Car Alternator: All You Need to Know (Updated for 2024)

Car alternator rough depiction

As an Amazon Associate, Modded gets commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

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.

What Is the Car Alternator? 

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.  

Where Is the Car Alternator? 

A newly installed car alternator

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.
  • Battery Warning Light Doesn’t Disappear: When you start the engine, you’ll see a battery sign or charge icon coming on. This light normally disappears shortly after turning on the machine. If it doesn’t, it signals a dysfunction in the alternator.
  • 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. If the inside and outside lights flicker, dim or are incredibly bright, it can imply the alternator can’t provide stable and continuous power, leading to these lighting problems. Using your vehicle when you have these concerns is dangerous, so examine it immediately.
  • 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. The burning rubber smell is likely due to the high friction caused by a loose or slipping of the serpentine belt. If you smell an electrical burn, it could be related to the alternator itself.
  • Electrical Issues: The alternator converts mechanical energy to electrical to charge the battery and power up electrical accessories in the car. If the electric generator fails, you may notice the fan speed is slow, power windows are not working, the radio doesn’t turn on and the dashboard lights malfunction. All electrical problems are likely connected to the 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.  
  • Overheating: If the engine temperature gauge shows an above-normal reading, it can mean the alternator doesn’t provide enough energy to circulate the engine coolant.

How Can You Fix Your Alternator?

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!

A mechanic working on a removed alternator

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.

Get Started

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.

A new, shiny car alternator

How Much Is an Alternator for a Car?

One pressing question that comes up during replacement is the alternator replacement cost. The cost to change an alternator is anywhere between $500 to $2,500, depending on the vehicle and other factors like labor.

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 minimum $500 receipt that can easily climb toward the thousands. If you need to fix your car’s generator, here are other components affecting the final cost.

  • Vehicle specifications: Similar to a mobile phone charger, you should get an alternator compatible with the year, model, make and engine size of your car for it to work.
  • Mounting style: Not all car charging systems are the same, so you must choose a car part intended for your vehicle.
  • Amperage ratings: Some alternators have only about 60 amps-70 amps, while some high-output alternatives generate more than 200 amps. You need to pick a replacement that suits the required amperage of your vehicle’s electrical system. If you install a lower amperage alternator to a higher amperage-required vehicle, it may fail prematurely or damage the battery. As it can’t provide a sufficient electrical load to power electrical accessories, you may be unable to use the radio, headlights and phone charging features.
  • Electrical connections: Most alternators use three-wire electrical connections, but some cars have one wire to simplify the wiring. Check how many wires your alternator has to get a suitable replacement.
  • Labor: You’ll also have to pay for the mechanic if you require the service.

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. 

What Are Some Options to Lower Alternator Replacement Cost?

An alternator has an average life span of 6-10 years or approximately 80,000 miles-150,000 miles. Given how much an alternator is for a car, it’s normal to feel some trepidation when it comes time to switch in a new one.

Replacing it is costly, but you can drive down the cost with these tips:

1. Get an Aftermarket Alternator

They’re more affordable than original ones, but pick something of high quality. You’ll find heaps of options for cheap aftermarket products, but they don’t last long. Do your research or ask friends for a good car part supplier.

2. Get a Refurbished Replacement

You can also save by opting to buy a rebuilt charging system. Find a trustworthy seller or check online sites. Some offer a warranty, so you can request a repair or substitute if the product malfunctions within the period.

3. Rebuild Your Own Alternator

If you’re knowledgeable about automotive parts, you can rebuild the battery charger. Disassemble the inside parts and components. Check for any damage or cracks and replace faulty components. It’s way more affordable as you don’t have to pay for labor when installing it back.

Can I Replace the Alternator by Myself?

If you have basic automotive knowledge, you can fix the alternator yourself. If you’re confident with your skills, purchase an alternator replacement repair kit online or in automotive shops. You should hire a mechanic if you don’t have the specialized tools needed to perform the replacement.

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. 

Alternator replacement cost varies, depending on the car model, ampere ratings and other essential factors. You may need to change this part once or twice throughout the lifetime of your wheels. A car alternator cost can hit your wallet hard, so research carefully. Use this guide for your alternator issues.

Stay up to date with the latest by subscribing to Modded Minute.