Let's say your vehicle is running fine, until the battery light flicks on out of nowhere. Diagnosing it for free at Advance (or with your own code reader) shows that the alternator needs replacement. Not a great situation and you're probably wondering “How much is that going to cost me?" This repair is usually more than just the price of the component, so here's everything you need to know before you go buy a new alternator.
Signs the Alternator is Failing
If you think your alternator is starting to fail (or has already failed), look for these common symptoms:
You can investigate the symptoms and diagnose a failing alternator yourself with some basic tools. While alternators can last more than 100,000 miles, their internal parts spin when the engine is operating, and wear out over time. Chances are at some point in your car's life cycle, that alternator will have to be replaced.
Don't run out and buy the cheapest used or rebuilt alternator you find online. A "used" tag likely means it came from a junkyard, and has similar mileage to your failed unit. "Rebuilt" means only the defective internal part was replaced, while everything else is old. The proper solution is a new or remanufactured alternator. You know what brand new means, while "remanufactured" means the alternator gets completely taken apart, and many wear components replaced with new parts, often including upgrades for longer life. They have warranties too, and can last longer than new, since most of the internal parts are brand new.
Can I Drive with a Failing Alternator?
If you're asking this question, we'd like to start you off with a few of the basics here. Or, maybe you want to know if you can keep driving with a failing alternator for another week until payday. While there's some logic there, an alternator is a critical piece of the vehicle's engine. Simply put, an alternator is an electrical generator. When the engine is running, it spins the pulleys on the front of the engine, which are connected by a serpentine belt. That belt spins the alternator, which generates the electricity needed to recharge the battery after startup, operate electrical components like the headlights, radio, GPS, and fuel injection. When an alternator fails, the battery temporarily provides power to those components, until it runs out of juice. Then, everything powered by electricity, including the vehicle's computer, fuel pump, and ignition, stop working, and so does your vehicle. By the time you're seeing symptoms, it's already very near the failure point. Swap it out before it leaves you stranded, because you don't have a lot of time left.
How Much Does It Cost To Replace an Alternator?
Alternator prices vary due to different brands, sizes, and amps that various vehicles need. If you have an awesome audio system, odds are you'll need a more expensive alternator that puts out more amperage for your car's electrical needs. In general, expect $130 to $250 for a quality alternator. The lower end is offers professionally remanufactured alternators, while the high-end price range is generally new alternators running higher amps for modern vehicles. Twenty years ago, you didn't need an alternator to keep the navigation system, rear entertainment, and heated seats going, plus the constant draw from all the active safety systems. That extra power comes from larger amp alternators that cost more to build. Repair cost aggregate websites like RepairPal show an alternator replacement averages between 1 to 3 hours of work whether doing it yourself or having a mechanic swap it out. You'll have to factor that time into a shop's rate.
“For the alternator, It could go anywhere from $200 to $800," says Joseph Rakowski, owner and mechanic at Savage Automotive in Philadelphia. “We had a vehicle in recently that was four hours to remove and replace the alternator." According to Rakowski, that one took so long due to the need to remove several components to gain access to the alternator.
Keep in mind that battery replacement might be in your near future, adding to your expenses. When an alternator fails to the point of draining the battery, it is a condition far outside the normal operation. The severe power drain can cause internal damage to the battery, meaning it no longer holds a charge.
Replace Alternator Yourself or Go Pro Shop?
Replacing the alternator is usually a straightforward job, requiring very little mechanical experience and only common tools. On the difficulty scale, it's usually down there with changing your own oil or a serpentine belt; it's a great beginner maintenance task. Have a look at our how-to guides, and watch Gas Monkey Garage do it, to get a feel for replacing an alternator yourself. Remember to fully charge the battery before firing up. You fully drained the battery, so let's not damage the alternator by overworking it with this unusual condition. If you're not up for it, Rakowski has a few reasons you can bring it to him.
“From a maintenance standpoint, a professional can see other things going wrong with the system," says Rakowski. “There's a lot that goes on externally from that alternator that can directly affect it, so it may not be the alternator that is your issue. Is the alternator the problem, or is the dead alternator the result of something else?" He says if the customer doesn't catch that the failed alternator is a symptom rather than the root problem, then installing a new alternator will quickly repeat the problem.
“So if that A/C compressor is starting to lock up, and that serpentine belt is dragging on the alternator pulley, that may be what's killing [the alternator]. The A/C compressor is one of the biggest loads on the front of the engine, so it can definitely do in an alternator. Or, how about an oil leak coming down onto an alternator? There's a lot of different things that can happen to take out an electrical component."
Rakowski says his shop specializes in ongoing training for mechanics, and having high-tech tools to properly diagnose modern vehicles. This is beyond the DIY-er's ability and budget, so it can be worth the trip to a professional shop if your vehicle's alternator is not the root of your problem. While Philly might be too far of a drive for you, hit up Advance's Find A Mechanic tool to find a high-tech shop in your area. They can quickly install an alternator, and test and charge your battery while under the hood.
Have you had to replace your alternator? What symptoms did you notice? Let us know in the comments below.