, 3 years and 36,000 miles for the parts warranty. They sure timed that one precisely.  Oh well, time to get the tool box out again.  It’s a one hour job, and it’ll last another three years or so.



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About the Author

About the Author: "Campskunk" is a blissfully retired former public servant who has left the challenges of how to run the government to younger and less cynical hands, and wanders the continent in his Roadtrek Class B RV with his wife and cat. In addition to his work in the public sector, he has also at various times been a mechanic and delivery driver, skills which come in handy in his new role. Because his former job involved the forensic evaluation and sometimes the subsequent detention of some not-so-nice people, he uses the name Campskunk instead of his legal name on the Internet. His was not the type of job where customer service feedback would be welcome. .

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17 Reader Comments

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  1. Maureen says:

    I always enjoy your articles Campskunk, even though I don’t fully understand them. I realize it would help for me to take an overview mechanic’s course so I’m off to search for just that. Brings me back to the time I briefly owned a “Nash Metropolitan” way back when which stalled constantly. I learned to fix it by adjusting “something or other” under the hood. It definitely was a guy magnet as I must have looked pretty helpless trying to fix this silly little car myself. I wish I had it today! Thanks again. Oh, if you are interested, the Nash was salmon pink and white.

    • Campskunk says:

      i never worked on them, but those nash metropolitans were starter cars for many a young person. i remember the salmon and white- there was also an aqua and white. the typical paint job was white over some pastel color. this was the american car manufacturers’ first attempt to make a small car, and they obviously had a lot to learn ;-)

  2. Ronald says:

    Do you think the the mercedes would have better build quality,also in places where salt is used on roads would you recommend an oil spray for corrosion,is your chevy rust free? Thanks for your input

    • Campskunk says:

      hi ronald. i have worked on chevys and on mercedes, and mercedes are waaaay better on build quality. there’s just a lot better engineering in the mercedes- they are selling to an entirely different market than chevy is. of course, parts are a lot more, so maintenance costs aren’t as different as you would expect. i don’t know much about salt on roads, being from the south, but i know it definitely eats cars from what i have seen in the northern states. i took all the interior panels out of my Roadtrek and sprayed a waxy/oily product on the interior panels and seams, plus treated the bottom, since on a vehicle like Roadtrek you have a bigger investment and want it to last as long as possible. if i were in a northern climate i’d definitely take steps to rustproof my Roadtrek. i get a little surface rust here and there and treat it annually, but no major panel or structural problems so far.

  3. CS, you missed describing the ‘life cycle’ you have experienced with the one key component you keep referring to: the serpentine belt. Approximately how long is their lifespan?

    And might you have an opinion on the reliability of two engines Chevy offers for these big chassis – the V8 and V10 models? Same same? Or is that V8 likely to be worked harder and die sooner?

    Please keep ‘em coming. Your posts are the spicy dash of reality that we benefit from in this roadtreking stew.

    • Campskunk says:

      i carry the last serpentine belt i took off as a spare, and replace at 60,000 mile/4 year intervals, because i don’t see a replacement interval in the manual, and nothing lasts forever. put a new one on and carry the old one is my policy. the AC compressor is a separate belt so i carry one of those too.

      i really don’t have any experience with bigger engines, but i like the reassurance of having a middle-of-the-run engine they made a million of. the 6.0 did its teething in the Silverado pickups for a few years before it showed up in the vans, so even though 2003 was the first year for this engine in the Express they already had had an opportunity to correct any teething problems. if you drive it right and keep an eye on transmission temperature these vans won’t be overworked with the 6.0 or even the 4.8 engine. if you hotrod it, you can blow up anything, and at these chassis weights it’s easy to overwork any engine.

  4. Ronald says:

    Thank you,salt is a problem,and being near the ocean can have corrosion problems,I agree with your comparison with the mercedes,the diesel engines last longer,and require last maintenance,however the cost difference is too much.

  5. Lisa Gruner says:

    CS, didn’t you get the engine alternator added to your RT? Thinking about adding one to our RS but not being a mechanic I’m not sure what’s involved. Would you help me understand?

    • campskunk says:

      installing the engine generator is a two-step process – getting it mounted on the engine and modifying the belt drive is the first, and modifying the coach electrical system to use the additional power generated is the other. the engine generator is mounted in position so that the serpentine belt drives it, and one of the idler pulleys is also replaced so that the belt routing will work. a longer belt is needed because of the extra length of the belt path to go around the added components. that’s the easy part. the hard part is the hardware and software necessary to make the whole electrical system work, and is a black art known only by the gnomes in Kitchener.

    • Jack Tyler says:

      I agree that the mechanical part of upgrading one’s electrical system is the ‘easy part’. But what might seem a ‘black art’ and innovation on the part of Roadtrek with their eTrek is already a well-plowed field for several decades in boating, most specifically in the offshore cruising crowd. When you inherit an AC-DC electrical system from a boat manufacturer, it’s typically generic in form to meet the typical marina-anchor overnight-marina use pattern and very similar to the typical RV system. But when you go off the grid for years at a time, you need to adapt – actually upgrade and expand – that generic system to meet a much broader set of needs, most especially self-sufficiency. Having done that myself, I found the most important ingredient was to first spend time understanding how the various DC and AC systems work, both individually and together. In offshore sailing circles, the ‘bible’ on AC-DC systems – which are engine- and house battery bank-dependent just like an RV – is Nigel Calder’s ‘Boatowner’s Mechanical & Electrical Manual’. Clearly written and well illustrated & diagrammed, that’s where I suggest you begin if you want to illuminate the ‘black art’. There’s really no mystery to it.
      http://www.barnesandnoble.com/listing/2694962166515?r=1&cm_mmca2=pla&cm_mmc=GooglePLA-_-TextBook_NotInStock_26To75-_-Q000000633-_-2694962166515

      • Campskunk says:

        boat owners are facing a similar situation to off-the-grid Roadtrek types – the stock charging system is designed to keep one starting battery charged, and we want to charge a huge bank of deep-cycle batteries with minimal engine run time. the original system just won’t do this. boating solutions are typically aimed at the charging profile, with programmable voltage regulators like the Xantrex alternator regulators – http://www.xantrex.com/power-products/power-accessories/alternator-regulator.aspx – or the Sterling alternator-to-battery charger – http://www.sailmagazine.com/boatworks-projects-electronics/hard-charging . these work great for P-type alternators, but the Roadtrek system is… different. it’s a truly unique approach.

        • Jack Tyler says:

          Boat systems for distance cruising must address multiple issues; the charging profile is important but only one piece of the puzzle. Calder’s guide addresses bothP and N type alternator asexsydtems and, in Ny event, understanding how these components work will help anyone be a better shopper and know what they truly need.

  6. Maureen Wetteland says:

    Interesting both you and deb posted pictures of babies

  7. David Norman says:

    Very good article and great advice. Preventative maintenance is better than being stranded.

  8. David Norman says:

    Very good article and great advice. Preventative maintenance is better than being stranded.

  9. David Lockwood says:

    What is the overall best road trek RV unit for comfort and part time living, site seeing results??

  10. Very nicely done article!!!

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