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How to Spot A Broken Alternator? 10 Signs of A Bad Alternator

how to spot a broken alternator

If you're asking yourself “how to spot a broken alternator,” look for one of the following tin signs of a bad alternator:

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  1. Warning lights
  2. A dead battery
  3. Dimmer headlights
  4. Flickering headlights
  5. Difficulty starting your vehicle
  6. Loose connections
  7. Electric accessories problems
  8. Weird smells
  9. Strange noises
  10. Broken belts

Did you know that your vehicle's battery is not the one that is charging the electric component as you're running the car? Yes! The alternator is the one who's doing this job.

Since the engine does not generate electric energy, the alternator comes into play by converting this energy to electric charge and getting all your electric components working all the time. Unfortunately, the alternator might break down at some point in time due to various reasons. Therefore, you must learn how to spot a broken alternator so you can replace it and prevent dealing with negative consequences.

This article provides you with 10 signs of a bad alternator, and once you confirm dealing with one or more of these signs, you'll have to have your mechanic inspect the alternator and replace it if necessary.

What is the alternator, and what does it do?

Before we dive into the details about how to spot the broken alternator, let's step back and get an idea about what's the alternator and what does it do in your vehicle.

The alternator is a critical component in any vehicle equipped with a combustion engine. It is responsible for providing the electric component with electric charge if your engine is running. Unfortunately, there is a very common misconception that the battery is the one that's charging the electric component spot. Instead, it's the alternator's job.

The alternator uses the engine's mechanical energy, converts it into electric energy, and uses it to charge these electric components.

Since the alternator is not designed to last forever, you'll get to a point where the alternator breaks down or where you must replace it because it's not doing its job. When this happens, you must consult your mechanic and replace the alternator immediately; otherwise, you'll deal with many negative consequences that will interrupt your driving experience and, in some scenarios, prevent you from driving your car at all.

How to spot a broken alternator? 10 signs of a bad alternator

Since the alternator is a core component in your vehicle, you must ensure it's working all the time properly. While there is some information about the alternator replacement frequency in your vehicle's owner’s manual, the alternator might break down before then and before it reaches the end of its lifetime.

Let's take a closer look at how to spot a broken alternator by keeping an eye for the following ten signs of a bad alternator:

1.    Warning lights

One of the first and very common symptoms that indicate your alpha leader needs replacement is when you notice some warning lights on the dashboard. Your vehicle relies on these warning lights to communicate with you and bring your attention to internal problems.

Warning lights on the dashboard are not necessarily related to a bad alternator, and it's your job to use certain tools that help you scan the engine or consult your mechanic to check exactly what's causing these warning lights to illuminate. Once you confirm it's the alternator, then you can go ahead and replace it.

2.    A dead battery

As indicated before, the alternator is responsible for charging the different electrical components, including the battery. Therefore, when the alternator doesn’t work properly, your vehicle will rely on the battery instead.

Since the battery is not designed to charge the electric components, you will not deal with a dead battery in time. Otherwise, you won’t be able to start your car the next time even if you tried using a jump start because the jump-start only skips the car’s battery’s job but not the alternator.

3.    Dimmer headlights

Another common symptom indicating that you are dealing with a bad alternator is when the headlights are not as shiny as before. Again, you'll need to know how the headlights were before and when there wasn't an issue with the alternator so you can compare and determine it's dimmer than before.

Note that a bad battery might also lead to dimmer headlights in some instances, and that's why you need to dig further and find additional symptoms to confirm its delta letter.

4.    Flickering headlights

Like the previous problem, you might even notice that the headlights are not dimmer but flickering instead. For example, have you ever noticed that the headlight is very harp and then it suddenly turns dull? Again, this could be related to a bad alternator.

When the alternator isn’t working properly, it doesn’t generate enough power to charge the headlights continuously, and it will provide the required charge for shorter times based on how much energy is generated.

Dimmer and flickering headlights can be very frustrating in many instances. However, if you’re driving at night or during foggy weather, the headlights become part of your safety, and resolving the alternator’s problem becomes a must.

5.    Difficulty starting your vehicle

Whenever you notice that your vehicle is not behaving as it should and you are dealing with difficulty starting, the first thing that might come to your mind is a bad battery. However, the battery might not be the actual culprit because the issue could be linked to a bad alternator.

To confirm whether the issue is related to a bad battery or alternator. If the vehicle started, then the issue is related to the battery, and you must do further investigation. However, if the vehicle didn't start, the problem could be related to the alternator or any other component in the starting system. Keep in mind that a bad alternator might not be the only problem because it could be a combination of multiple faulty components simultaneously.

6.    Loose connections

Sometimes, you might check the alternator and see that it doesn’t have any problem—however, simple things like broken or loose connections. Take a closer look and inspect the connections. If you found any loose connection, try tightening it up; otherwise, you might need to replace the connections if they’re broken.

Note that if the connections are broken, you must not touch them because there might be some hazards of electric shocks. Mechanics should have the required tools to replace the connections without dealing with any safety issues.

7.    Issues with the electric accessories

Have you ever tried turning on the radio or the CD player and noticed that it's not working properly? Did you try using other electric components and accessories and realize that they're not functioning? One of the very common culprits where these issues could be a faulty alternator.

Various other things might lead to faulty electrical components, but checking the alternator should be one of your considerations.

8.    Weird smells

Another common symptom of a bad alternator is when you deal with weird burning or overheating smells. This happens, the alternator is overworking or overheating. You must learn how to differentiate between weird smells coming from your vehicle because not all of them are linked to a bad alternator.

9.    Strange noises

It’s very common for our vehicles to make loud noises, but when these noises are new, they could be related to an internal problem. Therefore, automotive experts recommend never ignoring any weird noise coming from your car because if you detect problems early, you get the chance to fix any faulty component without needing to install major parts.

When the alternator goes bad, you might notice some weird whining or growling noises as the alternator is engaged. These noises might happen because of a problem with the pulley that is connected to the alternator. Typically, this pulley relates to a certain belt, and it spins at different speeds than the crankshaft in your engine. So when the pulley doesn't have the right alignment, you'll hear these growling or whining noises coming from the alternator’s side.

10. Broken belts

Also, when the alternator is not working properly, you might deal with a situation where the belt connected to the alternator breaks down. If you take a closer look at the alternator, you might even find the belt missing because it got broken and your vehicle lost at some point.

How much does it cost to replace a bad alternator?

Replacing the alternator should cost you between $500 and $1000 depending on your vehicle’s make, model, year, and the location you get the job done.

The alternator part itself is not very expensive, but the labor cost might be a huge component in any alternator replacement. That’s why many people prefer to get their alternator replaced at small independent shops versus dealerships, where labor cost is much more expensive.

However, many people who drive luxury cars prefer to get their alternator replacement done at a dealership where experienced mechanics with advanced skillsets do the job.

On the other hand, some drivers try alternator replacement DIYs however, this is not recommended unless you have the right mechanical skillsets.

Can you drive with a bad alternator?

It is never recommended to continue driving your car with a bad alternator, especially if you’re driving a modern car. In modern vehicles, the alternator provides electric charge for more sensitive components that might get damaged and cost you thousands of dollars on repair.

How to spot a broken alternator? How to manually test the alternator

While you get a good idea about whether your alternator is working or not by monitoring the mentioned symptoms, it is worth performing a manual check and taking a closer look at the alternator yourself to confirm.

To do so, follow these simple steps:

  • Locate your vehicle's battery under the hood by following the vehicles owner’s manual
  • Use a voltmeter to test the current battery voltage
  • Turn on your vehicle and test the voltage again using the voltmeter
  • If you realize that the voltmeter reading when you're turning on the vehicle is higher than when the vehicle is not turned on, then your alternator is in good condition. However, if you find it otherwise, then they also need a requires replacement.


The alternator is one of the most critical components in your vehicle responsible for charging all-electric components. Unfortunately, when the alternator goes bad, you deal with many negative consequences that impact the way you drive your car and, in some instances, prevent you from starting the vehicle.

This article provided you with some 10 common signs of a bad alternator to help you answer how to spot a broken alternator. Once you confirm that your alternator is broken, you'll have to replace it immediately to resolve the problem. Note that if your vehicle has other major mechanical problems, you must evaluate the situation by comparing repair costs to your vehicle's value and confirming that your vehicle is worth the repair. Otherwise, you might want to consider selling your vehicle and using the money to buy a car that doesn't have any problem.

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