Looking Under the Hood: Your Guide to Car Battery and Alternator Issues

September 8th, 2023 by

A white 2023 Chevy Traverse is shown driving on a city road.

Ask any factory-trained and certified technician about car battery replacement, and they’ll usually agree that there’s no crystal ball. What do we mean? In a perfect world, car batteries would never fail, and they’d have set lifespans that eliminated any guesswork regarding their longevity. Unfortunately, the automotive industry is advanced, but it can’t see into the future—at least not when it comes to car batteries.

The million-dollar question every driver wants to know is, “How long will my car battery last?” It’s a valid inquiry that’s impossible to answer despite having the best team of technicians in the region. So, where does that leave our customers?

Instead of shrouding car batteries and their replacement in mystery, we’re dedicated to shedding light on one of your vehicle’s most critical components. We’re here to answer all your battery-related questions, from how often you need a replacement to recognizing the differences between battery and alternator issues.

Supplying Power: Your Car Battery & Alternator

Your vehicle is a lifeline to everything beyond your doorstep, from getting you to and from work to managing school drop-offs and pick-ups, activities, errands, and vacations. Every time you get in the driver’s seat, you expect your vehicle to respond—the ignition to kickstart the engine and create a chain reaction that puts you on the road to your destination. However, there’s more to that process than turning the key or pressing the start button…

Car Battery Basics

If a dead car battery has ever left you stranded, you know how much your vehicle relies on the battery for power; nothing happens without it—but why is this the case? Think of the car, truck, or SUV sitting in your garage like it’s sleeping and the battery as the caffeinated coffee that wakes you up in the morning. That hot java gives you a jolt of energy to get the day underway, and the battery does the same for your car’s engine by sending enough power to ignite the process and power other necessary electrical components.

Alternator Basics

The battery in your car is necessary to kickstart the engine and the chain reaction that follows, but it isn’t powerful enough to continue the job on its own. Fortunately, that’s where the alternator comes in. The alternator is more potent than the battery, allowing it to recharge your battery and power the essential electrical components your vehicle needs to run. So, how does it generate this power? It relies on magnets, a rotor, and a belt and pulley system to transform mechanical energy (the rotation caused by the belt and pulley) into electrical energy.

A mechanic is shown performing a car battery replacement.

Lifespans: Predicting the Future

There’s nothing quite like the dread that settles at the bottom of your stomach when you go to start your car and nothing happens. It’s a major inconvenience that often surprises you because your vehicle worked fine yesterday, immediately starting when you pushed the ignition button or turned the key. So, what happened between then and now?

Car batteries are notoriously fickle and unpredictable. There’s no hard and fast preventative rule or a gold standard among car batteries—or is there?

Factors That Impact Your Car Battery’s Lifespan

Unpredictability isn’t exactly a welcome thought when you’re behind the wheel, unless you’re referring to a last-minute weekend getaway. Because of this, most manufacturers recommend drivers replace their car batteries every five years, acknowledging that replacement will usually occur between the three- and five-year mark. This is a lengthy, generalized timeframe because the lifespan of your battery is also impacted by several other factors, like where you live and your driving conditions.

Batteries are designed to deliver immediate power to start your car, truck, or SUV. Once this surge is provided, the alternator takes over to maintain this steady stream of power and recharge the battery as you drive. If you frequently make shorter trips, the alternator doesn’t have adequate time to recharge the battery, or if you leave your car parked for long periods of time, the battery will naturally self-discharge.

Should this happen, you can jumpstart the battery, but this forces the alternator to work harder to fully recharge the battery. On the other hand, if the alternator fails, the battery is usually quick to follow because it’s overwhelmed with powering every essential electrical component when you turn the ignition and drive.

Your car battery’s lifespan is also affected by your environment. A quick glance under the hood shows that your battery’s proximity to your engine exposes it to extreme temperatures and vibrations. Extreme temperatures are notoriously hard on batteries, with the battery skyrocketing from a cold state to extremely hot in the winter and going from hot to scorching in the summer. These extremes slowly diminish the lifespan of your battery and can lead to structural failures.

A dark blue 2023 Chevy Malibu is shown parked near a city building.

Signs of Trouble: Car Battery or Alternator Trouble?

The most apparent indication it’s time for car battery replacement is that your vehicle won’t start when you turn the key or push the ignition button. These pit-in-your-stomach moments are hugely inconvenient, leaving you stranded and waiting on help or reaching out to a kind stranger for a jumpstart to ensure you can get back on the road and head to our service center. Either way, it’s a situation that every driver dreads.

But what are the other symptoms of a troublesome car battery? How can you tell the difference between alternator and battery issues?

Battery Trouble

Signs of impending battery trouble require you to rely on your senses and have situational awareness regarding your vehicle’s performance. For example, you may notice something that smells like rotten eggs, which indicates a battery leak that needs immediate attention. Visually, you may see a ‘check battery’ or ‘check engine’ light on the dash or notice the battery is swollen, visibly corroded, or damaged around the terminals. You may also hear battery trouble, which can sound like a slow cranking rumble from the engine or a clicking sound before the engine turns over.

Alternator Trouble

Fortunately, you can also use your senses to pre-diagnose an issue with your alternator. Like a bad battery, you may see a ‘check engine’ light on the dashboard, which is incredibly helpful and lets you know it’s time to bring your car, truck, or SUV into our service center for an assessment. In other instances, you may notice that your headlights are brighter or dimmer than usual or that other components—like the windows, heated seats, or radio—don’t work as well.

You can also hear and smell potential alternator troubles, like a burning rubber odor or a growling or whining noise under the hood. Finally, alternator issues also present as a string of dead batteries, which need jumpstarting; this indicates the alternator isn’t handling its workload and forcing the battery to do most of the work.

Put Your Car in Trusted Hands

Have you noticed any issues with your car battery? Do you hear a clicking sound when you start the engine or smell something like rotten eggs? Maybe your ‘check engine’ or ‘check battery’ light is glaring at you from the driver information center. Whatever the case, we’re ready to help with your car battery replacement. We’ll diagnose the issue, pinpoint whether it’s a battery or alternator issue, and communicate our diagnostic results with you before outlining the next steps and what you can expect from our team as we work to get you back on the road as quickly as possible.