Alternators

Alternators

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Alternators – The ‘Power Stations’ of the Modern Car

The alternator is the car component that replaced the generator commonly used in older cars. Still unsure what an alternator is? OK, in simple terms it is the thing that converts the energy in your gas tank into electric energy that feeds the battery in order to run components, such as: headlights, air conditioners, radios, electric windows, wipers, brake lights, and lots more. If it’s electric, it came from your battery via the alternator.

The alternator is an electromechanical device. Alternating current electrical energy is produced by converting the mechanical energy from the crankshaft via a belt that turns the alternator. This electrical energy then feeds and recharges the battery. When you switch your headlights on in your car, the power comes directly from your battery. And if the engine is not running, then the battery will eventually lose all its stored power and go flat.

However, when the engine is running, whether or not the car is moving, the mechanical rotation of the alternator replenishes the power being lost through having the headlights on, and keeps the battery fully charged. It’s a bit like having your own personal mini power station right inside your car!

The alternator is a strange replacement for the generator used in older cars. You see, the car battery cannot use alternating current, which the alternator produces. However, the older generators produced direct current, which is exactly what the battery needs. So, why did we not stick with generators and their direct current output that the battery loves? Surely that would make sense?

Well, yes and no. Using alternators does mean that there has to be an ‘extra’ step to convert the electric output from alternating current into direct current. But the sheer efficiency of the alternator compared to the old generator outweighs any perceived ‘clumsiness’ involved.

For one thing, alternators can produce very high voltage while the car is idling at a slow engine speed. The old generators needed a fast engine speed to produce sufficient voltage for the battery. The alternator is capable of this because it is really three mini alternators in one. Without getting too technical, each mini alternator is out of phase with the others, but in one revolution of the alternator, each mini alternator puts out a voltage charge. That equals three voltage charges going out for each revolution it makes.

This has additional advantages. If your car’s alternator is not fully up to scratch, it could mean that one of the mini alternators has failed. This is something that needs to be addressed, but on the other hand, it means that your alternator is producing two thirds of what it should produce. This is most likely more than enough for your battery to function properly. In other words, your alternator is not likely to fail suddenly, but rather in stages, giving you plenty of warning.

If your battery is not appearing to keep its charge, then it could be the alternator at fault. But it could be other things too. The belt that drives the alternator could be slipping, or broken. Or the battery itself could simply be at the end of its life. A properly operating alternator depends on many little components all working together. When this happens, you will have your very own little miracle power station under the hood of your car.

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