A car is much more than a means of transportation. A car is an engineering masterpiece. Many of us don’t ever stop to consider what is going on under the hood, and there is nothing wrong with that, but having a basic understanding of what is happening can make it easier to diagnose problems when they occur.
You can count on cars to do two things: they will move and they will break. The cars of today will not last forever. Manufacturers are getting better at extending the average life of a vehicle, but they do break down, from time to time.
Underneath the hood is a very complex machine. In order for your vehicle to run properly, there are several things going on at once. One part depends on another part in order to keep everything working together. It only takes one malfunctioning part to bring the vehicle to a stop. This may seem like a bad design, but that is how things are.
There are some parts that break more often than others. One of these parts happens to be the alternator. What is an alternator, and more importantly, how do you know if the alternator in your vehicle is bad? Keep reading to find out.
What Is the Alternator?
You can think of the alternator as a mini generator under the hood. It has one purpose and that is to make sure your car battery has enough electricity to power the car. If the alternator in your vehicle is bad, the battery will quickly die and the vehicle will no longer work.
How Does the Alternator Work?
With all the talk of hybrid cars and cars running on electricity, you may be surprised that your gas-powered vehicle will not get very far without some electricity. It needs some juice in order for the engine to properly run, and to power all of the accessories, such as: headlights, radios and other gadgets. Your car has a battery, but all of these items would quickly drain the battery. That is where the alternator comes in.
The alternator uses the power from the engine to constantly charge the battery. Without a battery, you will not be able to start your car. Without an engine, the alternator will not be able to constantly charge the battery. One will not work without the other.
What Are the Symptoms of a Bad Alternator?
The most obvious symptom of a bad alternator is that your car won’t start. There are several things that can cause this to happen, so don’t automatically assume that your alternator is bad if your vehicle will not start.
If your battery keeps dying, even after you have replaced it with a new one, then your alternator may be bad. The only real way to know if your alternator is bad is to have it tested. Don’t worry. If your alternator is bad, you can find a replacement at one of the many online auto parts stores.
Testing Your Alternator
With a digital multimeter, you can test your alternator. This device allows you to measure the electrical current that is flowing through your alternator. Keep in mind that this test takes two people to perform. One person will need to start the car and rev up the engine, while the other person checks the reading on the multimeter. Once the car has been started, open the hood and secure it. Locate the battery under the hood. Set your digital multimeter to measure voltage. Touch the red (positive) lead of the multimeter to the red (positive) lead on the battery. Touch the black (negative) lead from the multimeter to the black (negative) lead on the battery. The multimeter should read a voltage of 13.5 to 14.4 volts. Have whoever started the car rev the engine and keep a close eye on the multimeter reading. If the number falls below 13, then your alternator is most likely bad.
Should You Replace the Alternator Yourself?
If you have worked under the hood before, then replacing the alternator should not be a problem. If you have never worked under the hood before, the alternator may or may not be the best first choice. It really depends on the vehicle. On some vehicles, you will have easy access to the alternator. There may only be a couple of bolts, one belt, and a couple of wires to remove. On other vehicles, you may have to remove quite a few components just to get to the alternator. If you want to tackle the job yourself, you can find a replacement alternator online or try visiting a local auto parts store.
A properly functioning alternator is necessary to keep your vehicle on the street. Without it, your vehicle won’t be able to do what it was designed for: driving.
About the Author: Ben Foster is a contributing author who now manages a family-owned and operated body shop. Ben says that one of the most incorrectly-diagnosed vehicular problems is a bad alternator, which is sometimes mistaken for a dead battery. He advises: Go see a professional!