Battery and Electrical Failures
There can be no doubt that modern cars have become vastly more fuel efficient, safer, and more comfortable over the past decade. Emission controls have made cars environmentally friendlier, and electronics assist the driver with everything from braking safely to parking in narrow spaces.
While all of these improvements and innovations are great to have, they come at the price of overall reliability. Considering that modern cars have virtually become computers on wheels, it’s not a surprise that the cars aren’t as reliable as they should be. Manufacturers are doing their best to make their products bulletproof, even issuing warranties to prove their intent and good faith, but the truth is that it is virtually impossible to make several hundred pounds of electronic gadgetry connected by more than a mile of wiring completely foolproof.
Despite claims of rigorous testing and statements by manufacturers that their products and systems are fit, a $150,000 car can be brought to a halt by a transistor that costs 5 cents, or a battery might fail simply because of a sudden cold spell.
Many car owners have experienced the inconvenience and disruption caused by the sudden failure or malfunctioning of one or more of the dozens or even hundreds of electrical components in their new cars. An owner in a colder state may have discovered that his car will not start first thing in the morning if it was not parked in the garage overnight. Others have found that one or more systems do not work in the rain, snow, or while driving in slushy or muddy conditions. Still, others have found that systems such as cruise control, air conditioning, audio, and navigation stop working out of the blue. While some of these systems are not critical to the overall functioning of the car, their failure means that the owner didn’t get his money’s worth.
It’s a sad fact is that dealers are often not as knowledgeable about automotive electronics as one would expect. This, coupled with the fact that many, if not most, mechanics and technicians do not receive adequate training on new models before they hit the showroom floor, puts the average car owner at a huge disadvantage. He often has to rely on an unskilled mechanic that has no knowledge of a new system to diagnose and resolve an issue he has never even heard of. Attempts to fix electrical issues very often result in long delays and misdiagnoses. In more than a few cases, the lack of skill or training on the part of the dealer cause even more severe problems – without resolving the original issue.
What Are the Symptoms of Battery Failure?
The bells and whistles of the electronic gadgetry on today’s cars can result in a variety of electrical problems. The following list of symptoms of electrical failure is not exhaustive but includes the most commonly occurring electrical issues and problems impacting new cars.
- Engine cranks but does not start: Apart from being out of gas, this could be caused by the failure of several systems and/or components and should only be investigated by trained personnel.
- Engine cranks very slowly or not at all: This is typically caused by a faulty or flat battery but could also be caused by the insufficient or defective grounding of the system.
- Engine starts but shuts off again almost immediately: This can have several distinctly different causes, but is more often than not caused by the failure of the cold start system that supplies raw fuel to the cold engine, much like the “chokes” on older cars. Failure of this system (not shutting off after the engine has warmed up) can also cause the engine to idle at very high RPMs.
- Engine does not idle: This is most often caused by the failure of the MAS (mass airflow sensor), which senses and regulates the amount of air needed to keep the engine running at all throttle openings. However, this problem could have other causes as well.
- Engine may suffer from a loss of power but still runs smoothly: This is usually due to the failure of the MAS, although at large throttle openings fuel consumption may increase dramatically.
- Vehicle may begin surging or even shut off unexpectedly: The causes of this issue are many and varied, from the cruise control system malfunctioning to the intermittent failure of the power supply to the fuel pump or injectors.
- Engine may idle erratically: This is typically caused by a defective MAS.
- Instruments may give erratic readings or fail completely: This is most often caused by erratic signals or impulses from defective sensors.
- Strong smell of battery acid: The odor may be present in the vehicle, particularly if the engine cranks slowly after trying to start the vehicle. This is caused by the load placed on a damaged battery that cannot adequately supply the demands from the system. The battery overheats and causes the water/acid mix to boil, which can lead to the battery exploding.
- Battery and “check engine” warning lights do not turn off after starting the car: This could be caused by any one or several of literally hundreds of possible issues. On the other hand, it might merely be a transient “glitch” in the system and could be corrected by resetting the affected system.
- Battery warning light illuminates when the engine is idling: This indicates a faulty alternator not delivering the required current or charge to the battery.
- Fuel consumption may increase suddenly: Any one or more failed or defective sensors can deliver mistimed or erratic signals to the ECU, resulting in over advanced or delayed ignition, fuel injection timing or duration, and in some cases, maladjusted valve timing.
If your new car has been showing signs of electrical problems, do not take what your dealer tells you at face value. Apart from being time-consuming, diagnosing electrical issues requires great skill and a thorough knowledge of modern automotive electrical systems. If your dealer doesn’t appear sure or confident about the outcome of electrical repairs, get a second or even a third opinion from other dealerships.
Defective or substandard batteries: Batteries can develop internal short circuits or breaks in internal connections. An incipient problem could be triggered by rough handling of the battery, incorrect jump-start procedures, extreme cold weather, or over/under charging by the alternator.
Defective or substandard rectifiers and regulators: A defective rectifier will cause the alternator not to charge at all, while a defective voltage regulator will cause undercharging or uncontrolled overcharging, which can destroy a good battery in minutes. If that happens, irreparable damage to the rest of the electrical system is a distinct possibility.
Bad connections in the wiring harness: A seemingly tight and proper connection may, in fact, be “dry,” interrupting the flow of current or cause “arcing” when high amperage current jumps the gap across the bad connection. This causes the connection to overheat, which could damage and even cause the fusing together of adjacent, unrelated wiring. This problem has been known to cause fires that destroy cars.
Defective fuses and relays: The switching part of a relay could in some cases become fused together, causing the continued delivery of current to places where it should not be for prolonged periods. One example is the relays that control the alternator or starter motor. A malfunctioning relay in these systems can cause the alternator to burn out, or in the case of the starter motor, a failure to disengage from the flywheel after starting the engine, which can lead to the starter disintegrating or the destruction of the flywheel or flexplate.
Water or moisture ingress into electrical components, fuse boxes, and switchgear: The presence of water or moisture in a supposedly watertight part or component will lead to major and sometimes fatal short circuits, with the potential to completely destroy a car’s entire electrical system. Just driving in the rain can cause water to enter parts or components that should be watertight.
Incorrect jump-start procedures: Vehicles should never be jumpstarted by untrained personnel. However, dealers who are supposedly well-versed in jumpstarting procedures often get it wrong, which usually results in significant damage to the electrical system.
Misrouted wiring: Wiring that is misrouted during the assembly process often leads to chafing of the wiring harness, which can lead to catastrophic short circuits when grounded against metal bodywork.
Incorrect servicing procedures by dealers: When resetting warning lights or service indicators, dealers very often get it wrong by following prescribed procedures in the incorrect order. This can cause voltage “spikes” that have the potential to erase the car’s operating system or, worse, destroy the entire electrical system.
Incorrect or misguided fault finding procedures by dealers: In order to isolate a problem, mechanics will often disconnect and reconnect various parts of the electrical system while the vehicle is switched on or the engine is running. This can result in depriving critical parts of the ECU (engine control unit) of current, which when reconnected, can cause voltage “spikes. This has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the electrical system.
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