How do I know if my alternator is dying?


battery under open hood ready to be checked to see if it is dyingAn alternator is an important part of the vehicle’s electrical system. An alternator recharges the car’s battery while the car is running and provides power to key car parts (i.e. headlights, starter, dashboard lights). Your alternator is the reason your dashboard lights stay lit, your headlights are bright, heater running, radio cranking out the tunes, and all those million other electrical components keep working.

So how can you tell when your alternator has gone bad? What signs tell you it’s time to replace an alternator? Because the alternator provides power to the battery, it can be incredibly hard to tell if the source of your car problems is the battery or the alternator—and you don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to diagnose the exact source of the problem. Some people may try to tell you to run the engine while disconnecting the negative cable of a pair of jump start cables; this method can damage the electrical system of the car. Instead, schedule an appointment with a mechanic if you notice any signs of a bad alternator.


When alternator bearings are worn, the damaged bearings can let out a squeal that is noticeable when the hood is open and outside the vehicle. Contact a mechanic to find out the possible source of the squealing noise (other possible causes of a squealing car are listed here).

Engine stalls

While a battery provides the initial power that starts your car, an alternator is what keeps the car going. If your car starts (or jump starts) but stalls after it starts up, a failing alternator could not be providing enough power to get you down the road.

Clicking sound

If your car starts rough, doesn’t start at all, or makes a clicking sound, an alternator could be the cause. The clicking sound typically occurs after the key turns in the ignition.

Dim lights

The power supplied by the alternator keeps the headlights and dashboard lights running. When an alternator is failing, the headlights or dashboard lights may seem dim when driving. Similarly, other electrical components can start to slow down because of a weak power supply from the alternator (i.e. slow power windows or seats).

Dashboard warning light

Most vehicles, especially modern vehicles, have a dashboard warning light notifying the driver when there is a problem with the electrical system. The warning light may have the words ‘ALT’ or look like a battery; contact a mechanic as soon as the battery comes on to prevent being stranded.

Random dead battery

Modern batteries are manufactured with enough power to run a vehicle, but not for the long-term. A battery can only keep a car running for so long without an alternator before the battery dies. Don’t automatically buy a new battery; take the car to a mechanic to find out if the cause is a bad alternator.

Odd Odor

An alternator has a lot of parts inside and around it; if any of these parts corrode or start to wear, you may start to smell an odd odor (i.e. electrical or burning smell). Schedule an appointment to find out the source of the smell and the problem.

What does that car noise mean?

car mechanic working on car that is squealingThe only sound you should hear is the soft purr of your car’s engine—and occasional loud music when your favorite song comes on. If you’re hearing another noise from under the hood (or in the wheel wells or…), don’t turn up your radio or ignore it. That noise could mean a serious problem that could leave you stranded. While we can’t give you an exact diagnosis until you bring your car in, we can give you an idea of what is causing that sound—and why you shouldn’t ignore it.


Possible cause: The serpentine belt keeps the AC, power steering pump, and other vital parts of your car functioning. A worn serpentine belt can let out a squealing sound when it’s time for replacement. If you wait too long, a broken serpentine belt can leave you stranded.

Possible cause: Wet or worn brake pads can let out a squeal. When the squealing doesn’t stop or is accompanied by vibrations, a pull to the left or right, and a soft pedal, schedule an appointment with a mechanic to get new brakes—and a safer feel when you press the brake pedal.

Possible cause: A power steering pump is part of the system that allows you to turn the steering wheel easily. When it feels like turning is a harder task or if the car is squealing when the car starts, the power steering pump could be the culprit. As soon as you can, contact a mechanic about checking the pump and power steering fluid level.

Possible cause: An alternator recharges the car’s battery while the car is running and provides power to key car parts (i.e. headlights, starter, dashboard lights). When the alternator bearings are worn, they can let out a squeal that needs to be addressed by a mechanic as soon as possible.


Possible cause: Brake pads with no pad left can let out a grinding sound when metal contacts metal. If you even suspect this is the problem, get the car to a mechanic immediately to replace the brakes.

Possible cause: Wheel bearings allow the tires to spin with little or no friction. Wheel bearings can last for more than 75,000 miles (even up to 150,000 miles), but they do wear out eventually and emit a grinding sound when they need to be replaced. Other signs of a worn wheel bearing are a vibration in the steering wheel and abnormal tire wear.

Rough starting noise

Possible cause: A car battery is one of the primary sources of power, which is why a car with a failing car battery has problems with starting. If your car is making a rough starting noise or the battery goes dead periodically, get the car in to the mechanic quickly for a new battery.

Possible cause: Spark plugs provide the spark that starts your engine. Over time, the gap at the top of the spark plug widens, impacting the spark and causing a slow start. Weak spark plugs can damage other parts of the car and cause the engine to misfire. Spark plugs can last anywhere between 30-100,000 miles; schedule an appointment to get those spark plugs replaced before they cause more damage or completely fail.

Possible cause: An alternator is another key part of your car’s electrical system. Typically, you can tell when it’s time to schedule an appointment for alternator replacement when the car is slow to start, makes a rough starting noise, the battery dies, or the headlights or dash lights start to dim.


Possible cause: Tire alignment is a matter of geometry; your car’s wheels leave the factory with optimal angles that can be altered (negatively) by pot holes and bumpy roads. In addition to shaking and rattling, cars out of alignment may also pull to the right or left or drive with a steering wheel that is not straight. If you suspect it’s time for an alignment, don’t wait to get your car into a shop with the right equipment for a full alignment. If you keep driving a misaligned car, you may have to pay more for replacing suspension parts and tires over the life of the car.

Possible cause: You car’s exhaust system is essential to the health of your car; it’s also an essential part of passing your next emission test. When parts of the exhaust are loose, they can cause a rattling sound that needs to be addressed by a mechanic.

Possible cause: Worn brakes let you know in a number of ways that it’s time for replacement (i.e. soft brake pedal, pull to the left or right). When your car starts shaking and rattling, it’s a sign that there is little (if any) metal left on the rotors and pads. Make an appointment with your mechanic before you have issues with stopping on your next commute or road trip.

Why is my TPMS light on?

TPMS light on dashThe TPMS warning light is just another annoying dashboard warning light that can be ignored, right?

The answer: no. Not if you want to be safe and NOT stranded on the side of the road.

What is the TPMS light for?

The TPMS warning light is a dashboard warning light that alerts you, the driver, to low tire pressure in one or several tires. ‘TPMS’ stands for tire pressure monitoring system. Basically, your car or truck has sensors in the tires that alerts you when the tire pressure is low.

What should I do to make the TPMS light turn off?

When the TPMS light is on, check the tire pressure of each tire (use these directions for checking tire pressure).  Fill up the tire or tires with air to the proper tire pressure recommended by your car’s manufacturer. The proper amount of pressure (noted as psi) for your vehicle can be found in your car’s owner manual or on a decal that is on the frame below you as you climb in the driver’s side door.

Your TPMS warning light comes on when your tires are 20% or more below the recommended pressure. By that time, your tire pressure is dangerously low—and dangerous to drive on. If your TPMS light comes on regularly, schedule a mechanic to see if your tire has a leak that needs to be fixed or to check for an error in the system.

The pressure of your tires rise and fall with the weather and road conditions. Make checking the tire pressure a regular part of your schedule. You can also have your mechanic check at every oil change.  Don’t rely on a quick glance or the tire pressure monitor on your dashboard; sometimes your tire can be low on tire pressure and you cannot tell from looking at it. If your tires are low on tire pressure often, contact your mechanic to find out if the tire can be fixed or if you need a new tire.

Why do I need a TPMS system? Why should tires be kept at recommended tire pressure?

Maintaining proper tire pressure in your car’s tires is more than just a means to keep the TPMS dashboard warning light off. Proper tire pressure is also safer and can save you money over the life of your tires.

Tires kept at improper tire pressure can cause handling and traction issues, which can be extremely hazardous during our cold Wisconsin winters and on our hot Wisconsin roads in summer. Overinflated or underinflated tires can lead to a flat tire, which can cause an accident, leave you stranded, and cost you more as you replace tires.

Tire pressure also affects the handling of the car. Overinflated tires give you a bumpy ride. Tires low on air guarantee a soft ride but can cause handling issues.

Improper pressure can also cost you more money in the short- and long-term. Tires with too much or too little air can decrease gas mileage, costing you more in gas the longer you own the car. Both underinflated and overinflated tires need to be replaced more often because it increases the rate of tire tread wear. With an overinflated tire, less of the tread makes contact with the road, wearing down selected sections of the tire tread more quickly. More of an underinflated tire comes in contact with the road, wearing down all of the tire tread. A tire not wearing properly leaves you vulnerable to blown tires and more frequent tire replacement.

Why does my car shake?

woman driving shaking car with a vibrationThe terms ‘shake’ and ‘rattle’ should be associated with food and baby toys, not with your vehicle. There are a number of reasons why your car could be shaking and rattling—and none of them are good for your car in the short- or long-term. That’s why you shouldn’t hesitate to get your car to a mechanic to find out which of these problems are causing that annoying car vibration.

Your car needs an alignment.

You can tell if the shake is from an alignment issue if the shake starts at around 40 mph and gets worse as your speed increases. Another sign is a steering wheel that is not straight as you drive down the road. Your car may also pull to the right or left when you drive. If you keep driving a car in dire need of an alignment, you may need to replace tires and suspension parts more often (costing you more in parts over the life of your car). If you do suspect your needs an alignment, schedule an appointment with a local mechanic who has the equipment and expertise to align it properly. A car should be aligned every 6,000 miles.

Your tires are wearing unevenly.

Your tires wear as you drive; how the tires wear can give you key insight into any problems (or lack thereof). Tires with uneven tread wear can cause your car to shake. There are many reasons tires wear unevenly, such as overinflated or underinflated tires, improper tire alignment, and a failing suspension part. Schedule an appointment with a mechanic to find out the reason for the uneven tire wear.

Your brakes need to be replaced.

A warped brake rotor is a common reason for car’s shake; it’s also a problem that shouldn’t be ignored. Usually, brake rotors wear because there is very little (or no) brake pad left. The metal-on-metal contact causes the shaking. The shaking is not going to stop until the brake pads and rotors are replaced. Schedule an appointment as soon as possible so your brakes don’t fail when you need them on the road.

You need new spark plugs.

One of the ways to tell if you need new spark plugs is a random shaking or vibration under the hood (look for these other signs of worn spark plugs). The shaking can be felt throughout the car, and can get worse over time. Driving with worn spark plugs can damage other parts of the car as well. Get your car into your mechanic as soon as possible to get new spark plugs and to eliminate the shaking.

You have front end issues.

There are other causes of shaking, such as damaged motor mounts or suspension parts. Only an experienced mechanic can diagnose the problem, prevent more damage to other parts, and stop the shaking before it gets worse.

Why do car batteries die in the cold weather?

woman trying to repair broken down carWinter in Wisconsin always comes with surprises, like the snow storm that the weather man didn’t predict or an icy spot on the road. What it shouldn’t come with is a dead battery and a surprise jump (or worse a dead battery that can’t be jumped).

While you can’t always avoid the need for jumper cables (unfortunately, some batteries fail unexpectedly), it can help to know why car batteries seem to fail more when the temperatures drop.

Why do batteries fail during winter?

Surprisingly, summer heat is actually harder on car batteries. Batteries consist of cells surrounded by an electrolyte solution (more information on how batters are made in this video). Hot weather can hasten corrosion and cause the solution to evaporate in the battery. This damage weakens the battery, which car owners often don’t notice until the temperature drops. When the weather gets colder, the fluids in a car become like molasses. It’s harder for the battery to start up the sludgy fluid in winter—leaving car owners out in the cold with a weak battery that needs to be jumped.

What is the right way to jump a battery?

  1. Park another car near the front of the car with the dead battery. Turn the car off, and use the parking brake if necessary to secure the car.
  2. BE CAREFUL! Electrical systems can cause situations where someone could get hurt. Be very careful when jumping a battery.
  3. Find the positive and negative terminal on the battery. A plus sign is positive and a minus sign is negative.
  4. Clamp the positive cable to the positive terminal on the dead battery.
  5. Clamp the other end of the positive cable to positive terminal on the live battery.
  6. Do the same with the negative terminal on the dead battery.
  7. Clamp the other end of the negative clamp to a non-moving metal part of the engine. Do not reach into any areas with moving belts or parts.
  8. Start up the car that runs. Let the car run for a few minutes.
  9. Try to start the car with the weak battery.
  10. Remove the jumper cables.
  11. Get your battery checked and replaced if necessary.

If a battery needs to be jumped often, contact a mechanic to get the battery tested. A weak battery should be replaced.

How can I tell if my battery is going to fail?

As mentioned before, a dead battery cannot always be foreseen. In most instances, however, there are signs that a battery needs to be replaced:

Last Minute Holiday Driving Checklist

woman driving to family holidayHeaded out to visit your family and friends for the holiday season? You’re not alone. AAA estimates that more than 90 million Americans travel more than 50 miles during the holidays. Before you hit those crowded highways, use this checklist to make your travel merry and keep you from being stranded on the side of the road in our Wisconsin winter weather.

Week before your trip

___Schedule an oil change and get any other routine maintenance done.

___Replace your battery (if you experience any of these signs of a worn out battery).

___Pack an emergency roadside kit (with these emergency items).

___Put your tow truck number in your cell phone.

___Double check that your spare tire kit is complete.

___Check your tire pressure (here’s how to check your tire pressure).

___Test your tire tread depth (if it’s low, contact your mechanic for new tires before your trip!).

___Replace any worn windshield wiper blades.

Days before your trip

___Map out your route.

___Watch weather reports.

___Pack snacks.

___Load up on entertainment for your passengers.

___Fill up your windshield reservoir.

___Check your oil.

___Take along tunes that keep you alert.

___Pack everything you need for a fun family holiday (gifts, suitcases, warm winter gear, etc.)

Once you are ready for the road, have a safe and happy holiday trip!

14 Tips that Prepare You (& Your Car) for Winter Travel

wintry road in the middle of snow stormWe live in Wisconsin. Our state does not shut down for snow—or any crazy winter weather, for that matter! That’s why we all should take a few minutes to prepare our car for the treacherous winter roads that are part of winter driving.


  1. Schedule all oil changes well in advance so you’re ready for your holiday travel.
  2. Have your oil replaced with a lighter weight for the winter.
  3. Check and fill your antifreeze fluid.


  1. Keep your washer fluid reservoir filled so you have clear visibility during winter storms.
  2. Replace your windshield wipers.

Preparedness Tips

  1. Stock up your winter emergency kit (here’s what to pack in your car before the snow hits).
  2. Keep a pair of boots in your car in case you go off the road.
  3. Put road flares in your car so other motorists can see you if you need to pull over.


  1. Check your tire tread to ensure your tires have traction when you need it.
  2. Put new snow tires on so you can make it through the snow. (Find out the difference between all-season and snow tires.)

Preventative Tips

  1. If your dashboard lights are on, get your car in to your mechanic to diagnose and repair any problems.
  2. Have your battery checked and replaced, if needed (watch for these signs that it’s time for a new battery).
  3. Schedule an appointment to get your car a general check-up (hoses, belts, suspension, etc.).
  4. Don’t wait to get your brakes replaced when they wear down (look for these signs of worn brakes).

6 Ways to Prepare Your Car for Winter Driving

truck driving on winter road with snow tiresWhen the weather feels like a roller coaster, it can be easy to get caught off guard. One minute, you’re enjoying pleasant fall weather then…BOOM! you’re driving in a snow storm. Here’s how to stay ahead of the snow forecast (at least in regards to your car!) so you and your car are ready for the first Wisconsin snowfall—and for all the slippery, wet winter driving.

Get your fluids checked

Low vehicle fluids can spell disaster when you need them the most this winter. Check your antifreeze level in your reservoir to ensure that your car doesn’t overheat at a vital time (like in the middle of a snowstorm). Make sure your oil level is between the two lines on your dipstick (find directions for checking your oil here) so your engine doesn’t leave you stranded.

For optimal visibility, check your windshield washer so you can clean your windshield during a heavy snowfall. As long as you’re at it, inspect windshield wipers for wear and tear. If they are in bad shape, purchase a new set to get you through winter—you don’t want to go through a bad winter storm without a properly functioning windshield wiper.

Make sure your battery starts

Winter temperatures can turn your vehicle fluids to the consistency of molasses, meaning you need a strong battery to turn your engine over. If your battery is old, or weakening, it may not have the power to start up your car and leave you stranded with a dead battery. So you don’t get stuck out in the cold, ask your mechanic to check your battery and make sure it’ll make it through another winter.

Check your brakes

Prompt braking is an important part of winter driving. As you drive, pay close attention for signs your brakes need replacing or have your mechanic check your brakes so you can easily stop when needed (like during a heavy snow fall). Make sure you have adequate brake pads to ensure that you can avoid accidents when the roads are wet.

Put on snow tires

If you have to venture out in the worst winter weather, consider purchasing a set of snow tires for your vehicle. Snow tires are specifically designed for traction and handling through all the snow that comes with winter driving. Constructed with a softer compound and tread pattern designed specifically for getting through snow and ice, snow tires can find traction on even the roughest roads.

Remember as you shop for tires that traction control, common on many vehicles, is not a replacement for snow tires; traction control adjusts the speed of your tires to conditions, but does not give your vehicle more traction while driving.

Stock up

Winter road emergencies are, unfortunately, a part of winter driving. Assemble a winter driving kit before the weather turns bad. Store your supplies, like a flashlight, jumper cables, boots, shovel, gloves, and other necessities (a full list of winter emergency kit supplies are here) in a waterproof container that can withstand the winter weather.

Check your four wheel drive

If you have a vehicle with four wheel drive, make sure it’s ready to function when needed. Test your four wheel drive, and have your mechanic repair any issues so you can head out on the road when our winter roads turn slippery and wintry.

Does my car need new spark plugs?

car engineThe good news: you don’t need to know what a spark plug does in your vehicle to know when you need new spark plugs. What you should know is that ignoring this car maintenance task can negatively impact the performance and fuel mileage of your car. Here’s how to know when you need new spark plugs so you can prevent that from happening:

Poor fuel mileage. Because spark plugs are responsible for the spark that ignites the fuel-air mixture in your engine, spark plugs can cause your fuel mileage to drop. Determine if your fuel mileage is decreasing by tracking your fuel purchases and mileage between each fill up. If your fuel mileage does decrease, let your mechanic know so they can diagnose the problem and lower your rising gas bill.

Slow starts. Spark plugs provide the spark that starts your engine. When that spark is not as strong, your engine may turn over slower than usual. Over time, the gap at the top of the spark plug widens, impacting the spark and causing a slow start. Schedule an appointment to replace your spark plugs.

Engine surges and misfires. A lone misfire or surge is not a sign that your spark plugs need to be replaced, but consistent engine surges and misfires can be caused by old spark plugs.

Sluggish acceleration. If your spark plugs haven’t been replaced and your car is slow to accelerate, it could be a sign that it’s time to contact your mechanic. Depending on the kind of spark plugs you choose, plan on replacing your spark plugs every 30-100,000 miles.

Spark plugs are the spark that ignites the fuel-air mixture in your cylinder, creating the combustion that starts and keeps your car engine in motion. If you wait too long to replace your old spark plugs, you can damage other parts of your car.

When should I put on my snow tires?

truck driving on winter road with snow tiresIt may be a little early to talk snow, but it’s never too early to start thinking about readying your car for winter. Snow tires are one of the most obvious ways to do so; that’s why it’s an ideal time to research your snow tire options before the first snow storm hits and you need snow tires.

When should I put on snow tires?

Snow tires should not be mounted too soon before the first snow fall; snow tires are made of a soft rubber compound that can wear off on warm pavement. Contact your local tire store about putting on snow tires when the temperature routinely hits 40 degrees (or near freezing) or there is news of upcoming snow.

Why snow tires?

Snow tires have a unique tread that is designed and manufactured for optimal handling on wet and slippery roads. With a softer compound, snow tires can handle better than all-season tires since they are constructed specifically for winter roads and conditions. Snow tires are not a replacement for the traction control found on many vehicles (or visa versa); instead snow tires are another way to assist drivers who routinely venture out on wintery roads.

If you don’t want to deal with mounting and dismounting your tires every season, look into purchasing a second set of rims specifically for your snow tires. With a second set of rims, you don’t have to go through the hassle of being without a vehicle while your mechanic remounts tires.

What should I look for in a set of snow tires?

Purchasing snow tires is similar to buying a set of all-season tires. There are three primary factors to use when buying snow tires: 1) tire size 2) your expectations for your next set of tires and 3) driving style.

Once you’ve determined the size you need, do your research (or trust someone who knows your vehicle and can recommend tires) when buying snow tires, and be honest with yourself about your driving style. If you have to venture out in the worst winter conditions, select a set of tires with a proven record on winter roads. Choose a set of snow tires with improved handling and traction; again the exact set is going to depend on your driving style (don’t be afraid to ask your mechanic or local tire store for recommendations).

When should I take off snow tires?

Wait until the threat of snow has passed. When the temperatures start hitting the upper 40’s or low 50’s on a regular basis, it’s time to take those snow tires off—but try not to make the switch too soon. You don’t want to get stuck in a spring snow storm on all-season tires when you bought a set of snow tires for safety and increased traction.