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Major Causes Of Vehicle Breakdowns - Broken Alternators For Example

Published 6/12/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

These days, nothing lasts forever. Unless the item in question is one of those seemingly indestructible NASA Mars Rovers that are still chugging along the Martian surface despite having already greatly exceeded their original lifespan - or if the item is a substance or product that doesn't have any oscillating mechanical moving parts such as a compact disk or a gold bar, the item is bound to break down, corrode, or malfunction eventually. Despite the millions of dollars spent on improving the quality and lifespan of products, it seems all mechanical devices are destined to break down inevitably, and oftentimes when you are least prepared.

As discussed in a recent post, out of nowhere I recently experienced a vehicle breakdown in the middle of the night. While I was waiting in my car with the engine still running the motor suddenly stalled, and all dashboard controls and indicator lights stopped working. Turning the ignition key was met with cricket chirping silence, and even the electronic door lock stopped responding to my unlock button pressing, causing me to worry momentarily. At the time I grew concerned as I wasn't sure how I was going to get out of the vehicle without a working or functional electronic door lock. Then I laughed and realized I could manually pull up the door lock tab to open the door that way and use the metal key to manually lock the car door again. It's funny how I've grown so dependent to using the key less lock clicker that I've almost forgotten how to lock and unlock the car door manually.

Well, after taking the car to the repair shop, I found out that the engine alternator had broken down and that the car battery also needed replacement. I don't know about you but all of the cars I've owned in the past and present seem to enjoy eating alternators for breakfast. Not sure why that is the case. Such types of vehicle breakdowns alarm me because you never know when they may happen. It's one thing to have a vehicle malfunction close to home, but it's a whole different matter to break down somewhere far away on a major highway during a heavy rain or snow storm for example.

While cars, trucks, and vans are made up of a thousands of small to large electronic and mechanical components, there are probably only a handful of critical parts that have the potential to make or break your vehicle's performance immediately and completely. Components like your break disc and break pads get worn down naturally over time through continuous use and need to be replaced regularly, but worn break pads are rarely critical to your car's immediate performance. Having thin pads won't cripple your vehicle or cause it to immediately stall, forcing it to shut down in the middle of the road. Along the same lines, proper engine oil changes are important to ensure the proper lubrication of your engine performance, but even timely oil changes aren't critical. While lack of regular oil changes have the potential to cause excessive wear to your engine over time and ultimately lead to mechanical problems down the road, failure to get one won't immediately prevent your car from starting or driving. Those types of less imperative maintenance concerns are more long term and cumulative effect issues.

However, there are certain very important car components that drivers must keep their eyes on. These critical engine and vehicle components have the potential to force your car to a complete stop if you're not careful with proper repair and replacement. It's important to know what they are to ensure they are properly maintained and checked during regularly scheduled maintenance. Some of these critical vehicle breakdown problems can be prevented, while others are somewhat inevitable in the long term - but it's still important to know what they are to better plan for and anticipate their future occurrence.

Here Are The Top 5 Most Common and Likely Causes Of Crippling Vehicle Breakdowns:

1) Broken or Blown Alternator - You know you likely have a broken alternator when your car suddenly powers down when it is idling or when you are unable to elicit any response out of your car. By then, your battery will likely have drained itself of all electrical power and everything in your car that requires electricity to operate will have ceased to function - including car radio, wind shield wipers, indicator lights, and even your key less entry system.

The alternator is a tiny but vital component found under the hood of your vehicle's engine compartment. Its primary function is to produce alternating current for the majority of your vehicle's electrical systems, and to keep the batteries full. While your car battery provides some needed electrical power, without a means to re-charge it, total reliance on the battery alone will drain it in a matter of minutes. To prevent this from happening, vehicles need a functional alternator to continuously convert your engine's mechanical energy into electrical energy to keep the battery recharged so that continuous electrical power can be supplied to your car. Frequently, vehicles can keep running even with a blown alternator by drawing electrical power directly from the battery until it's completely sapped and depleted. However, continuing to drive on the street or highway with a broken alternator is extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all cost. You may be able to use jumper cables to give the battery a quick temporary charge, but with a faulty alternator, your car will only be able to travel for a short and unpredictable distance before cutting out completely.

For most ordinary folks, there is little that we can do to maintain the component ourselves, other than to use our eyes, ears and gut feeling to detect the signs that may suggest a dying alternator. Keep an eye out for weakening electrical components or dimming indicator lights when the engine is idling. If your headlights or internal indicator lights start to fade or flicker, you may have a faulty alternative on its last legs. If your windshield wipers or car engine seem to be sluggish or underpowered, your alternator may be breaking down. Don't be like me and wait until it's too late before getting it replaced. Two times in the past I ignored the warnings signs of a possibly faulty alternator and twice I ended up with a sudden vehicle breakdown. It's best to get the damaged alternator repaired or replaced at the time of your choosing than to experience a sudden malfunction out of nowhere.

2) Damaged or Worn Car Battery - Don't you hate it when you hop into your driver's seat, turn the ignition switch and hear only a whirling sound but no engine startup. Along with a broken alternator, this is one of the most common reasons why your car is unable to start up or run properly, but it's also one of the easiest problems to fix and patch up. If such an occurrence happens, chances are your battery has either died or lost its ability to retain a charge. Car batteries can lose their electrical charge for a variety of reasons and one of them is simply old age. Depending on your type of vehicle, your battery will have to be replaced a few times throughout its working lifespan. But there are other reasons why they run out of juice as well. If you're the type who drives very rarely and only for very short distances at low speeds, your battery may have trouble keeping itself charged due to your sporadic driving habit. The recommended solution is to run long distance errands to give it the routine opportunity to properly regenerate itself.

Brand new and perfectly normal batteries should be able to retain a strong charge that will allow the vehicle to start up easily. It requires a lot more electrical power to start up a car than it is to keep it running. If you're noticing that it's taking a few turns of your ignition switch to start up your engine, your battery may be losing its potency. It could the one of the battery terminals, or perhaps one of the clamp connections are corroded. Either way, if you're a do-it-yourself type of person, replacing your car battery can be done on your own (assuming you can handle the weight of the battery itself - anywhere from 15-35 lbs). A brand new car battery only costs between $50-$75 and is fairly straight forward to install, at least according to my self-proclaimed vehicle expert brother. I've never done it myself but I've heard that car batteries are not all that difficult to remove and latch back on.

I also recommend that all drivers carry a spare set of jumper cables in their trunk. Jumper cables are really cheap - only something like $5.00 on eBay. If you don't want to use eBay, your local Walmart or Target should have a cheap set for around $15. Don't bother paying for quality as they are all the same. With your own set of jumper cables, anytime your battery runs out of juice, any working car can supply a temporary electrical charge to get your car battery going again.

3) Broken Starter Motor - For most people, a broken starter motor problem is easily confused with a battery or even an alternator problem. Here's how you can tell the difference: If your headlights or dashboard indicator lights are running strong without flicker, the radio is still working perfectly, your air condition is still operating fine, and your key-less locking mechanism still functions, and yet you are still unable to start your vehicle, it is likely a starter motor problem. When you turn your ignition switch and all you hear is a continuous whirling sound despite your electrical components working normally, your starter's likely damaged or busted. With a failed starter motor, your car won't be able to start. Like the alternator, it's hard for ordinary people to really prevent the starter motor from breaking down over time. Your best solution is to have the starter regularly inspected in a repair shop for signs it may need replacing.

4) Flat Tire - When you have a flat tire, your car is pretty much un-drivable, unless you are crazy and don't mind grinding up sparks along the pavement on your wheels and rims alone. Even slapping on a temporary spare can only get you so far. Your goal should be to keep your primary vehicle tires well inflated and maintained. Getting a flat tire is a common problem for those who drive frequently or those who travel on difficult terrain such as unpaved roads, rocky surfaces, or over pot holes. All of those bumps, stray pebbles, and jagged metal plate coverings on road surfaces take a cumulative and aggregate tole on the material integrity of your tires.

Every few months you should use your trusty air pressure gauge and run a quick check of the air pressure level of each tire to make sure each one is properly inflated. Keep in mind that the front and rear tires often require different PSI (pounds per square inch) levels. Your vehicle owner's manual should indicate the exact tire pressures needed for your front and back tires. Under-inflated tires are one of the biggest causes of tire wear and tear because the weight of your vehicle bears down on them in a malformed way they weren't fully designed to handle. While tire inflation tends to rise and fall with the temperature (becoming more inflated in hot weather and sagged during cold), if your tires are perpetually losing air pressure over time, you may have a serious problem. There could be a tire puncture wound from a sharp rock or nail, or the tires may simply be too old. Keep in mind that even seldom used tires that are kept out in the open air under the rain and snow still gradually lose their strength and durability over time. Replace them when they are worn and don't keep using them when the tire treads are visibly cracked or distressed. You don't want to ever experience a catastrophic tire blow out when you're driving at high speeds. That's how accidents and even car rollovers happen.

5) Running Out Of Gas - Unless you are lucky enough to drive one of those new electrical, ethanol, hydrogen, or even one of those tasty and nice smelling vegetable oil powered vehicles (yes, they exist!), chances are your vehicle consumes gasoline to power itself. Without gas, your oil-powered car or truck won't be able to run. Avoiding the problem of running out of gas should be a piece of cake if you exercise common sense. If your fuel indicator light ever comes on, you likely only have a single gallon of emergency backup gas left in the tank. At that point, don't risk driving away from the nearest filling station in search of lower gas prices when your fuel tank is running low. Get that car fueled up sooner than later and don't take your chances on the road. I know gas prices are high, but there are ways to deal with that hurdle more responsibly (such as purchasing gasoline using gas rebate credit cards to earn cash back rewards). Don't force yourself to end up having to walk to the nearest gas station like some highway vagrant and lug back gas in a heavy red rubber container. It's inconvenient and dangerous.

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7 Responses to “Major Causes Of Vehicle Breakdowns - Broken Alternators For Example” 

  1. Sean says:

    Nothing like a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. I just had to replace the alternator in my ancient-but-otherwise-reliable Saturn when it decided to go out 15 miles from just about anything.

    Second one for the little thing, too. Of course, that first one was almost 100k miles ago, so I can't complain much! ;)

  2. Ryan says:

    Two more must checks...

    #6: Timing Belt or Chain (depends on what you have)

    A timing belt (or chain) controls the timing of the engine's valves in relation to the engine pistons. The timing chain is an internal engine component and is NOT visible on the outside. Don't get confused with the serpentine belt which is visible on the outside and is routed around all sorts of engine components like your AC compressor, power steering etc.

    If your timing chain breaks while you are driving the engine will no longer function and you will be dead in the water just as if your alternator failed, however the collateral damage can be huge. When the timing belt breaks the moving pistons and valves loose their coordination and the piston will come to the top of the cylinder and slam into the open valves (valves are normally closed when the piston comes to the top of the cylinder). The valves (and probably the pistons) will be damaged beyond repair. So, instead of just having to replace the timing belt you'll be doing a complete engine breakdown to replace broken valves and damaged pistons. This is probably one of the most catastrophic events (next to a fire) that can happen to your car. On older cars, this is usually a death blow event since the repair is many thousands of dollars and far exceeds the value of the car.

    So how do you know when to replace the timing belt? You don't. As part of preventative maintenance you should replace the belt every 60,000 miles. When the engine is being reassembled, new parts (water pump, seals, pulleys etc) should all be replaced since the work to install an old part is the same as installing a new part. You don't want to reinstall a 60,000 mile water pump only to have it fail 5,000 miles later when it would have only cost $45 more for a new pump when the timing belt was being fixed. You're paying for the labor anyway.

    #7: I mentioned the serpentine belt above that is visible on the outside of the engine. This belt should be frequently checked for wear. If that belt breaks will you're driving you'll loose key functionality very quickly. With your serpentine belt laying on the highway 5 miles back, your alternator will not function (see tip #1 for repercussions). You will also loose power steering. The danger is that if you traveling down the highway at 60 MPH and all of sudden your belt breaks you'll quickly loose speed as your engine stalls but you will have a tough time making lane changes to get away from the tractor trailer behind you, because you'll also have no power steering. If you find yourself in that situation, get those hazard lights on ASAP, even while coasting. You'll be at a dead stop in a few hundred feet.

  3. Jimmy says:

    Replacing your alternator does not mean you need to replace your battery. You only need to replace the battery if it won't hold a charge.

    I had an alternator break on the way home from work. My alternator light came on, but the rest of the car ran fine. Seeing this, I immediately turned off my radio, dash lights, and ran on parking lights. I coasted as much as I could to reduce the need for sparks. My car ran for about 15 minutes and got me that much closer to home. I did not replace my battery.

  4. Raymond says:

    Ryan,

    Wow...if my 5 examples fall in the category of "crippling car breakdowns", your two examples seem to warrant their own label - "disastrous and utterly devastating breakdowns". I can't think of anything more extreme except perhaps full on car explosions!

    Thanks for sharing

  5. Jaitron says:

    omg i had this happen to me twice and had all the signs both times as well and didnt think @ all lol...... i was like what is wron with this stupid radio (it was an after market one)because the lights kept flickering..... then the second time it broke i thought it was something wrong with the motor in my window lol like that was the cause of my windows rolling up sooooo slow lol long and behold though it was the alternator......

  6. kortney says:

    Thanks for this info....my alternator is going out so i took your advice and sent it to the shop. Maybe thats why my windows don't work for crap too. I had to jump it to get it started twice yesterday and this morning to get to work.

  7. Noni says:

    few month ago our Nissan Patrol was giving us warning, red light alarm, we were driving down the road where we've purchased the car couple of month prior to that, so we turned and went strait to the dealer without making any prior arrangement, the service center didn't like that much, however we left the car with them for couple of hours, when we went to take the car back they said that there was nothing wrong with the car and just turned the red light off. yesterday, we started hearing a very loud noise coming from the bonnet, but since we know very little to non about mechanic problems we thought it was the belt, it was too late to take it inn, we went this morning to the mechanic and it was even louder than ever,Immediately the mechanic said the it's the Alternator that was broken, what I don't understand is why the light didn't give us warning? if the Alternator shows red light 4 or 5 month ago, could it last that long before it breaks totally down? also the battery didn't show any tired signs till now, I find this very odd!! anyone have any idea?
    thanks

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