What Happens When Cam Phasers Go Bad? [In-depth Explanation]

When cam phasers go wrong, your vehicle’s VCT (Variable Control Timing) and ECU (Engine Control Unit) get damaged. This adversely affects the engine’s timing and causes irritating cam phaser noise. A recent study by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that faulty phasers caused 15% of all auto-braking system accidents.  

If you don’t repair or replace worn-out and malfunctioning cam phasers, your car’s engine will eventually get damaged.

This article guides you on how bad the condition is, what causes phaser problems, how to diagnose those issues, and how to repair or replace defective cams.

what happens when cam phasers go wrong
When cam phasers go wrong, your vehicle’s VCT and ECU get damaged

What Happens When Cam Phasers Go Bad?

A cam phaser is essentially a sprocket, operated and controlled by your vehicle’s PCM (Powertrain Control Module). Also known as a camshaft actuator or camshaft phaser, this part help adjust the camshaft’s phase vis-à-vis the crankshaft, thus modifying the valve timing.

When cam phasers go wrong, the VCT system of your vehicle does not function properly owing to damaged solenoids. A malfunctioning VCT, in turn, makes the intake and exhaust valves go out of phase, eventually causing ignition timing problems. So you’ll find it challenging to start your vehicle or bring it to a stop in case you’re driving.

You’ll hear irritating noises or clatters if your pickup or car has developed a cam phaser problem. You may listen to a shrill drumming noise or an annoying knocking from the camshaft valves. The annoying phaser noise occurs chiefly because the ignition timing goes out of sync. We’ll talk about the signs of this problem later.

The excessive cam noise could be due to a problem concerning lubrication. If you leave the problem unattended, then you may have to put up with more severe issues, and finally, engine damage.

Will Bad Cam Phasers Damage The Engine? 

The answer is YES.

The result of a cam phaser failure is that your vehicle’s engine goes out of order. Camshaft phasers, by and large, are responsible for causing approximately 35% of all engine failures.  

When noticing your cam phasers go bad, your vehicle’s electric control unit’ will try its best to keep the engine in working order. The ECU will make your car go into a limp or safe mode preventing the engine from going beyond a particular rpm. And a low rpm means less engine power which eventually minimizes the chances of engine damage.

Additionally, the ECU will develop a code and enlighten the ‘check engine light’ feature.

The cam also goes into default mode preventing the phasers from contacting the connecting rods and pistons. Therefore, when you rev up the engine for acceleration, you’ll experience a power loss.

How Do I Know If My Cam Phasers Are Bad?

There are some telltale signs and symptoms that’ll let you know your cam phasers are not in working order. Some common signs that indicate the phasers are not working correctly are as follows:

bad cam phasers symptoms
There are signs that’ll let you know your cam phasers are not in working order.

Illumination of Check Engine Light 

The vehicle’s ECU will go into limp or safe mode, indicating that the cams are not usually working. In such an eventuality, you’ll struggle to make your car’s engine exceed a certain rpm. This will cause the ECU to display an error code followed by a glowing of the ‘check engine light.’

Cam Noise or Clicking Engine Sound

You can safely assume that your vehicle’s phasers are not functioning appropriately on hearing knocking noise from the engine. It could be because the phasers have undergone heavy wear and tear or low oil pressure.

Decreased oil pressure usually occurs because of the erosion of the cam gearwheels atop the heads of cylinders.

Decreased Engine Power

Another telltale sign that the phasers in your car’s internal combustion engine are not working correctly is decreased engine power. Numerically or mechanically speaking, you’ll not be able to accelerate your vehicle’s engine over 40 RPM. 

So, will lousy cam phasers damage the engine? Yes, as discussed above, if you don’t fix the problem or replace the flawed camshaft phaser, the engine will go kaput.  

Reduced Performance of Engine

You’ll find it challenging to start your engine and have to struggle with bringing the vehicle to a stop. The engine will misfire more often than not, and you may also face a problem in accelerating the car smoothly.

Less Fuel Economy

You’ll notice that the mileage you’re getting for every liter of fuel is gradually decreasing. And a reduced mileage implies that your cumulative gas expenses keep going up accordingly. You can set up an eco graph meter in your vehicle for keeping track of gas mileage or fuel economy.

Other Defective Cam Phaser Signs

Worn-out phasers, by and large, give off a raucous and unbearable rasping noise. Sometimes, your ears will pick up a coarse idle or rattling sound or knocking noise. However, the grating sound of the cam phasers often results from low lubricant pressure.

The low pressure of lubricant usually occurs because of the cams putting up with wear and tear of the cylindrical heads. If that is the case, you’ll need to replace the tops of the cylinders or at least machine or bevel them. Ford had to deal with a grave cam phaser issue for the first time in 2006.

The incident involved the V-8 5.4L engine integrated with VVT phasers that became defective and noisy. The automaker at last phased out the 5.4L engine once and for all.  

What Causes Cam Phaser Failure?

Camshaft phasers can fail due to an eroded timing chain, low oil pressure, and a host of other engine-related issues.

Sludge and Grime

Sludge or grime inside the engine lubrication system will prevent the smooth flow of oil, causing the phasers to malfunction.

Electrical Control Unit Issues

Your car’s ECU or pickup is responsible for making the cams work optimally. So it’s evident that the cam phasers will start failing once the electrical control unit cannot control them.

Defective Gearwheels

There’s a high likelihood of the camshaft-phasers breaking down if the sprocket or gearwheels become abraded and depleted.

Infrequent Oil Change

Make sure you replace the oil periodically so that the phasers keep working smoothly. Always use engine oil of good quality and see that you thoroughly clean the lubrication system.

Not Using a High-Quality Lubricant

Since the car engine operates at extremely high temperatures, you must use top-quality oil for diminishing cam phaser abrasion. High-quality oil ensures a suitable level of viscosity which in turn guarantees ample oil pressure. If you use poor quality oil, the cam phasers will work or respond slower than usual and become nonfunctional. 

Inadequate Oil Pressure

Cam phasers need to be powered at an appropriate time for which sufficient oil pressure is required. Inadequate or low lubricant pressure could gradually lead to cam phaser damage. You also risk damaging your phasers if you use dirty oil or if the oil pump fails to work correctly.

Camshaft-phasers, constructed from metals, are also liable to wear and tear from within owing to insufficient oil pressure. Thus the engine oil not performing optimally is another reason why cam phasers may fail eventually.

Can A Cam Phaser Be Fixed?

Can you fix a cam phaser? Yes, you can, but to repair spoiled cam phasers, you’ll first have to identify the problem. Sometimes the cams could be damaged beyond repair, and replacing them would be your only option in such an eventuality.

How to Diagnose Cam Phaser Failure

The following is a stepwise procedure for diagnosing cam phaser failure:

Step 1: At the very outset, you’ll require a scanning tool to accurately detect the reason behind the collapse of the cam phaser. This scan tool offers applicable OBD2 codes that come in handy for getting to the issue’s root. At the same time, these codes provide you with other relevant information for spotting the actual problem.

Step 2: In this step, check and confirm the engine oil’s viscosity and pressure using an oil pressure gauge.

Step 3: The 3rd step involves inspecting the filter screens inside the hydraulic channels and VCT solenoids.

Step 4: Examine whether the wirings and electrical elements are in working order. 

How to Fix Cam Phaser Noise [Short Term Method]

You’ll need:

  • Vice grips
  • Screwdriver
  • Bar breaker
  • Safety gloves

Treating the cam phasers with eco-friendly oil is a very cost-effective DIY method for fixing the noise issue:

Step 1: Put on safety gloves and use a wooden blocker for blocking the rear tires. Next, lift the pickup or car with the help of a carjacking. 

Step 2: You’ll need a ratchet wrench (14mm) for loosening and taking out the drain plug. Ensure to use an oil pan for collecting the leaking oil.

Step 3: Allow 8-10 minutes to let the oil flow out completely.

Step 4: Reach the bolt on the oil pipe and use a clean, dry cloth to wipe off the dirty oil. Affix a new oil filter using a daub of oil.

Step 5: Raise the hood covering the engine and keep the cover in that position. Next, remove the wooden blocks and the carjack from the vehicle. Now carefully pour the eco-friendly motor oil and make sure not to use any additives.

Step 7: Wait for about 5-10 minutes, and after that, inspect the oil level with the help of a dipstick. Now clean the engine’s surface thoroughly and close the engine’s cap and hood.  

Step 8: Next, start the engine and keep it idle to warm up the motor effectively. See if your car is producing annoying noise, and if it still does, go on to the final step.

Step 9: Repeat the oil treatment procedure and restart the engine keeping it running for some time. Hopefully, you’ll not hear the exasperating cam phaser noise with the same intensity as before.

Quick Fix with Cam Phaser Lockout

If you’re looking to eliminate the clicking noise of the engine and boost its performance, then opt for a cam phaser lockout.

epsoak epsom salt 5 lb

E-cowlboy Cam Phaser Lock Out Kit

SaltWorks Epsom Premium Salt 2 lb

Yoursme Cam Phaser Lock Out Kit

Solimo Epsom Salt Soak 8 lb

Y-autopart Cam Phaser Lockouts Kit

Cam lockout kits are your best bet when it comes to repairing a camshaft phaser quickly and effectively. Let’s explore why you should choose cam phasers lockout for a quick cam fix: 

☑️ Highly affordable: $30 – $100

☑️ Does away with knocking completely

☑️ Decreased maintenance costs

☑️ Boosts vehicle efficiency

☑️ Better mileage at low RPM

Read more: Ford SYNC Phone Button Not Working: Quick Fix Guide

Cam Phaser Replacement Guide [Long Term Method]

If you’re driving an old vehicle, there’s a good chance that cam phasers are depleted and damaged. Your car’s engine could be functioning optimally even when the phasers get jammed. In such a scenario, fixing cams will not help, thus necessitating you to replace them to prevent exhaust and intake valve failure.

Cam Phaser Replacement Cost

The tentative cost of replacing a worn-out and defective cam phaser varies based on your vehicle’s make, year, and model. Expect to pay anything from $800-$2,500 for a replacement which includes labor and parts.

Step by Step How-To-Guide

1. Open bonnet for disconnecting the car battery and remove the air intake tube.

2. Look for three 10mm bolts on the reservoir for power steering. Unscrew them. Then look for two 13mm fasteners and one 18mm fastener on the steering bracket. Unfasten them.

3. Next, detach the PVC (positive crankcase ventilation) atop the valve cover. Detach electrical components and the wiring on the valve cover of the driver’s end.

4. Disconnect the PMC and remove the mounting bracket.

5. Tag plugs with markers and duct tapes for simple reconnection.

6. Use a good air compressor to remove dirt from the valve cover. This’ll stop dirt from entering the valve train when detaching the cover.

7. Now loosen the valve cover’s 8 mm bolts. 

8. The dipstick tube located close to the engine block has an 8mm bolt. Unfasten and remove this bolt without removing the dipstick tube.

9. Next, disengage bunches of the ignition coil and the VCT solenoid. 

10. Raise the VCT solenoid cover very cautiously to not damage to it.

11. Place the wedge tool carefully between the two halves of the chain. 

12. Use a cylindrical dowel pin for pinpointing the camshaft phaser’s position vis-à-vis the camshaft and timing chain.

13. Use a bar breaker and vice grips for slackening off the bolts of the cam phaser.

14. Detach cam phaser bolts and remove phaser from the camshaft with care. While drawing, try to detach the timing chain from the cogwheel. 

15. Carefully slot in the new cam aligning the phaser appropriately with a dowel pin. Ensure that the new cam is installed precisely in the same way as the one it replaces.

Tighten new phaser bolts to a torque of around 30ft-lbs. Use a torque wrench for tightening and vice grips to hold the cam against the engine’s casing.

Let’s see how to replace the Ford 5.4L 3v camshaft phaser.

How to Prevent Future Cam Phaser Failure?

You can prevent future cam phaser failure if:

  •  You periodically clean or replace the VCT solenoids
  • The filter is changed from time to time
  • A high-end engine is used
  • Engine oil is changed frequently

Which Years of Ford Trucks Had Cam Phasers Issues?

Are you looking to buy an older Ford car or pickup model? Several Mercury, Lincoln, and Ford vehicle models from around 2002 till 2014, mostly found with the 5.4L engine, were bogged with problems involving cam phasers.

To do away with issues surrounding cams, Ford Motor Company discontinued production of the 5.4L engine for good. Anyway, let’s check the list of Ford cam phaser problem years:

2004 – 2014 Lincoln Navigator (5.4L)      
2005 – 2014 Ford Expedition (5.4L)

2006 – 2010 Mercury Mountaineer (4.6L)

2005-2010 Ford Mustang GT (4.6L)

2004-2010 Ford F-350 (5.4L)   
2004-2010 Ford F-250 (5.4L)

2007-2010 Ford Explorer Sport Trac (4.6L)

2006-2010 Ford Explorer (4.6)

2009-2010 Ford F-150 (4.6L)

2004-2010 Ford F-150 (5.4L)

Final Thoughts

The above review explores ‘what happens when cam phasers go bad’ in threadbare detail. You’ll not be able to drive safely for long if you do not fix or replace the camshaft-phasers. At the same time, you’ll have to tolerate the rasping and knocking sounds of bad camshaft-phasers.

Opting for a cam phaser lockout kit is a practical solution if you want to prevent or reduce further damage. Of course, going for a complete replacement is your last option.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Does A Bad Cam Phaser Sound Like?

Damaged or broken cam phasers make sounds resembling a wail, screech, moan or squeal. Sometimes a flawed cam phaser might compare the sound of a dynamo, telephone, or motorcar. Strictly speaking, the noises made by cam phasers may vary from one brand to another.

What Does It Mean to Cam a Car?

When your cam your vehicle, you enhance the duration of the valves staying open. In the automotive industry, ‘camming’ a vehicle means boosting the timing and lift. The chief objective behind camming a car is to increase the vehicle’s performance.

What Happens If You Don’t Replace Cam Phasers?

If you don’t replace cam phasers, you’ll face the following problems:-

  • Exhaust valve timing issues
  • Stuck cams 
  • Stuck phasers damaging the exhaust and intake valves
  • Engine power loss
  • Engine tuning problem due to flawed timing   

How Long Can You Drive With Bad Cam Phasers?

The period you can continue driving your pickup with bad cam phasers differs from one vehicle to another. For instance, if you have a late Ford 6.8L, 5.4L, or 4.6L model, you’ll have to tolerate excessive noise at idle.

What Year Did Ford Stop Using Cam Phasers?

Ford phased out cam phasers fully from 2005 onwards, replacing them with turbocharged turbos.

How Long Does It Take To Replace Cam Phasers?

It takes approximately 4 hours to replace the old cam phaser with a premium cam phaser.

Will Damaged Cam Phasers Throw A Code?

Yes, if and when a cam phaser becomes impaired or broken, the cam usually throws up error codes. You’ll have to interpret the code to understand the real issue and find a solution.

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