Johannesburg - We all take our cars for granted, and when they do break down, whether in rush-hour traffic on the way to work or in the middle of nowhere on a holiday weekend, it’s always a major hassle.

Have you ever had your car break down in your driveway? Neither have we.

As Dawid Botha, spokesman for insurer Virseker, pointed out: “Mechanical breakdowns can wind up being anything from a minor inconvenience to a major catastrophe. Very often, however, these breakdowns could easily have been avoided if the warning signs had been spotted and addressed soon enough.”

The Automobile Assocation tells us there are seven leading causes of vehicle breakdowns - and five of them are electrical - so a little time spent learning what the various components do, what the warning signs are when they’re about to give trouble, and what to do about it, would be well spent.

The commonest culprits are:

A flat or faulty battery, alternator faults, starter motor faults, clutch faults, spark plug problems, electrical faults and transmission problems.

Relax - it’s not rocket science.

THE BATTERY

The battery is simply a boxful of electrical energy; it powers the core systems that get a vehicle’s engine started - the starter motor, fuel pump and spark plugs - until the engine is up and running and can provide its own electrical power.

That means, however, that the battery has to power all the car’s electrical systems (such as the audio system, lights and aircon) when the engine isn’t running - and it can’t do that for very long.

Warning signs: Powdery deposits on the the battery and its cables. Loose cables (Give them a tweak with your fingers - if they move at all they’re loose!).

Quick fix: Battery terminals are slightly tapered, so if you give them a tap with the heel of a shoe or something similar, they’ll tighten up slightly. It’s no substitute for tightening the pinchbolts properly, but it’ll get you home.

Low water level (if it’s not a maintenance-free sealed battery): If you can see the plates above the water level when you unscrew any one of the caps and look through the hole, top it up with distilled water, available at most supermarkets, garages or pharmacies.

Tips: Check your battery once a month - just tweak the cables and eyeball the water level. We do it on the weekend after payday because that’s the easiest to remember.

If the dashboard light are dim before the car is started, or the engine turns over slowly when you turn the key, the battery is low on power - this could be because you’ve been parked and sitting in the car with the radio and aircon running, or because the battery is getting old and not holding its charge.

Car batteries generally last about three years, so keep a record of when yours was replaced; if it’s more than three years ago, it may be time for a trip to the fitment centre.

ALTERNATOR

The alternator uses engine power to make electrical current, which is used to operate the car’s systems and to charge the battery, ready for the next start.

Warning signs: Battery warning light - which means exactly what it says: the car is using battery current faster than the alternator is making it. Dim lights when the vehicle’s engine is running, or a relatively new battery that loses charge even when the vehicle is being driven. Loud chirping noises from the fan belt - that means either the belt is loose or the alternator doesn’t want to turn!

Tips: If you notice any of these symptoms, have the alternator checked by a professional; the alternator may need to be replaced, but it could be something as simple as worn-out brushes - in which case it can be repaired.

STARTER MOTOR

The starter motor is powered by the battery; it turns the engine over until it fires up and runs on its own.

Warning signs: If the car’s engine doesn’t turn over even with a fully charged battery, doesn’t always turn over, or you hear a rapid clicking noise from the engine and nothing else happens - or if the starter keeps turning after the engine has started.

Tips: Take the car to an auto electrician right away. It could something as minor as a starter relay, or the starter motor might need rebuilding. Since that’s quite labour-intensive, the usual practice is to fit a new or refurbished starter motor.

Major disaster warning: If the battery is fully charged and the starter motor strains like a constipated cow but still can’t turn the engine over, it’s not the starter, the engine may be about to seize. Stop trying to start it and call for back-up.

CLUTCH

The clutch connects and disconnects the driving force from the engine to the wheels.

Warning signs: Difficult or noisy gear changes. The car keeps moving forward even with the pedal fully depressed. The clutch takes up too softly or there’s a burning smell.

Tips: Keep your foot well away from the pedal while driving, accelerate very gently to avoid clutch slip, and don’t drive any further than you absolutely have to - a clutch that doesn’t release fully can do the gearbox and drivetrain a lot of harm. Get it to a mechanic pronto. Also, don't try to balance the clutch while waiting at a robot. It might save you a millisecond when he light turns green, but you'll lose that time and then some when your clutch packs up from overheating one day.

SPARK PLUGS

The spark plugs ignite the fuel in petrol engines.

Warning signs: Difficult starting, rough idling misfiring, lack of power or high fuel consumption.

Tips: Ensure that spark plugs are changed at the recommended intervals. Check that they are tightly screwed into their holes and that the leads (cables) to them fit firmly onto the tops of the plugs.

Don’t do these checks while the engine is running. Spark plugs operate at about 30 000 volts; a shock from a spark-plug will lend entirely new meaning to the term ‘wake-up call'.

ELECTRICAL SYSTEM

Your car’s electrical system is an interconnected network that powers everything from the windscreen wipers and electric windows to the fuel pump and safety systems.

Warning signs: A failure of one or more of the critical systems: lights, the instrument panel, or windscreen wipers.

Tips: Modern cars have a multi-pin connector for a cable to a diagnostic computer, which will quickly tell the mechanic if there is an electrical fault and, within limits, what’s wrong.

If your car predates the computer era, check everything electrical - from the wipers to the lights (inside and out) to the heater, once a month, at the same time when you check the battery. If something doesn’t work, have it checked out by an auto electrician.

TRANSMISSION

The transmission varies the delivery of power from the engine to the wheels by means of gears.

Warning signs: Struggling to engage certain gears, or if the car jumps out of gear into neutral by itself. If the car hesitates before moving when you release the clutch and then jumps forward, or if you hear grinding or rattling noises from the gearbox, see oil on the ground where the car has been standing, or feel a lot of heat coming from the gearbox area.

Tips: If you experience any of these, don’t try to “drive through it” – this is a purely mechanical problem and will rapidly get worse, or damage other components such as the engine, clutch and differential if you drive the car. Call for back-up and get it towed in - it will probably be cheaper in the long run.

Picture sources: Newspress, Bosch, Volkswagen.

IOL Motoring

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