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Your car turns on and off and takes you where you need to go daily. This machine is intricate, with thousands of parts working together. Unfortunately, one slip-up can send you to the mechanic. One problem you may run into is an issue with your alternator. The cost of a car alternator can be hefty, so diagnosing and fixing the problem is essential. Here’s the ultimate guide to car alternators.
All cars, except some hybrid vehicles, have an internal combustion engine. In other words, they generate power by burning oil or fuel.
The alternator is vital to your car because it electrically charges your battery and keeps the vehicle’s electrical system operating smoothly. Alternators and batteries work together like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami, with a regulator (Chris Bosh) to accompany them. The alternator spins, and the regulation device confirms the battery receives a steady power flow and stays charged.
What else does the alternator do in a car? That’s pretty much it! The alternator specifically maintains the electrical components of your vehicle. Your alternator is why your dashboard, radio, air conditioner and other parts function correctly.
The alternator is one of the many parts you’ll find under the hood where your engine is. In fact, most manufacturers mount the alternator onto the engine. Alternators spin because of attached belts, producing electricity when in motion. The battery captures this energy and stores it for your vehicle. Alternators look like small cylinders, with some comparing their appearance to a box fan your parents and grandparents used (or still use to this day).
Unfortunately, car alternators are fallible like the other parts in your car. Therefore, it’s essential to know what these problems entail and how to differentiate them from other issues in your vehicle.
What Are Signs of a Bad Car Battery Vs. an Alternator?
When trouble arises, it could be several things in your car. Some confuse problems with their battery and alternator, wasting time and money. Knowing the signs of a bad car battery vs. an alternator is essential for car maintenance.
Bad Car Battery Signs
First, start with the battery. Here are some common indicators to prove your battery is the culprit:
- Radio: Turn the keys in the ignition to start your car. Does the radio turn on? If it doesn’t, that’s a sign your battery has a low charge and is about to die. Checking the radio and headlights are two of the fastest ways to diagnose a battery issue.
- Clicking: When cranking the motor, you may start to hear clicking noises. This sound should indicate battery problems because something is wrong with the device. You may have loose wires, a dysfunctional motor or corrosion on your battery.
- Dashboard: Another easy way to tell if your battery has trouble is to check your dashboard. Your car should indicate battery issues with the appropriate symbol on the dashboard. If so, it’s time to pop the hood and diagnose the problem or ask a professional to see it.
- Corrosion: If you pop the hood, you should first look for corrosion. You’ll know this decay when you see it because it looks disgusting surrounding your battery. Corrosion consists of lead sulfate crystals that are building around the terminals. Typically, it brings a light blue or white color. Be careful with corrosion because it can burn your skin and eyes once exposed.
- Sulfuric smells: Other apparent signs of a bad car battery vs. an alternator are the smells radiating from your car. If your nose starts to smell sulfur, that’s a sign of a dead battery. Others have compared dead batteries to rotten eggs or sewage. Regardless, it’s something you don’t want to smell like on a date with your partner.
Bad Alternator Signs
Those problems typically come with a bad car battery, so beware of these signs of a bad alternator:
- Dead batteries: If your battery is dead, that’s a huge problem. However, the source of your issue could come from the alternator. Alternators are responsible for powering your battery. So, if your battery keeps dying despite your troubleshooting, the alternator may be the culprit.
- Odd lighting: When your lights turn on, are they super dim or way too bright? The alternator could cause this problem by supplying inadequate power to your electrical systems.
- Odd noises: Weird noises are another factor to watch out for with alternator issues. Instead of clicking, listen for buzzing, whining and grinding (not the sounds Akon describes in one of his songs). These noises indicate alternator issues.
- Bad smells: Foul smells are another sign alternators have in common with batteries. With alternators, you’re most likely to smell burning rubber. This scent is familiar at racetracks, but it’s not something you want to get from your alternator.
- Belts: Make belt inspection part of your maintenance routine because it could lead to alternator issues. For example, your alternator belt can wear because it tightens and loosens over time. The last thing you need is a cracked belt.
If your alternator doesn’t work, you can forget about going to work, the gym or that fun party someone invited you to. Instead, you’ll be at home fixing your alternator. Sometimes, you can jumpstart a car with a bad alternator, but you won’t last long on the road. It’s time to get to work!
If you like getting your hands dirty, there are a few steps you can take to fix your alternator. Here are some common approaches to addressing alternator issues.
The first step you’ll need to take is research. Find your alternator online with a detailed diagram to understand the parts. Your manufacturer or reputable websites should have publicly available information on the alternator. With this diagram, you’ll feel more confident in navigating your way around the device.
Assemble a Kit
Next, get your tools together to ensure the job goes smoothly and stay safe. Some tools you’ll need for alternator repair include sockets and wrenches, ratchets, gloves, safety goggles and tools for belt tensioning. This equipment is ideal if you want to replace your alternator at home. If not, you’ll need a professional.
Check the Battery
Before beginning repairs on your alternator, you want to be entirely sure the alternator is the problem and not the battery at fault. To accomplish this, you can use a voltmeter to measure the voltage of electric power released from your alternator. Your battery voltage should generally be above 12.65 volts. Therefore, if your voltmeter gets a lower reading, you will have a better idea if it is the alternator of the battery.
When you are confident it is the alternator, the repairs can be simple to do yourself.
First, you will need to disconnect the battery and remove the belt. From there, you need to unbolt the alternator from the engine and disconnect the wires. With the alternator removed from the vehicle, you can replace the different parts depending on the problem.
Some common problems include wearing down the carbon brushes or worn down contact rings that might need replacing. If you are uncertain of the exact cause of your failed alternator, take it to a mechanic to complete the repair without further damaging it.
How Much Is an Alternator for a Car?
If you can’t fix your alternator, you probably need a trip to the mechanic. Before you go, check out the typical car alternator cost at various shops in your area. J.D. Power says your alternator will cost between $100 and $350, depending on your vehicle’s make and model. Additionally, you’ll need to account for parts and labor — some alternator jobs require a serpentine belt replacement. Altogether, you’re looking at a $500 receipt that can easily climb toward $1000.
The car alternator cost may scare some people, and that’s OK. Tight budgets are the norm for the average guy if your income is low or you have other financial obligations. Save money on your alternator by buying a refurbished device or doing the job yourself. Refurbished alternators are often just as good as new ones, and doing it yourself can save hundreds of dollars. Ask a professional to test your refurbished alternator before you buy.
Answering the Question: What Does the Alternator Do in a Car?
The engine gets much of the credit for powering your car, and rightfully so. However, it’s easy to forget complementary parts like the alternator. Your alternator keeps your electrical systems working correctly, so keeping up with maintenance is essential. Routinely check the belts and ask a professional to test your alternator to ensure it’s functional.
If you’ve encountered problems, you may wonder how much an alternator is for a car. A car alternator cost can hit your wallet hard, so research carefully. Use this guide for your alternator issues.