Ever wonder how your car is able to generate enough electricity to power the multitude of devices within including the air conditioning system, sensors, dashboard instruments, headlights, and much more? It’s because of the alternator.
It’s a part that’s built to last for the duration of a vehicle’s lifespan – and yet, somehow still manages to have problems from time to time. There are ways to prevent this from happening.
Today, you’ll learn how to avoid replacement, how to identify the symptoms of a bad alternator, the cost to fix an alternator, how to replace it yourself, and much more.
What’s the Cost of a New Alternator?
Alternators are definitely not cheap.
Prices can be higher or lower than others depending upon a variety of factors including the alternator brand, the store where you buy the alternator, and the type.
Alternators can be remanufactured, universal parts or high-quality performance parts.
Remanufactured parts are made of a combination of reused, repaired, and new parts.
Universal parts are generic in nature and will fit in most vehicles of a certain year or a certain make, although they’re not guaranteed to fit in every vehicle.
Performance parts are used in racing and luxury cars and are usually the latest model of a specific type of part. They oftentimes go beyond the specifications of the original equipment manufacturer’s part.
The total price of alternator replacement ranges from $10 to $2,100. The year, make, and model of the automobile also influence the price. For example, a Quality-Built alternator for a 2012 Cadillac Escalade 6.2L costs $105, but the same part for a 2018 Audi A8 4.0L costs a whopping $1,850.
Here are a few estimated price ranges for several well-known alternator brands:
- Eurospare: $170 to $200
- Denso: $25 to $615
- TYC: $75 to $200
- URO Parts: $75 to $80
- WAI Global: $60 to $650
To illustrate the price variation between makes and models, we’ve included a few different vehicle sample ranges which include the labor charge:
|Ford F-Series||$172 to $355|
|Chevrolet Silverado||$355 to $501|
|Ford Focus||$396 to $588|
|Toyota Camry||$350 to $749|
|Toyota Corolla||$263 to $709|
|Nissan Maxima||$343 to $472|
Where to Get an Alternator Replaced?
Besides the cost of the alternator itself, the total amount that you’ll be spending to get your car working will also include a labor fee. This fee is set by each individual shop and includes the mechanic’s hourly rate as well as an unspecified amount to cover the shop’s overhead.
Alternators can be replaced at either dealership stores like Ford and Volkswagen, or independent auto repair centers like Firestone and Meineke. Prices will vary, but in general, independent automotive centers carry a lower labor cost.
With that being said, the total estimated average cost range to replace an alternator based on the aforementioned conditions is $70 to $225. Again, this is only the average labor fee and the total cost to replace the alternator will include the price of the part itself.
If you have experience with cars, you can also replace the alternator yourself. It’s considered to be an intermediate-level job though. So if you haven’t tinkered with enough automobiles yet, it’s best to let a qualified technician take care of it.
What’s an Alternator?
An alternator may seem like a complex piece of machinery, but it really isn’t. In fact, the easiest way to understand an alternator is to imagine it as a generator – because that’s pretty much what it is.
This amazing device basically converts some of the power created by the engine into electricity and then uses it to fuel the electrical devices in the car. The alternator’s outer housing is made of aluminum and it’s located near the engine.
Most people mistakenly believe that a car’s battery is what powers the onboard electrical system, but that’s not true. Actually, a car battery only feeds the starter, which starts the engine. Once the engine is running, the alternator is what supplies electricity to the car’s electrical systems.
A vehicle without a working alternator can only last a short amount of time on battery power before the car dies.
While pumping current to the vehicle’s electrical devices, the alternator also goes a step further and re-charges the car’s battery at the same time.
It works with the same principles as a hydroelectric dam where water falls down over spinning wheels and generates energy. In an alternator’s case, the fuel-injected car engine’s piston-pumping force provides the power that enables it to create electricity.
Alternators were first used during World War II to power radio equipment. They were later widely installed in many electricity-heavy vehicles such as ambulances and radio taxis.
The first vehicle for consumers which included an alternator as standard equipment was the 1960 Plymouth Valiant by Chrysler. Several years later, Ford and General Motors began incorporating the same version of alternators into their new automobile models.
Symptoms of a Bad Alternator
Most cars that were constructed within the last 10 years are able to monitor whether the alternator is producing too much or too little current and will display a warning light on the dashboard to alert the driver.
The warning light will usually look like a battery, leading many people who see the light to believe that there’s a problem with the battery, which isn’t the case.
On other car models, it might say “ALT” or “GEN” instead. These stand for alternator and generator, and it’s important to note that many older cars refer to their alternators as generators.
Alternators are constantly trying to maintain a specific voltage output. The warning light will turn on when the power demand has exceeded its output capability or is not working to its full potential.
A warning light may sometimes flicker. This doesn’t always indicate an immediate problem, but it’s usually a precursor to issues with the alternator.
Keep an eye out for headlights behaving erratically. Such behavior includes dimming, flickering or extreme brightness. A bad alternator frequently creates electrical problems and can manifest symptoms like these. Other devices in the vehicle may also act the same way.
A speedometer or tachometer might suddenly stop working for no apparent reason. In the event of an alternator failure, each car is different in regards to which system or device it decides to prioritize. Most will turn off the radio or air conditioning as they are secondary to the headlights.
In most cases, when a car’s alternator is failing, the first thing you’ll notice is when you turn the ignition key and it won’t start. An engine that won’t crank is usually caused by a starter motor that’s failed to turn because it didn’t receive any power from the battery. So, the battery is dead. But why is it dead?
Remember that the alternator charges the battery while the engine is running, so a dead battery indicates a problem with the alternator. On the other hand, car batteries can experience problems all by themselves, so the best course of action is to diagnose your car immediately to determine if the problem is with the battery or the alternator.
Sound can also be a great aid in helping alert you to an alternator problem. However, a lot of different car issues produce strange sounds, so it’s best to keep a lookout for these symptoms in conjunction with other failing alternator symptoms.
An alternator that’s not functioning properly can make growling or whining sounds due to problems with one of its internal components. Keep in mind that the alternator only runs when the engine is on, so it might be difficult to identify the source of any weird noises once the vehicle has started up.
An alternator on the brink of death can also be detected by a nauseous stench. But then again, a lot of malfunctioning car parts give off bad smells and being that all of them are quite unpleasant, you won’t really be able to differentiate (or spend much time trying).
Just be aware that an overheated alternator can cause a burning wire or burning rubber smell. Identifying the symptoms is the first step to saving an alternator, possibly avoiding pre-mature replacement.
How to Keep Your Alternator in Good Shape?
Based on the severity of the issue that’s causing the above symptoms, your alternator may need to be replaced. Before you get to that point though, there are ways to prevent any problems from happening in the first place.
Age can be a factor in the decline of an alternator. The average lifespan of the part is around 8 – 12 years if well-maintained. If your vehicle’s age is around this range, failure may be inevitable.
Maintenance of the alternator, therefore, can play a big role in ensuring that it is able to live as long as possible and reach the extent of its capabilities. Here are a couple of tips to aid you in this endeavor:
- Check the Belt – An alternator is controlled by a drive belt called a serpentine belt. This belt is made of rubber and is one of the first parts to break down over time. Although there’s no set amount of time, serpentine belts typically begin to wear out between 40,000 and 70,000 miles. Replacing an aged belt for around $100 can prevent the alternator from being damaged.
- Clean It Out – Debris and dirt can block up vents, get stuck in gears, and cause mayhem with an alternator’s functioning parts. Use a clean rag and wipe any grease, oil, or dirt that might have gotten clogged up.
- Alternator Re-alignment – Regular wear and tear can cause the crankshaft pulley and alternator to fall out of alignment. During your periodic inspections, check the connecting parts and make sure they’re properly aligned.
If you’ve been keeping to a strict maintenance routine but the symptoms of failure continue to show up, the alternator might have bit the bullet and it’s time to say goodbye.