Alternators - what are they, how do they work and what breaks??

The rear view of a standard alternator - the pulley is on the other end.

If you have been around cars for a while you might have heard the term generator. Well, those were the old days and the good old generator is history. What a generator did for the old cars, an alternator now does. You see, a car has and electrical system that carries power to such essential things as headlights, the ignition coils, engine cooling fans and other non-essential things as the radio (my son would argue that one), air conditioning fans (my wife would argue that one), and all of those other things upon which we have become accustomed to depend. All of that power has to come from somewhere!! A lot of people might think that power comes from the battery, and that is true to some extent. But the real answer is that the power to run all of those electrical things comes from Saudi Arabia! Huh? Saudi Arabia? Well, maybe Dallas, or Oklahoma. But the point is that the source for all of that energy is the gas tank. Yep. And the link from the gas tank to the battery is that mysterious thing called the alternator. It takes mechanical power from the crankshaft, transmits it via a "fan" belt, (it used to run the cooling fan as well) or serpentine belt as it is called in most of the newer vintage cars, and turns the alternator. So, the main function of the alternator is to convert power from the gasoline engine that drives you along the road, to electrical energy to keep the battery in tip-top condition.

So, what happens when an alternator goes bad? Well, at first, nothing. That is because the battery has some reserve power in it, enough to keep the engine running for quite some time, many many miles in fact. So a bad alternator doesn't necessarily mean a tow truck should be called right away. As long as energy is conserved elsewhere, like turning off the blower motor, the rear window de-fogger, the stereo and the headlights (if possible), you could make it for some distance on just the battery reserve alone.

One major problem which will finally occur as the battery loses its charge is that there will not be sufficient voltage to keep the engine running well. Many years ago I was in California and saw a car coming down the street with its catalytic converter glowing white hot and flames coming from beneath the car. What had happened is the alternator quit, the battery ran down, the engine was not firing on all eight cylinders and the unburned fuel was being burned in the catalytic converter! It had been long overdue for the driver to call a tow truck!

Before we get started diagnosing alternator problems there is one thing I must mention.  Alternators use an "exciter" voltage to get the alternator working when you start your car.  Now get this!  About 90% of the cars made today run that 12 volts through the "battery" or "alternator" bulb (AKA the idiot light).  So you need to check to see if this bulb is not burned out.  It should light when the key is turned on!  If it doesn't then there is a very good chance that the alternator will not put out!!  Replace the bulb before beginning the rest of the diagnosis.

So, how do you know when your alternator is going bad? Most of the time the alternator fails in stages. A little techie talk here. The alternator gets its name from the fact that it generates alternating current (AC). The old generators I mentioned before generated direct current (DC). Well the battery can't use alternating current so the alternator output is fed into what are called diodes, which convert the AC into DC. The alternator has a unique feature in that it is able to generate a relatively high voltage while the engine is at idle. The old generators needed to be running at a fast pace before they got up to 13 or 14 volts. The alternator can do this since it is really three alternators in one body. Each of the three sections of the alternator generates its voltage out of phase with the other two sections. Since the complete cycle (one revolution) of the alternator is 360 degrees, each phase is shifted by 120 degrees from the next phase. So in one revolution of the alternator it puts out three separate voltages.

OK, back to the failure mode. Each of the three phases has its own windings in the alternator and each of the windings has its own pair of diodes. Each of these windings and/or diodes can fail, one set at a time. If this happens the alternator can still charge the battery, but only with a limited current, approximately 2/3 of its original capacity if one system fails. If two systems fail, then it puts out only 1/3 of its rated capacity. What that means to you is that you can go a long time on a limping alternator. Chances are if you don't need headlights or air conditioning or other high current using accessories, you would never know that the alternator was in the process of failing! The time you will find out is when it is 10 below zero and you wear down the battery by cranking the starter, then put the fan on high for heat, and then drive in the dark.

So, how can you tell if the alternator is failing without taking it apart and doing some measuring inside the alternator? It's really pretty simple. You will need a simple voltmeter. You can get one at Radio Shack for under ten dollars. Here's what you do - start the car, make sure all the accessories are off and rev up the motor to a fast idle. Set the Voltmeter to the DC scale (not AC or Ohms). Measure the voltage across the battery terminals - red lead of the voltmeter on the positive terminal, black on the negative (ground in most cars). The voltage should, and probably will, read around 14 volts. If it reads less than 12 volts you may indeed have a failed alternator and you can skip the next step. Next, turn on the heater, the rear window de-fogger, the radio, the headlights and anything else that draws power. Now rev up the motor and watch the voltmeter. It should still be reading around 14 volts. If it reads lower than 13 volts the chances are that your alternator is not up to snuff.

One last failure mode is of course noise. The rotor inside the alternator rotates on bearings, normally very high precision needle bearings, and these can fail. When they do you will hear a loud grinding noise associated with the alternator. To isolate the noise take a length of tubing, heater hose will do fine, put one end to your ear and move the other around in the vicinity of the alternator. The noise will be much louder when you point it at the alternator if that is the culprit. Other possibilities are the water pump and the power steering pump which are also driven by the engine belt. To further isolate the noise disconnect the drive belt and spin the alternator by hand. If you hear a rumble or grinding noise then the bearings are shot. If you don't hear a noise the problem may still be in the alternator since the bearing might be quiet without the loading of the drive belt tension. Check for side play in the pulley. If you are pretty certain the noise came from the alternator it is a relatively simple task to take it apart and visually inspect the bearings, else swap it in for a rebuilt. Your auto supply store will normally bench test the alternator free of charge and can tell you at that time if the bearings are noisy.

Before you go running down to the parts store for a new alternator make sure to check the connections at the battery terminals and also check to see that the voltage is the same at the alternator terminal (the big fat one with the heavy wire attached) {also, read the article, dead battery}. Check to make sure the belts are tight and not slipping. Replace them if they are cracked or shiny on the side that faces the alternator pulley.

One final thing to check - the field voltage. In order for the alternator to generate electricity it must be supplied with a field voltage. If you know which wire is the one that supplies the field (normally labeled 'F') then simply check with a voltmeter to see if there is 12 volts at the field. Another check is to use a hacksaw blade or a lightweight screwdriver , anything magnetic, and hold it near the side of the alternator with the ignition switch turned in the on position. If there is a field voltage present then the metal will be attracted magnetically to the side of the alternator, not very strongly, but you will feel it pull the metal to the side of the alternator.

So, what are you going to ask the mechanic when he tells you that you need a new alternator?

1. Did you perform a load test on the alternator? If you did, what were the voltage readings? Were they all below specification?? (mechanics will use a load testing machine instead of turning on all the accessories.)

2. Did you check to see if the belts were old and cracked or possibly slipping?

3. Did you measure the voltage at the alternator connector or at the battery? Were the readings the same at both places or is there a voltage drop somewhere in the system. You can tell him the "Dead Battery" story if you want to.

4. Finally, did you check the price on a rebuilt as well as a new alternator? (rebuilt alternators are just as good as new if they are done correctly and usually cost about 1/3 as much)

Now that you know all about alternators you can feel confident that you can discuss the failure modes with a mechanic and not get shafted. It is also fun to watch the faces of a mechanic when you ask questions like those above. He will soon figure out that you know more about the electrical system of your car than how to turn the lights on!

For yet another description and a different perspective on the charging system go here.

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