Not Making the Grade

Batteries, starting & charging systems, Part II

“They’re using the alternator or starter to troubleshoot an electrical issue without really doing some proper tests,” he says. “The light comes on so they replace the alternator without really checking anything out… then the car ends up coming back in and they have to redo the job and maybe they might just say, ‘Hey, this is a bad alternator, send me another one,’ and after a few times they finally say ‘Well, I better check something else out.’”

Eric Karr, account manager with Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America, says preparation and knowledge goes a long way in mastering electrical systems, and getting back to the basics is the starting point.

“You have to think critically,” he says. “In our training guide, we devote several pages at the beginning to the fundamentals of electricity—Ohm’s Law, a series of parallel circuits, what is the effect of current on different things—things you have to have some knowledge about. There is more knowledge out there, you just have to go and find it.”

Failure to grasp the basics of electrical systems can end up costing a fleet big-time, Karr says—and it happens far too frequently.

“We’ve had several occurrences where we get two or three parts back from the same vehicle and occasionally you’ll get a guy who says, ‘Gosh darn it, the starter just isn’t working correctly! I’ve had three of these things fail in my truck—what’s going on here?’” Karr says. “And a lot of times when a component fails multiple times on one vehicle, it’s not always the component itself that’s the culprit, it’s the system—it can be other parts in the system that’s causing that to fail.”


It is up to the technicians to stop simple errors from turning into costly fixes, but many times they fail to diagnose the real problem. One of the reasons many techs are deficient with electrical systems is because they came from a mechanical background, says C. E. Niehoff engineer James Becker. Modern electrics in trucks can simply be overwhelming for some, he says, and the result is often a knee-jerk reaction or guesswork instead of a measured, professional evaluation.

“If there’s a problem, they’re just going to replace (a part) and see if it works,” he says.

Becker says the way to get better efficiency from electrical systems is simply better training for those who maintain them.

“You’ve got to learn how to use the voltmeter, you’ve got to figure out if the problem is from the regulator or the alternator, or if it’s a battery problem,” Becker says. “If the battery is highly discharged, it’s going to load down the electrical system… and you’re going to think, ‘Oh, I’ve got low voltage—I’ve got a bad alternator.’ And it may have nothing to do with the alternator. There’s more electronics and the alternators have gotten bigger and the loads have gotten higher, so there’s more stress on a system.”

Proper troubleshooting is the only way to identify the source of a problem without replacing half the vehicle in the process, Seabourne says.

“We actually have come out with a checklist (because) a lot of these guys have been in the business and they think they know everything,” Seabourne says. “You hand them something like that and they are insulted by it, but often those are the guys not doing it right. And there are other guys that want to learn and are open to better ways of doing their system analysis. There are classes, training offered out there and (technicians) should be open to that.”


The real trick in training your techs is convincing them this new knowledge will help them in the long run, says Corey Glassman, President of the Automotive Training Managers’ Council and Automotive Program manager for Fluke, the Everett, WA-based electric test tool manufacturer.

“(Trainers) will tell you even through they spend a lot of money and time putting together a great program, one of the challenges is getting the butts in the seat,” Glassman says. “You can do on-line training, but after you’ve worked a long, hard day, the last thing on your mind is to go home and be trained. And if they are a working technician in a shop, the last thing the shop wants do to is take them out of their current environment where they’re making (the shop) money and getting vehicles fixed, and put them into training.”

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