Weird Car Electrical Symptoms
September 4, 2008 6:19 PM   Subscribe

2002 Toyota Camry, 64K miles. No previous symptoms. After a long drive, I stopped two minutes, then tried to restart the car. Nothing. Electric systems got a little screwy: windows wouldn't go down, clock and radio stations reset, automatic shifter stuck, as did key (wouldn't come out of ignition). Strange. But then all that stuff started working again (100% ok), but car still wouldn't start. At this point, I'd get a metallic staccato sound, but no turning over. Jump start worked perfectly, car drove home perfectly (note: it was night at this point, and my headlights were on) EXCEPT when I flicked my brights for a sec. Mayhem kept running, but laggy/weird, and speedometer went dead and random dashboard lights went on. After a few minutes, all returned to normal. I got home, parked, shut off car, and tried to restart (headlights off, of course). Nothing. Is this alternator? thanks!!!
posted by jimmyjimjim to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total)
Easiest thing to check, and it COULD conceivably cause all this is the battery connections. Sometimes a loose battery connection will let everything electric work, but can't provide enough of a connection to run the starter (it needs LOTS of electrons). Just make sure they're tight, take them off, put a little vaseline on there, put them back on tight.
posted by asavage at 6:23 PM on September 4, 2008

forgot to mention...headlights flickered slightly every time I touched the brakes.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 6:25 PM on September 4, 2008

If your battery is 6 years old, it may be dead. Like time to replace it dead. They don't last forever. I've seen all kinds of weird behavior with a shot battery. The clicking sound is the starter relays running but not getting enough power to crank the engine.
posted by autojack at 6:25 PM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

asavage, will try it. the thing, though, is that all electrical works fine in the car with engine off. Not the slightest problem (except for the scrambly moments). Yet the starter won't turn over at ALL, even after hours on the road.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 6:27 PM on September 4, 2008

That metallic staccato sound? Thats your starter not getting enough power. Take it to any auto parts store. They'll test your battery and alternator, usually for free. Most likely you need a new battery.
posted by sanka at 6:30 PM on September 4, 2008

Sounds like a battery. Take it to Autozone and have them check it out.
posted by luckypozzo at 6:32 PM on September 4, 2008

Yeah, it would. Like I said, the starter motor takes a metric shitload of amperage to operate compared to everything else in your car. You may need a new battery, but my money's on the connection.
posted by asavage at 6:38 PM on September 4, 2008

I had the same problem, different car. It was the battery cables. Replaced them myself >$20.
posted by itsamonkeytree at 6:42 PM on September 4, 2008

Car electrics suck. That said, it's not your alternator.
posted by pompomtom at 6:46 PM on September 4, 2008

Yeah, really really glad it doesn't seem to be the alternator (thanks, all!). That's the expensive possibility.

Six year old battery may well need replacing. Not sure how to tell whether it's cables, though....either way, battery will test dead, no?
posted by jimmyjimjim at 6:50 PM on September 4, 2008

I had similar problems in two different cars in the past. It was the battery each time.
posted by procrastination at 7:02 PM on September 4, 2008

Checking cables is very simple. Just look at the battery terminals. If they're sucured and free of gunk, you're probably alright. If they're corroded just remove the cables, clean them up with a wire brush, and reattach. At 6 years old though, just go ahead and replace the battery no matter what the problem is.
posted by sanka at 7:05 PM on September 4, 2008

Battery might not test dead. If it does, scrunch those battery clamps down and get a jump, drive around for about an hour and then turn the car off. If it doesn't start again, then by all means, go get a new battery. If it doesn't test dead (a nice full battery should test above 12v, even up to 13) then scrunch those suckers down and go about your business. Make sure that the clamp connection to the battery cables is very good, and when replacing them if that's needed, for god's sake don't reverse the polarity, because that WILL destroy the alternator (I've done this TWICE).
posted by asavage at 7:06 PM on September 4, 2008

yeah, battery terminals are totally uncorroded and seem tight. but I'll follow asavage's advice. Will take 'em off, reinsert them, tighten the bejesus out of them, then see what ensues. Maybe will buy a battery first thing, though, and keep in the car just in case (I can always return it if it turns out to be cables).

Thanks guy, this really helped a lot. For one thing, glad to avoid the clutches of a mechanic (there are no honest/competent ones where I am).
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:09 PM on September 4, 2008

woops, meant "thanks guys"
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:10 PM on September 4, 2008

The battery is probably toast, but get a battery brush and some terminal cleaner (aerosol). disconnect the cables, use the female end of the brush on the posts, and the male end on the terminals (or...similar...for your particular battery). Spray terminal cleaner on any fuzzy stuff. I had a cable that would work loose on my truck, with the exact same symptoms. If that doesn't do it, replace the battery.
posted by notsnot at 7:11 PM on September 4, 2008

And now we know for sure that adam savage doesn't just test myths. He also knows about car batteries.

My GF's car had the same issues, same symptoms, and a fairly clear looking set of terminals. 5 minutes with a wire brush and some wd-40= fixed problem. Don't just clean the terminals, also clean the wire connections. Rust/corrosion/oxidization aren't so much conductors as insulators.
posted by TomMelee at 7:19 PM on September 4, 2008

Six year old battery may well need replacing

In my experience, car batteries are rarely good for more than about four years. If I had weird electrical troubles and a six year old battery that was apparently refusing to accept charge, I'd be replacing it as a matter of course.
posted by flabdablet at 8:23 PM on September 4, 2008

What notsnot said. Also, if there are removable plastic caps on the top of the battery, pop 'em off and fill each cell with DISTILLED water.
posted by neuron at 1:50 PM on September 5, 2008

New battery. Perfect.

Thanks all. Bad alternator myth: busted!
posted by jimmyjimjim at 9:15 PM on September 5, 2008

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