Nowadays, most cars have a complex electrical system that controls most of their functions. While you’re probably glad that you can operate your mirrors and windows with just the push of a button, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the system is infallible.
Unlike the creak of a brake or the rattling of the engine, auto electrical issues are like a silent attacker. You don’t feel them until they strike. That makes them harder to detect and diagnose than most mechanical problems. One morning, out of the blue apparently, you’ll find yourself with a car that won’t start.
The electrical system of a car is very complex, comprising of the battery and its cables, the alternator, the starter and the computer system for newer models. That makes it difficult for an untrained eye to follow everything. Repair shops use specialized tools that connect to a car’s computer to identify the components that aren’t working.
However, there are some signs that can tell you if your vehicle has an electrical problem, even if you’re not familiar with the nitty gritty of an electrical system.
1. The Car Won’t Start
This is the most common electrical issue. Most likely the car doesn’t start because of damage to the battery, alternator or starter.
When you turn the key on, and the engine doesn’t start, check if the interior lights come on when you open the door. If they do, chances are you have a problem with the alternator. If the lights don’t come on and nothing happens, most likely you have a dead battery.
If you hear a clicking or grinding noise when turning the ignition, then you should check the starter before anything else.
2. The Battery Is Damaged
The battery is the heart of a car’s electrical system. It should be checked regularly to look for any visible damage, such as stains or corrosion at the terminals. These tell you that your battery is leaking, nearing the end of its life or having other problems.
A battery lasts around five years or less if you live in hot climates. Its lifespan can be further shortened if there’s a bad battery cell or the alternator isn’t working properly.
Depending on the severity of the damage your battery may need repairs, or you might have to replace it.
3. The Lights Dim While Driving
If the headlights, brake lights and dashboard lights dim while you drive at low speed or idling, you may have an electrical problem. Usually, it means that there are loose wires, the battery is at the end of its life, severely discharged or can’t hold a charge, or that there’s a problem with the alternator or voltage regulator.
A loose or cracked belt on an alternator means that it can’t work properly and can’t support the required battery voltage.
4. The Brake Lights Don’t Work
Have you changed the bulbs in both brake lights but they still don’t work, although your car runs perfectly fine? Then it never was a burnt out bulb problem, but a fuse problem. Another telltale sign of the same issue is if some specific parts or accessories of the car, such as the radio, won’t work.
However, don’t rush into replacing the fuse. First, find out the cause since a blown fuse could also mean that an electrical device or wiring is using too much voltage. If you find that you need to replace the fuses too often, then they weren’t the source of the problem in the first place, and you should look further when troubleshooting your car’s electrical issues.
5. The Car Smells
A burning smell anywhere near your car is a bad sign. Amongst others, it’s caused by an electrical short circuit.
An electrical circuit is designed to carry a specific amount of energy, and when there’s a problem, it has to support more power than what it can handle. When that happens, you’ll notice a smell of melting or burning plastic around wires, connections, insulation or fuses.
These are the most obvious signs of electrical problems that anyone can see. At the same time, they are just assumptions on what’s not working related specifically to the electrical system. They could, just as well, hide issues on other components.
Furthermore, as mentioned in the beginning, electrical problems are silent attackers, and they often go undetected. You won’t know until it’s too late to drive your car on its four wheels to an auto repair shop. It’s best to have your car checked regularly by professionals to avoid more serious and more expensive problems later.
Darren from MotoFX adds: It’s important to identify electrical faults as soon as possible. These are often overlooked and left until later notice, which can lead to much worse and more expensive problems.