While gas makes your car go, it’s electrical, not combustion-generated, energy that powers all the electronics in your car (and starts the combustion cycle). To power them up and keep them running, your vehicle relies on two main components—the battery and the alternator. If you’re having electrical issues, either component could be at fault. But, there are some easy diagnostics you can run in the driver’s seat to determine if it’s time to charge or replace your battery or troubleshoot the alternator.
Understanding Your Vehicle’s Electricity-Generating System
There’s a simple reason your vehicle needs both a battery and an alternator to power your electrical systems—a battery alone cannot sustain a charge long enough to keep the electrical systems running. The amount of energy required to operate the radio, Bluetooth-enabled infotainment system and powertrain control module (i.e. the computer that monitors your vehicle’s mechanical performance and trips dash lights when things are amiss) would drain your battery in a matter of minutes…maybe hours if you’re really lucky.
Because it’s not practical, cost-effective or environmentally friendly to change your car battery that frequently, you need a way to continually recharge it. That’s what the alternator does. By converting mechanical energy (the energy of movement) into electrical energy through a system of magnets and conductors, the alternator generates a current that continuously charges your battery when the vehicle is running.
Signs of Battery Failure
Your car battery has to have enough “juice” to supply the initial charge to get things started—ignition and any cabin electronics that can be switched on before ignition (like your radio, lights, fans…the stuff you can accidentally leave on overnight and kill your battery). So, if you experience problems with starting your vehicle or any electronic systems, the battery is likely the issue.
Often, battery failure is caused by easily remedied problems, like:
- Corrosion on the battery nodes, and that can be removed with baking soda and sometimes a little elbow grease (after the cables are disconnected, of course)
- Diminished charge that can be restored with a “jump” (all you need are jumper cables and a Good Samaritan)
If these DIY fixes don’t do the trick, then your battery may just be old. Batteries lose their ability to hold a charge as they age. On average, batteries last about five years, so if you’ve never replaced yours, it may just be that time.
Signs of Alternator Trouble
You are more likely to diagnose alternator problems if your car experiences problems sustaining electrical performance while running. So, your alternator may be going if you notice:
- Dashboard lights that gradually dim while your car is running
- Headlights that dim while your car is running and/or get brighter during acceleration
- Unexplained “flickering” performance of your stereo, clock or other infotainment displays
Sometimes alternator trouble can be detected by the smell of burning rubber (likely coming from the insulative coating of wires inside the alternator mechanism).
If you do have an alternator issue, DIY repairs are ill-advised. You will likely spare yourself a great deal of hassle, frustration and expense by taking your car to a reliable mechanic.
What All Signs Are Really Telling You
When your vehicle’s electrical systems are “on the fritz,” it’s distressing. You can get the right diagnosis and the right fix faster by taking your car to the ASE-certified technicians at Quanz Auto Body. If needed, we can provide towing and a courtesy ride to home or work until your vehicle’s ready to power on.