Grease Monkey: Do It Yourself or Pay a Mechanic (3 of 4)

Grease Monkey 3 Header

There are some things every man can and should do. Others are best left to the automotive professionals. Learn your way around your car's electrical system in part 3 of Grease Monkey.

By Jesse Stern

So you found an old beat up car. You were going to restore it, turn it into a “classic”, hammer out the dents, paint it orange, line the walls and ceiling with shag carpet, hang dice from the windshield, and put a Barack Obama bobble head in the back … but so far you’re just trying to make it run. After a few trips to the mechanic, you’re wondering if maybe you should have bought a new car. But, for now, you’re stuck with this junker.

Electrical System

Car won't start? Turn the key and … nothing? The main problem with electrical issues is diagnosis – identifying the problem. If you turn the key and nothing, it's probably either the starter or the battery. If you turn the key and it sounds like your Uncle Al having a slow coughing fit, it's probably the battery. The thing is, if it's the battery, it could also be the alternator. While it's pretty easy, and can be very educational, to change the alternator, battery starter, and so on, if you're not absolutely sure that the item you're changing is indeed the problem, you may wind up with a whole bunch of new parts. In that case, it would have been cheaper to…

Verdict: Pay a Mechanic

Do It Yourself:
For diagnosis, get yourself a Haynes Manual for your car's year, make and model. Auto parts stores sell them, and you can often check them out at your local library. Once you have your diagnosis figured out, changing the parts is as simple as out with the old, in with the new. Just be sure to disconnect the positive (+) side of the battery before messing with anything. On some cars, changing belts requires the skills of a contortionist. Also, tightening the alternator involves getting some leverage. To do this, you will need a hammer and possibly a strong friend. Use the hammer to wedge the alternator until the alternator belt is tight, then tighten the two bolts that hold the alternator in place. Some newer cars make this process easier, but it's more fun to use a hammer. To make it even more fun, cut off the sleeves on a flannel shirt and wear while working.


Pay a Mechanic:
The cost varies, depending on the job. Many auto parts stores will recharge your battery for free. If this is the only issue, then kudos. Otherwise, prepare to shell out a hundred bucks or more.

The Jump

If you left the lights on and your battery died, most likely you only need a jump to get the car started. From there, the alternator will recharge your battery and everything is cool like Fonzarelli. To jump-start a car, you need jumper cables and another car. Turn off the working car, and connect the jumper cables in this order; otherwise you will create scary sparks:

(+) on the working car

(+) on the dead car

(-) on the working car

(-), or a grounded piece of metal on the engine block, on the dead car.

Jumper diagram

Start the car that starts, let it run for a minute or two, then your car should fire up and purr like a kitten. Disconnect in reverse order.

Tip: Jumper cables are good to carry around in your trunk if you tend to leave your lights on. Also good for the opportunity to be a Knight in Shining Armor for some hapless damsel whose battery has died.