This article tries to describe some of the weird electrical faults you can find on vehicles and how you may be able to fix them…
If a vehicle has a bad electrical connection (dirty, tarnished, or corroded connections), it can cause all sorts of strange behaviours, such as lights dimming, other lights coming on, indicators causing other lights to flash, lights not working at all, etc? The worst is when you get dashboard warning lights coming on for what seems, no apparent reason!
Things not Working Correctly:
A Bad Earth:
If your indicators are flashing too fast, see this article – My Turn Signal (Indicators) Flash Fast on One Side?
This type of fault is usually down to a bad electrical connection somewhere. You can also get a fault generally known as a ‘Bad Earth’.
General ‘Weird’ Faults, (where you can’t find anything wrong):
Or, in the case of where the light’s just don’t work, it can be a suspect connection, or a broken wire. Worst case (with a modern car post 2000). A control unit is defective, or has a glitch.
Damp can also cause a multitude of faults…
A Bad Earth:
On vehicles where the bodywork is made of metal, the return path for the supply (back to the battery) is via the metal bodywork. On cars made of non-conductive materials, such as fibreglass or plastic, the return path for the supply is via a cable. Due to the bad connection(s), the electricity is trying to find its way home another way. It does this by passing through another light fitting. The lights tend to be dim because the electricity passes through more than one light bulb, a bigger load (higher resistance).
* Caution: If Disconnecting the Battery *
Do not short the battery connections, or yourself between the live supply and the earth (or bodywork). It will give you a shock! 12v is not enough voltage to kill you, (but batteries larger than 12v may be a different story). In rare cases the battery could explode (via a spark, igniting hydrogen gas given off by the battery) sending acid and battery bits everywhere…
Also check for additional issues when disconnecting a vehicle battery, such as:
The vehicle handbook should advise of any vehicle specific quirks when disconnecting the battery…
* If you are unsure about working on vehicle electrics, seek the advice of an electrical engineer *
For a ‘Bad Earth‘, see the section below…
On modern cars (post 2000) fault finding has a few more things to take into consideration. The vehicles electronics often try to be helpful, with fault codes, faulty bulb indications, etc. If there is a change in the circuit parameters, the electronics can switch off supplies if a fault is detected (protection from damaging sensitive electronics, melting wires, fire etc).
This could be why a supply is missing? Try and trace to see how far the actual supply gets. I wouldn’t be surprised if a control unit is switching off the supply because it thinks there is a fault?
I have a BMW Mini that has been throwing an intermittent wobbly on the rear left hand indicator for a while. There is nothing wrong with the lamp and there is a supply present:
The light works for a while (a few weeks). It then goes out and comes back with a fault indication on the dashboard? This went on for a couple of years…
In the end it was tarnishing. Tarnishing is where something loses its shine or lustre, often caused by oxidation of the surface. There is no apparent corrosion, just a slight dullness of the component. For electronics, brass and copper are good examples, where the tarnishing is sometimes a bit more visible. It can often be cleaned with an ordinary pencil rubber. But sometimes a fine scourer has to be used.
In my case, the fault was tarnishing of a galvanised circuit on the light fitting. Galvanised steel is a cheaper alternative to copper in some light fittings and is quite common these days. I cleaned the contact surface and protected it with a small amount of silicone grease, (silicone grease doesn’t destroy rubber or plastic). Vaseline can also be used if the is no rubber or plastic nearby. The light has now been working for some time… 😀
Because of the ‘modern electronics’, you may need to check all the connections in the circuit to make sure there is no added resistance (corrosion, bad contacts, etc). This type of fault can be a pain, as when you connect and disconnect the circuit, it creates a good ‘new’ connection (no fault found), but over time, days, weeks, months the fault can reappear. If you can’t find anything wrong, It can sometimes come down to slight tarnishing of any contacts, weak contact pressure (the connector), corrosion, contamination, etc. If there is a slight change in resistance values or voltages, outside of the control units parameters, the vehicle CPU can start throwing up errors!
As an example… (as a summary):
The solution, is to find the bad connection on the ‘return path’ of the electricity. The ‘return path’ or ‘fault path’ can be in a number of places.
Don’t leave the wrong ‘wattage’ light bulb in the wrong socket. As this can lead to lights with the wrong brightness (one bright tail light and one dim, dim brake lights, etc, etc)
(Strange things happen – With vehicle electronics)
Here’s some examples…
A fault showed intermittently on the dash board, as a handbrake warning light and another weird warning symbol. The handbrake symbol would vary in colour (red and sometimes orange). Wandering around the vehicle, I noticed a rear side light had gone out.
I fixed the rear sidelight, (a bad connection to the lamp) and the dashboard errors disappeared! But it showed a handbrake warning? It’s always worth looking around the vehicle for unrelated faults. They could actually be related in some way. Electronics can do strange things…
On occasions, when you opened the driver’s door, the boot (trunk) lid would pop open? The rear number plate light housing (which contained a micro switch to open the boot manually) had water in it. But, what that’s got to do with the driver’s door..?
It turns out, the curtesy light (which came on when you opened the door), went to the same electronic control unit as the boot (trunk) lid switch. Light comes on > damp switch > boot opens…
Strange things definitely happen with vehicle electronics!