An alternator is a component of the automotive charging system. Together with the battery, it ensures the power supply to the electrical components of a vehicle. The name of the device comes from the term alternating current (AC).
How do alternators work?
The main parts of an alternator are:
Rotor and starter
Diode rectifier (or rectifier bridge)
Rotor and starter are two big magnets. They are driven by a belt inside a copper wiring to produce a magnetic field. The torque is transmitted to the components from the engine through the pulley and the belt, which allows the rotor to spin at a high speed. The starter produces voltage and electricity that are transferred to the diode assembly. This assembly converts AC to DC necessary to power the battery. The main aim of the voltage regulator is to protect the alternator, that’s why it monitors the voltage in the alternator and the battery and adjusts it if necessary.
Alternators usually have an aluminium housing and several cooling fans to dissipate the thermal energy produced together with the electricity.
What are the symptoms and causes of alternator malfunctions?
Warning light on the dashboard. If the voltage output of the alternator is either too high or too low, the light goes off. At an early stage, it might light up only for a second, when you switch on the radio or windscreen wipers, for instance.
Lights become dim or too bright or start flickering. If an alternator is no longer capable of producing enough electricity, lights will not get enough power to emit bright light and it grows dim. However, in some modern cars, alternators are programmed to supply electricity to the components in a certain order. For example, headlights will be a priority while a heater or a radio – of less importance. All the energy produced will be transferred to them.
Dead battery. Electrical devices in a car are powered by an alternator or a battery. If the alternator fails, the battery becomes the main source of energy. It cannot last forever and eventually, it becomes dead.
Damaged wires or/and connectors. The alternator might not be the culprit itself but wires and connectors are. The power is produced but not transferred.
Loose or bad belts. As belts make rotors spin, any problems in them affect the alternator operation. Loose or bad components make the assembly run incorrectly.
Growling or whining noises. Worn-out, faulty or damaged elements such as bushings, pulleys and bearings might produce these strange sounds.
Hard starts and frequent stalling. These problems are usually caused by a low battery. Either the battery is bad or the alternator is going to fail.
If you’re experiencing any of the problems listed above, you should have your car checked as quickly as possible. You’ll never know when the system fails completely. If you don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere, you’d better take the precautions.
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