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20 July 2015

How Do Car Electrical Systems Work?

Most of us need our cars to get through the day. Some of us sit in them for an hour every morning and an hour every night. Australians have a long history of loving their cars, and have the seventh highest number of cars per person in the entire world. They’re one of our most relied-upon machines, yet few of us have any idea how cars really work.

We might have a rudimentary understanding of a combustion engine left over from high school automotives, but when it comes to a car’s electrical system and more complex details, we’re usually completely lost.

Let’s learn a few things about how car electrical systems work.

The Battery –

Most of us know the battery because it’s the most recognisable part of the electrical system. You might have attached jumper leads to a car’s flat battery to help start it up. But what you might not know is that the battery is the start and end of the electrical system. Electricity needs to make a loop; one side of the battery sends electricity out and through the electrical system. When it has finished the loop it goes back into the battery. The first place that the electricity goes when it’s making this loop is to the starter.

The Starter –

The starter is a small electrical motor that turns over the engine to get the combustion process started and move your car forward. Old cars used to require the engine to be cranked by hand in order to start the motor, but we’re now able to do it electrically. The starter is attached directly to the motor.

Engine Control Unit –

The engine control unit is the computer in the car that monitors the cars performance and organises electrical charges and currents to optimise the system. It has a set of sensors that monitor how the car is operating and makes adjustments accordingly.

The Alternator –

An alternator is a mechanism that converts mechanical motion into electricity. It’s like having a tiny wind turbine in your car. The alternator is attached to the car’s crankshaft by a pulley system. This allows it to capture the rotational energy the motor produces, turn it into electricity, and return it to the battery so that the battery doesn’t run flat.  

Fuses –

The electrical system is a continuous, single circuit. If a component is ruined, this could affect the entire circuit. If a single component malfunctions this could also damage other components in the system.

To avoid this, the electrical system is broken up into different sections, each with a fuse between them. If a problem occurs in one part of the system, for example if the radio draws too much electrical power, the fuse will act as the weakest point and be broken by the excess in energy. Breaking the fuse stops the damage from going on to damage more components in the car’s electrical system. Fuses can be easily and cheaply replaced, though a blown fuse might also indicate that an electrical component itself has been damaged.        

Conductors and connectors –

Each of the functional components in a car’s electrical system need to be connected to each other in order to function. This complex system of connections involves wires, which transport electricity through the system, and connectors, which allow electricity to move from one type of wire or cable in to another. Often, an electrical error in a car will not be a result of direct damage to a component, but a result of a malfunction in a conductor or connector.

Knowing the fundamentals of your car’s electrical system is good knowledge to have. However, it’s a complex system that is very dangerous to work with. If something goes wrong with an electrical component in your car, you will need to hire an automotive electrician to rectify the problem. Taskforce has auto electricians Australia-wide and can be called 24/7 on 13TASK.