It is always frustrating to get into your car and turn the ignition on only for the vehicle not to start. Almost always, that is because of a failing alternator or a dead battery.
However, between a bad alternator vs. bad battery, how do you know what makes your car not start?
To diagnose your problem, you should understand the functions and operations of both parts in a car. To start and run a car engine, you turn the ignition for the battery to deliver an electric jolt to the starter. The starter powers the engine, which runs the alternator, and the alternator completes the cycle by charging the battery.
Therefore, carefully following this cycle can help you figure out whether you have a battery problem or a bad alternator problem.
How to tell if you have an alternator or a battery problem
The quickest and easiest diagnosis to find out which one between the battery and the alternator is at fault is to use the process of elimination. You can attempt to find the fault by overlooking the battery’s role in powering up your car, as mentioned above. Get jumper cables and jumpstart the vehicle using a different battery from another vehicle?
If your car engine shuts down immediately it starts or after a short drive, then your alternator has malfunctioned and is not charging the battery the way it should.
If jumpstarting your car works and the car keeps running fine, but the vehicle does not start again using its power, then you have a dead battery on your hands. Once the vehicle started, the alternator kept supporting the car’s power requirements and attempted to charge the battery, but the battery did not pick up any energy.
Alternatively, you can test both the alternator and the battery using the TOPDON 12V load Car Battery and Alternator tester. This easy-to-use tester can test the aging and resistance of your battery and help you figure out whether you have an alternator or a battery problem on your hands.
However, here are some conventional ways of diagnosing your vehicle’s problem.
Start by checking your battery.
When you face vehicle startup challenges, you should always start by checking your battery before the alternator. It’s not unusual to wake up to a dead battery that won’t start during the rainy or cold weather season. Start by checking the battery gauge on the dashboard to determine if your battery sent even a slight charge when you switched your car off.
If you notice any dim flickering light at the gauge, then it means that you have something using power from the battery even when the car is off. Check all the connections of the vehicle accessories you commonly use, like the brake lights, wipers, and automatic window openers. Switch off all accessories and try the battery again.
Clean off corrosion from your terminals, jumpstart your car, and run it to see whether the battery will charge up again.
Give it a few minutes, switch off the car, and wait for it to cool. When your car has cooled down, check the battery voltage using a voltmeter. A car battery should read about 12 volts when the car is off. When you turn the engine on, the voltmeter should read around 14-15 volts.
If your battery reads figures that are way over 15 volts way less than 12 volts, you have a voltage regulator or an alternator problem. If your battery doesn’t register any voltage, you have a dead battery, and you need to visit a car shop to purchase a new battery.
Test the Alternator
I case you tested your battery and found out that it works fine, you need to test the alternator to be sure that it can charge up the battery. If the battery is working correctly, but the car has startup problems, then it’s the alternator that will more likely have a problem.
Another way to tell if an alternator is draining your battery is by running your car and unplugging the battery’s positive connection. If the car immediately stops running, your alternator has malfunctioned because it should depend on the alternator and not the battery after starting.
Another simple way is to test your interior lights. An alternator charges your battery when the car is running. Therefore, if the vehicle’s interior lights start brightly but fade slowly as the car remains on, it indicates an issue with the alternator. You will also notice that the car lights are brighter when you accelerate the car, but lose power and become dim when you slow down. These fluctuations show that the alternator cannot keep power when the car is running.
Signs of a Dead Battery
Many symptoms tell you when your battery is dying or in the process of failure. Some physical signs are conspicuous enough for you to see with your eyes, while others are operational problems related to the battery failing to adequately perform its functions. Here are the symptoms of a bad battery.
Battery Appearing Worn out
When you look at your battery, and it strikes you as old, it is highly likely that it will soon give you problems if it hasn’t already started malfunctioning. The more batteries age, the less they can retain electric charge because the metal inside corrodes the same way the outside terminals corrode. The level of charge that the battery can retain progressively diminishes to the point where, regardless of how much power the alternator provides, the battery can’t retain enough power to start the car. However, there are a few hacks to keep using your old battery.
You can scrub away corrosion from the battery terminals carefully by using a rag and then have someone jumpstart it. Run the car for a while and then turn it off. Try to restart the vehicle. If the vehicle starts, it means the corrosion was preventing it from transmitting power.
Sluggish Engine Cranking
When your car is slow to crank, you either have a problem with your battery charging system, and the battery is corroded, or have an electrical draw from accessories when your car is parked. You will also experience worse cranking problems during cold mornings because your battery has grown weak.
Another sign of a bad battery is that you have inconsistent starts. It becomes difficult to predict whether the vehicle will start normally or stagger before it starts. When your car starts experiencing inconsistent starts, check the terminals and scrub away corrosion before deciding to replace the battery.
Dashboard Battery Gauge
Your dashboard battery gauge should always show a small charge even when the car is turned off. If the indicator doesn’t show any flowing energy within your vehicle, it means you either have a wiring transmission problem or your car battery is completely dead.
Interior lights and electrically powered accessories not functioning
When your car fails to turn your windshield wipers, lights, or automatic windows on, it means that your battery is completely drained. If you manage to jumpstart your car but still have a problem operating the lights after you successively turn the car off, your battery needs a replacement.
However, a failing alternator can masquerade and have you thinking that you have a dead battery. Perform a thorough diagnosis to rule out a bad alternator before you go to the shop to buy a new battery.
Signs of a Dead Alternator
Here are some common signs of a bad alternator.
When your alternator is in good working condition, it constantly maintains bright lights regardless of your driving speed. Therefore when you notice that your headlights have started flickering or dimming as you change speed while on the road, it means your alternator can no longer generate enough power.
Weak or Dead Battery
The alternator has to replenish the car battery’s energy. When you always have a weak battery, it could also mean that your alternator is not adequately charging the battery as it should when the car is running. However, be careful to confirm that you don’t have a weak or dead battery before blaming the alternator. You can check if the battery gauge on the dashboard indicates a strong charge even without turning on your vehicle. If it does, then your battery is fine. Your alternator is the problem.
In this case, your battery is always weak because your car accessories now draw energy from the battery instead of the alternator, thus, draining and leaving it empty.
An alternator has many spinning parts that make strange sounds when one of them starts to malfunction. These sounds resemble a whining or grinding sound. Bad alternator sounds can come from a worn-out bearing or the voltage regulator, demanding that the alternator increases charging frequency.
The grinding or whining and grinding sounds coupled with continually having a weakened battery are an indication that you should check your battery.
Most vehicles have a warning indicator light at their dashboards labeled “ALT” or “GEN.” When your alternator goes bad, one of the first warning signs is this light turning on. Although this light can turn on because of several reasons, if you pair it up with the other symptoms of a bad alternator listed here, the chances are that your alternator is not providing enough power to support the electrical accessories of your vehicle and to charge your battery.
The alternator is the primary source of your car’s electrical power. Therefore, whenever you have a bad alternator, all the accessories seem to malfunction. You may have your music player swallowing disks, your power windows getting stuck, your dashboard lights, air conditioning, and other features that depend on electricity malfunctioning.
All the signs listed above warn you that you may need to replace your alternator to keep enjoying using your vehicle adequately. You take certain risks when you drive your car when it has a bad alternator or a bad battery.
Risks of driving with a bad alternator
A car can run with a bad alternator, but it means that your battery will support your vehicle’s power requirements. Since the battery will be using its reservoir energy without charging, it means that you only have limited driving time until the car shuts down. Therefore, you risk getting stranded on the road with a car that cannot power on because of a depleted battery and a dead alternator.
If you wish to prolong your driving distance to get to a mechanic to replace the alternator, turn off all the auxiliary accessories like the air conditioner, internal lights, and radio to save enough power to get to the repair shop.
Risks of driving with a bad battery
When your battery dies, you can jumpstart your car and drive it fine because the alternator will support the vehicle’s power requirements while on the road. However, the alternator will generate a lot of heat, and this generated heat will damage the alternator in the long run.
Therefore, to avoid the expenses of buying a new alternator, avoid repeatedly jumping and driving your vehicle and buy a new battery.
Bad Alternator or Bad Battery, Easy Solved – YouTube
Frequently Asked Question (FAQ)
Q: Can you jumpstart a car with a bad alternator?
Luckily, you can jumpstart your car when you notice that it has a bad alternator. However, you should drive the vehicle to the nearest car dealership to replace the alternator before the battery dies.
Q: Can a bad alternator kill a battery?
Yes, you still have a problem when you have a new battery and a bad alternator because a bad alternator can destroy a working battery when it charges it using too much voltage. Higher than recommended voltages lead to premature cell failure within the battery. It can also destroy the battery if it produces a ripple voltage that surpasses the rectifier.
Q: Do Alternators Fail Suddenly?
Most times, alternator failure occurs gradually over time, and you can notice the symptoms and replace them early. However, there are unique circumstances when an alternator can suddenly stop working. One of these situations is when the voltage regulator or the diodes inside the regulator fails. After noticing bad alternator diode symptoms like flickering headlights, you can test your alternator using a voltmeter. Switch it to a low setting on AC mode and test the battery. If they register any AC voltage, it means your alternator diodes are going bad.
When the voltage regulator fails, the alternator automatically stops transmitting electrical energy.
Q: How long will a car battery last without an alternator?
When you drive without a functioning alternator, your vehicle can only go for around Twenty-five miles before the battery is empty if you had a fully charged battery. Twenty-five miles translates to a maximum of approximately 30 minutes of driving.
Batteries and alternators are co-dependent components of a vehicle’s charging and electric system. The battery delivers electricity to the starter to kick start the engine operation. The alternator powers the vehicle and charges the battery to ensure there will be enough energy to start the car again after switching it off.
Therefore, differentiating vehicle electrical problems between the battery and the alternator can be confusing. However, the symptoms listed are sufficient to diagnose your vehicle the next time you have a bad battery or a bad alternator problem.