How To Keep Your Car’s Electrical System In Good Shape
Many drivers of modern vehicles have become very familiar with the technology that makes driving so comfortable and convenient these days: sophisticated gadgets like the touchscreen infotainment system, air conditioning controls, power windows. This is technology that we see and use every day. But some of the most impressive automobile technology is buried under the hood.
Everything from starting the car, charging it, and operating it to the triggering of vital warning systems depends on an elaborate electrical system. When a component of this system fails, you may face expensive repair bills, not to mention towing costs if you end up getting stranded.
Fortunately, with a little knowledge of what makes your car tick, you can improve the performance and extend the life of the components of that electrical system.
What Are the Major Electrical Components of Your Car?
In order to function efficiently, a car uses many sensors and other elements, including a maze of wiring. The most critical components involved in turning over the engine when you turn the key or push the start button include the starter motor, the alternator, the battery, the ignition system, and various fuses and sensors.
Because of daily wear and tear, these components must sometimes be fixed or replaced. Using their standard testing equipment, mechanics can often discover electrical problems in an early stage, so that they can take care of it before a complete failure occurs. In such cases, all you need to do is make sure to bring your vehicle in for regular maintenance checkups. But sometimes a component malfunctions with little or no warning, leaving you wondering what the heck happened.
Get to Know the Electrical System
If you’ve never paused to wonder what happens when you engage the ignition, you’re not alone. For many drivers, a modern vehicle’s electrical system is out of sight, out of mind until a breakdown occurs. But it’s helpful to know what happens when you start the car and how the proper operation of active components contributes to the operation of the car as a whole.
When you activate the ignition, a starter motor turns over the engine, allowing it to suck in air and begin combustion. When the starter is engaged, a rod equipped with a pinion gear is pushed to meet the teeth of the flywheel, creating a spinning motion. As the engine turns, current is sent through the spark plug wires, which meet the plugs to ignite the fuel and allow the engine to run.
Once the intricate process is complete, the pushrod is retracted from the flywheel so that it won’t damage the delicate gears.
As the car is starting, the car battery supplies power to the ignition switch and starter solenoid, which triggers its efforts to turn the engine. The 12-volt energy producer is designed to endure the constantly repeated cycle of charging and discharging that occurs during the course of daily driving. Over time, as the battery produces less and less power, its cranking capacity weakens. Eventually, you have a car that has trouble turning over or won’t start at all.
The pulley-driven alternator is a 12-volt component powered by a drive belt. As the unit is rotated, alternating currents pass through its magnetic field to produce an electrical current. This device sends electricity to charge the battery as the vehicle is being driven.
In modern vehicles, computers work with sensors and electronic control units to control the engine, transmission, headlights, and even the defroster. The primary unit of the computer receives vital data regarding the operation of the vehicle and makes adjustments accordingly. It also alerts drivers to problems by triggering dashboard lights or moving gauges that indicate changes in oil pressure, temperature, and other attributes of the vehicle.
Common Electrical Problems with Cars
Because the electrical system of your car is so complicated, many problems may occur while you’re on the road. Here are a few things that can go wrong and tips on how to deal with the problem as soon as possible.
Dead Car Battery
As a battery loses its cranking power, it may make only slow starts—unless the system is simply dead and can’t start the car at all. Cold weather can cripple the ability of the battery to distribute power to the starter and other parts of the electrical system. If you have trouble starting your car, check the battery cables to make sure that they are fastened securely. Also look for any corrosion that may be disrupting the connection. Blue, green, or white substances where the wires connect to the terminals are manifestations of a sulfuric compound. You can remove the gunk with a wire brush and prevent future damage by spraying a protectant directly on the contact point.
You probably have a bad battery if:
- A battery light on the dashboard has blinked on.
- The engine cranks slowly when you are starting the car.
- Your car requires regular jump starts.
- You hear clicking when trying to start the car, and it fails to start.
- The interior and exterior lights are dimmer than usual.
You can prepare for the possibility of a dead battery by investing in a jump box. Charge this portable jump starter regularly and keep it inside the vehicle so that it’s on hand and ready in case of emergency. Once a battery loses its capacity to charge and crank, the problem only gets worse, so install a new battery as soon as possible.
A Bad Alternator
Failing alternators show signs of distress like those shown by a bad battery. You may notice weaker lights, slow or malfunctioning accessories, or difficulty starting. Many vehicles have a gauge on the dashboard or in the driver data center that displays the voltage production of the alternator. If the alternator is emitting less than 13 volts or over 15 volts, there is a problem. It should generally emit about 14 volts during standard operation.
If your vehicle does not report the voltage, you can test the system with a voltmeter. With the meter set to DC, connect it to the battery and start the engine; the altimeter will then indicate the voltage. Consider stress testing the alternator by turning on the lights or air conditioning and checking for fluctuations.
Another reason that the alternator may be struggling is a faulty drive belt. Analyze the ribs for cracks and consider replacing the belt if it seems to be damaged or loose on the pulley system.
A Bad Spark Plug
To keep a gas-powered motor running well, spark plugs and wires require routine maintenance. How often spark plugs need to be replaces depends on the automaker and the kinds of plug it uses; the interval can vary dramatically. Refer to your owner’s manual to determine when you should consider service. But most vehicles benefit from a change after 30,000 miles to 50,000 miles.
Generally, each engine cylinder requires a single plug; some engines have cylinders requiring more than one plug. The spark plugs set off mini-explosions in the combustion chamber to force the vehicle’s pistons to move up and down. Regular maintenance of the engine is the key to keeping the ignition system in good condition.
Causes of premature wear and tear of the spark plugs include oil contamination, overheating, and carbon buildup due to dirty injectors or a clogged air filter. If you observe problems with acceleration, decreased fuel economy, or difficulty starting the vehicle, these may be signs of failing spark plugs.
A Blown Fuse
Sometimes a car that won’t start has been crippled by a blown fuse. Throughout the vehicle, these small devices protect components by limiting the amount of electrical current that travels through the wires.
You probably have a fuse box near under the steering column in the cabin and another fuse box under the hood. Before assuming that a component of the electrical system is defective, check your owner’s manual to determine which fuse is in charge of the component. You can identify a blown fuse by looking for a break in the metal link inside. Typically, there will be black residue disrupting the connection. You can fix the problem by replacing the blown fuse with a new fuse that has the same amperage rating. If you must replace the fuse for a particular component repeatedly, you probably have a big problem and should get the vehicle looked at as soon as possible.
How Do You Know Whether You Need to Repair the Electrical System?
Your car has many ways to alert you when there is a problem with the electrical system. Look for indicators on the dashboard and signs like slow starts or a failure to start, or malfunctioning of interior features. While you are travelling, note alterations in voltage readings and any dimming of headlights when the vehicle is moving at low speeds or idling at a stop.
Some problems are easy to detect; others may require a trained professional. Each wire of the electrical system is as important to the smooth functioning of the whole as the starter, battery, and alternator. Although the problem that prevents a vehicle from starting or from running efficiently may be nothing more complicated than a frayed wire, finding and fixing the problem may require many hours of labour.
Conclusion and Recommendations
If your electrical system is not working efficiently, your vehicle can’t perform efficiently, and sometimes it can’t perform at all. To limit the risk of further damage, tackle any problem as soon as it presents itself. If you can’t fix the problem yourself, take it to professionals. Professional mechanics will ensure that the components are installed correctly, and they will also typically offer a warranty on parts and labour to cover the expenses if the problem recurs.