As the temperatures dip, we all know there could be problems starting our vehicles. After all, batteries can grow old and not hold a charge as well as when they were newer. Or starters can go bad. But there's one more component to keep an especially sharp eye on during winter: your alternator.
The alternator is sort of like a small generator. It sends power out to various parts in your vehicle that need electricity. That includes the battery, which needs charging to keep its power topped off. The alternator creates electricity by taking mechanical energy from the engine and turning it into electricity. It is connected to the engine by belts and pulleys.
In cold weather, the material the belt is made from is less flexible than it is in warm weather. That means it may not be turning the pulleys as effectively since it doesn't have the same grip. Also, when it's colder, lubricants, including the engine oil, are a little stiffer and parts just don't move like they do when the weather's warmer. With that extra strain, sometimes it takes the alternator longer to recharge the battery. That, in turn, may leave the battery a little less power to start the engine when it's cold.
You may have a warning light on your instrument panel that looks like a battery. If it lights up or if you notice your headlights flickering or not shining quite as brightly as they usually do, it could mean a weak alternator. But it also could be an aging battery, corroded battery terminals, a loose belt or another charging system part. Yes, it's complicated.
Pinpointing the cause involves testing the battery and charging system with diagnostic equipment. If it does turn out to be an alternator, there are options besides replacing it with a brand new, original equipment part. Ask your service advisor for recommendations. Obviously, you want your vehicle to start reliably, especially in cold weather. Take care of your charging system and it will take care of you.
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