What Is an Alternator?
The alternator is a major component of your car’s electrical system. It’s found in all cars that rely on gas power, with the exception of certain hybrid models. While your car is running, the alternator keeps your battery charging helps supply power to the rest of the vehicle.
Generally speaking, the alternator doesn’t need much maintenance. Unless there are defects in the part or it gets damaged in an accident, an alternator should last 10-15 years without needing repair. If it breaks down, the car will continue to run for a while, but it’s running off the battery at that point, so it will die eventually.
What Are the Signs of Alternator Problems?
You usually won’t know right away if there are alternator problems, but signs will start to show up relatively soon after they go bad. Here are a few to watch for.
1. Warning Lights Come On
Most cars made in the last decade have a warning light dedicated to warning you about a bad alternator. Usually, the light is shaped like a battery, though some lights say “Alt” or “Gen” (for alternator, or generator). A lot of people see this light and assume it means there’s a problem with a battery, but that’s not what it means. This light is usually hooked up to your car’s onboard computer. The sensor monitors the output of the alternator and if it goes above or below its preset safe limits, the light comes on. If you see this light, you need to get to a mechanic as soon as you can, because it means your car is likely to die soon.
2. Problems with the Lights
When your alternator goes bad, the car is forced to run purely on battery power. As the battery runs out, different systems in your car will start to run down. Usually, the first sign is the lights. The headlights, taillights, and internal lights will all dim and flicker as the power drains. Eventually, they will go out.
Some cars are programmed with power priorities. If so, the car will begin shutting down non-critical electrical systems before the lights, so you may notice your seat warmer or radio go off before you have problems with the lights.
3. Strange Noises
A lot of car problems cause strange noises and this is no exception. Generally, a failing alternator sounds like a growling or whining noise. This is caused by a problem with the belt system that keeps the alternator running. If left unchecked, this can cause further damage to the engine, eventually requiring replacement. When this happens, the whining will become a rattling sound, indicating that the engine bearings have been damaged.
Since a lot of car problems cause noises, this one only helps if you recognize other signs with it.
4. Bad Smell
When electrical components overheat, they produce a distinct smell as the wires begin to burn their insulation. If overheating is the problem, it might also smell like burning rubber, indicating that the belt system is being damaged. Bad smells are always a sign of serious issues with your car, so if you detect an odor that shouldn’t be there, get your car checked up immediately.
5. Stalling, or Starting Troubles
As I said earlier, a failed alternator means that your car has to run off its battery. This means that as the power drains the car will start stalling more often and have difficulty starting. You’ll find that you need to charge the battery more often just to keep using it. It can be difficult to tell the difference between battery and alternator troubles when this happens, but a good mechanic will check both possibilities. If you’re having this problem regularly, have your car looked at right away.
Come to Us
Unless you’re a trained mechanic, it can be very difficult to diagnose these problems on your own. There’s a lot of overlap in some symptoms when it comes to causes, so if you have any concerns, come in and see us. We’ll help get your car up an running again in no time. Get in touch with us to schedule an appointment any time.