If the charging light is lit on your dashboard or your battery won’t stay charged, chances are you’ve got a bum alternator. I’ll show you how to test yours without removing it from the vehicle and how to replace it if it’s bad. This hour of work will save you about $100 in labor, and even more if you’re a smart buyer (see “Alternator Buying Tip,” below). You’ll need a digital multimeter to perform the test, and you’ll probably need a battery charger to bring the battery up to full charge.
Start by testing the battery’s engine-off voltage (Photo 1). Then refer to the battery voltage chart below to find your battery’s “state-of-charge.” If the battery is less than 50 percent charged, you’ll have to charge it up to 100 percent with a battery charger before testing the alternator.
After you remove the battery charger, turn on the headlights (engine off) for four minutes. Then shut off the lights, start the engine and test the battery voltage again. If the alternator is good, you’ll get a voltage reading of 13.5 to 14.5 volts. If it’s not that high, turn on the headlights and the blower motor and raise the engine speed to about 2,000 rpm. If the reading still doesn’t hit the mark, let the engine run for five minutes and repeat the test. If it fails this time, replace the alternator. If the alternator does produce the correct voltage, move on to the diode test.
The diodes are the electronic part of the alternator that convert AC voltage to DC. Switch your multimeter to the lowest AC setting and reattach the test leads to the battery. With the engine running, you shouldn’t see any AC voltage. If you do, you’ve got a bad diode and you need a new alternator.
Start the alternator swap-out by disconnecting both battery cables from the battery. Then remove the wires and cables from the back of the alternator (Photo 2). Next, remove the alternator belt (Photo 3). Then remove the two alternator retaining bolts. The bolts are really long and you’ll be cranking for a long time. If there was ever a time to invest in an air-powered ratchet, this is it. The bolts are usually different lengths, so note where each bolt came from. With the bolts removed, lift out the old alternator and drop in the new one. Then reverse the procedure to reinstall.
Alternator Buying Tips
The economy has been really hard on original equipment auto parts manufacturers. Instead of selling only to the carmakers, some manufacturers now sell brand new alternators through online stores. In many cases, you can buy a new alternator with a lifetime warranty for 30 percent less than the cost of a rebuilt. So if you can live without your car for a couple of days, buy online. To find a seller, enter “Visteon alternator” in your search engine.