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Avoid electric shock: Is it your battery or alternator?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014, 12:03 PM

You’re driving along, all the lights on the dash board suddenly go out. The car limps home before finally dying in your driveway. Electrical problems can leave you stranded, but how do you know if it’s a battery issue, or something else?

Your car’s electrical system has three basic parts: the battery, alternator, and ignition. When you start your car, the battery provides the energy needed to turn the engine and provide the initial spark to the ignition system. The alternator then takes over, generating electricity as the engine turns.

A bad battery is easy to diagnose. Your car with either struggle to start or not turn over at all, even after it’s been boosted and recharged.

Like any part, batteries wear out over time. Extreme hot and cold weather, and short trips put a lot of stress on them. They can also be damaged by repeatedly draining the battery by leaving lights and accessories on with the engine off.

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You can test your battery by using a simple voltage meter. It should read between 12.4 and 12.6 volts when fully charged and resting. Any lower and you may need a new one.

You should think about replacing your car’s battery every 4 to 5 years. This is a job you can do yourself on most vehicles. You will need a socket wrench, safety gear, and a bit of time. Use caution, so you don’t shock yourself or short out anything. If you are unsure about what to do, it’s a quick and easy job for any mechanic.

A bad alternator is a more serious problem that can leave you stranded in traffic. If this part goes, the car can’t supply electricity to keep the battery charged and the engine running. It usually starts with your electronics going haywire, then shutting down. By this point, your car is running on its reserve power. Depending on the battery, you may be able to keep the engine running for another 10-20 minutes. If this happens, you should pull off the road and into the nearest service centre as soon as possible.

By this point, you won’t even be able to boost your car. Even if the battery is recharged, it will drain again as you drive. Replacing an alternator is a more complicated repair job that should be done by a mechanic. The total job will cost a few hundred dollars, though it varies from car to car.

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