The Electrical System on your vehicle can be tricky to diagnose! Knowledge is power when it comes to your car’s Battery and Electrical System. In fact, it is your ride’s heart and soul. The last thing you want is to be left stranded with a dead Battery. The more you know about your Battery and Electrical System, the less likely you will get stuck.
At Boggs Automotive, we are here to help you understand just what’s going on with your vehicle’s Battery and Electrical System.
How exactly does a Car Battery work?
The Car Battery provides a jolt of electricity necessary to power all the electrical components in your vehicle. Talk about a pretty huge responsibility! Without Battery power, your car will not start.
Let’s take a look at how that powerful little box works:
A chemical reaction puts your car into action. Your Battery converts chemical energy into the electrical energy necessary to power your car, delivering voltage to the starter.
Keep the electric current steady:
Not only does your Battery provide the energy required to start your car, it’s also stabilizing the voltage (that’s the term for the energy supply) in order to keep your engine running. A lot is riding on the Battery!
The Car Battery may be small, but the power it provides is huge!
Are there any warning signs that may indicate my Battery is on the fritz?
- Slow engine crank: When you attempt to start the vehicle, the cranking of the engine is sluggish and takes longer than normal to start. You’d best describe it as the “rur rur rur” starting noise sound.
- Check engine light:The check engine light sometimes appears when your Battery power is weak. Strange system indicator lights such as check engine and low coolant lights could mean there is a problem with your Battery. (It could also mean you just need more coolant).
- Low Battery Fluid Level: Car Batteries typically have a part of the casing that’s translucent so you can always keep an eye on your Battery’s fluid level. You can also inspect it by removing the red and black caps if they are not sealed (most modern Car Batteries now permanently seal these parts).
- Bottom line: If the fluid level is below the lead plates (energy conductor) inside, it is time to have the Battery and charging system tested. When fluid levels drop, it is typically caused by overcharging (heat).
- Swelling, Bloating Battery Case: If your Battery casing looks like it ate a very large meal, this could indicate a Battery gone bad. You can blame excessive heat for causing your Battery case to swell, decreasing your Battery
- Stinky, rotten egg smell:You may notice a pungent, rotten egg smell (sulfur odor) around the Battery. The cause: Battery Leaking also causes the corrosion around the posts (where the (+) and (-) cable connections are located). The gunk may need to be removed or your car may not start.
- If your Battery is 3 years old: Three years for a Battery age is considered an old timer. Your Battery can last well beyond three years but, at the very least, have its current condition inspected on a yearly basis when it reaches the three year mark. Battery life cycles range from three-to-five years depending on the Battery. However, driving habits, weather and frequent short trips (under 20 minutes) can drastically shorten the actual life of your Car Battery.
Can a bad battery harm the charging system or starter?
When you have a weak Battery, your car ends up putting additional stress on healthy parts. The charging system, starter motor or starter solenoid can be affected. These parts can malfunction because they’re drawing excessive voltage to compensate for the lack of Battery power. Leave this problem unresolved, and you could wind up replacing expensive electrical parts–typically without warning.
How exactly does an Alternator work?
An Alternator keeps your car battery charged. It also provides power to operate your lights and other electric accessories while your car is running.
An Alternator is an A/C generator. Cars used to have DC generators, since cars run off DC current. The reason manufacturers went to Alternators is that they charge better at low RPM’s. An Alternator also runs less power through the brushes. A generator needs periodic brush replacement, because its DC output all goes through the brushes. In an Alternator a much smaller current is fed through the brushes to the rotating field windings, so they last longer.
The A/C output of the Alternator is changed to DC by rectifier diodes in the Alternator, so a car Alternator really puts out DC power.
How do you know if your alternator isn’t giving your battery enough electricity?
- The electrical system is possessed. Strange flickering lights or warning lights such as ’Check Engine’ flicker, disappear, and then reappear again. All these malfunctions usually start occurring when the car battery is nearly drained and struggling to provide power. If the Alternator is faulty, your battery will no longer receive a charge and is moments away from being totally kaput.
- The Slow Crank. You’re starting your car, and it keeps turning and turning, eventually starting–or not. This could mean your Alternator isn’t charging your battery properly. If you start experiencing the possessed electrical system as well, please stop in to Boggs Automotive. Your car could be moments away from a dead Battery and Alternator.
How exactly does a car starter work?
When you turn the key in your car’s ignition, the engine turns over and then cranks. However, getting it to crank is actually much more involved than you might think. It requires a flow of air into the engine, which can only be achieved by creating suction (the engine does this when it turns over). If your engine isn’t turning, there’s no air. No air means that fuel can’t combust. The Starter motor is responsible for turning the engine over during ignition and allowing everything else to happen.
Your Starter is really an electric motor. It engages when you turn the ignition to “run” and turns the engine over allowing it to suck in air. On the engine, a flexplate or flywheel, with a ring gear around the edge, is attached to the end of the crankshaft. On the starter, there’s a gear designed to fit into the grooves of the ring gear (the Starter gear is called a pinion gear).
When you turn the ignition switch, the Starter motor is energized, and the electromagnet inside the body engages. This pushes out a rod to which the pinion gear is attached. The gear meets the flywheel, and the Starter turns. This spins the engine over, sucking in air (as well as fuel). At the same time, electricity is sent through the spark plug wires to the plugs, igniting the fuel in the combustion chamber.
As the engine turns over, the Starter disengages, and the electromagnet stops. The rod retracts into the Starter once more, taking the pinion gear out of contact with the flywheel and preventing damage. If the pinion gear remained in contact with the flywheel, it’s possible that the engine would spin the Starter too fast, causing damage to it.
Use your ears and headlights to help diagnose your starter system!
Even with decent maintenance, the different system components get a lot of wear during their service life and are bound to start having problems eventually. Problems may show up as a no-crank or slow-cranking condition, caused by a worn-out component, a bad electrical connection, or an undercharged or failed battery.
Troubleshooting the Starter is actually relatively easy, compared to other electrical systems in your vehicle. This system can give you some clues about the type of problem you are facing. And, armed with your car repair manual, you may be able to make the necessary fixes to get your car going again.
So here are some of the most common symptoms you may notice when having troubles with the Starter in your car.
Sounds and their possible meanings:
- “I just hear a whirring sound!”
- Car Starter motors use a small device called an overrunning clutch, or one-way clutch. When you turn the ignition key to the run position, the Starter solenoid interlocks the Starter’s pinion gear with the flywheel on the engine to rotate the engine at “cranking speed”. Once the engine starts and exceeds cranking speed, the overrunning clutch releases the pinion gear from the flywheel.However, if the solenoid mechanism is too worn to engage the flywheel, all you’ll hear is a swishing sound as the armature in the Starter spins all by itself, unable to crank the engine to a start. So this sound may indicate that the solenoid in the Starter is worn out.
- “I hear a buzzing sound!”
- Sometimes you just hear a buzzing sound. Electrical current is making it to the Starter solenoid, but all it does is try unsuccessfully to activate the solenoid’s plunger to engage the pinion gear and flywheel. This is failure is usually caused by poor current flow due to low battery charge or poor electrical connections along the starting circuit, including corroded battery terminals.
- “I hear a loud click!”
- On the other hand, if you can hear a single, solid click, the starter circuit may be getting enough current, but you may have a bad starting motor, bad solenoid, or even an engine mechanical problem.
- “It’s more like a grinding noise!”
- If you hear a harsh or grinding noise as you try to crank up the engine, you may have a loose Starter motor (mounting bolts), or a flywheel or pinion gear with broken or worn-out teeth. If the gears on the flywheel and pinion aren’t able to mesh properly, all you hear is the sound of metal teeth clashing loudly.
Using your headlights as a diagnostic tool
Now you have an idea about what may be the cause of your starting system problem. But, is there a way you can confirm your suspicions?
Actually there is. And you don’t need special equipment either. Let’s use your car’s headlights to confirm your tentative diagnosis.
The test: Have a willing assistant turn on the headlights and try to start the engine, as you stand in front of your car, what do you see?
“My Headlights Don’t Work.”
If you hear no sound, and the headlights don’t come on, you’re on the right track. Either:
- Your battery is dead,
- There’s an open circuit in the starter, or
- Corroded terminals (most commonly battery terminals) are preventing electrical current from reaching the starter motor and other systems.
“Cranking the Car Makes My Headlights Go Out.”
What if the headlights turn on OK, but go out as soon as your car starts cranking? There are several possibilities:
- Your battery may be undercharged.
- If your battery is properly charged, you could have a short in the starting motor that is causing it to draw too much current.
- Another possibility is that you may not be dealing with a starting system problem at all, but an engine problem.
- “My Headlights Are Fine, They Don’t Change.”
There’s the possibility that your headlights remain bright while your engine cranks poorly. Then, it’s likely you have an open circuit, or too much resistance in the circuit.
Check for a failing component, or corrosion at one or more of the system circuit connections, including the battery terminals.
Starting system problems are hard to diagnose sometimes, but paying attention to the symptoms will help you repair your car faster than you could otherwise. And not only that, it can help you save money in the process.
And if you are the DIY type or are mechanically inclined, having the repair manual for your particular car make and model can greatly help you zero in on the root cause of the problem and get it fixed, even if you don’t have much car repair experience.