Hope Me Hope My Mechanic
January 9, 2017 6:37 PM   Subscribe

2005 Honda Civic sedan, electrical failure. Towed three times now since Thursday. Mechanic is stumped.

On Thursday night I was driving around running errands as I normally do when I noticed my dashboard lights getting dimmer, then the check airbag light came on, then the clock went out, the headlights dimmed, the odometer went blank, the heat turned off ... basically everything electrical died. I was able to drive it a little farther to a parking lot where it stalled. A few minutes later I got the hazards on, tried starting it and it started ok, ran for a few minutes and went blank again. I was able to leave the hazards on for the couple of hours that I waited for the tow truck. Three people I talked to said it’s got to be the alternator, since the power went out while driving.

The next morning at the dealership they ran a diagnostic and ... nothing wrong. With anything. Except the battery was flat (I forgot to turn off the hazards when they towed it). They recharged the battery, took it for a test drive, all’s well so I took it home. Saturday night I went out for dinner, left it out in the cold unplugged for three hours (-25c here), started up fine, drove about 1/2 hour fine, made a stop at Safeway for a few minutes, got about 5 minutes further down the road and the electrical went out again. I managed to drive the few blocks to home, had it towed back in this morning and went to the dealership with it.

They ran the diagnostic again, still finding nothing wrong but gave me a new battery anyway in case that would solve it. Drove 1/2 hour to work fine, parked (plugged in this time, –17c) for about 4 hours. Started it up after work fine, got about 5 minutes down the road and the dash went blank again. I thought, maybe I can drive it to a car rental place. Didn’t make it, it died at an intersection and I couldn’t even put on the hazards or press the brake to put it in neutral. I managed to get home OK after getting it towed again.

Is there anything besides the alternator or battery that could be causing this issue? Is there any non-electrical issue that could affect the electrical system? I do have a laundry list of needed maintenance, which I’ll list below. I need them to fix the car this time, I can’t keep breaking down in Winnipeg in the middle of winter. The cold can drain a battery which probably doesn’t help the situation, but it’s not causing it. It’s never behaved like this before, and it’s only lived in Winnipeg. I plug in the block heater whenever I can, even at home in the garage.

Thanks in advance!

2005 Honda Civic SE, owned since 2007
100,010 km
4 door sedan, FWD
needed maintenance:
air filter replacement (“fail” on the last inspection)
replace brake fluid (“fail” on the last inspection)
replace power steering fluid (“caution” on the last inspection)
replace transmission fluid (“caution”)
service brakes (“caution”)
oil change (“caution”)
Back in October I got the timing belt and drive belts replaced.
posted by Koko to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total)
On a much older Civic, I think I once had something that was intermittently knocking into/pushing against a plug or connection on the alternator and stopping it charging correctly. It was maddening getting it figured out. Wish I could remember more detail about it.
posted by dilettante at 6:44 PM on January 9, 2017

Lots of potential issues. The fact that they replaced the battery, when your problem occurred while the engine was running, makes me think that you might not be taking this to the best of mechanics. It's much more likely to be alternator related than battery related. Could be the alternator belt is slipping, or losing tension under certain conditions, which is why they can't duplicate it in the shop. Could be a bad voltage regulator. Could be something else is draining the power: A loose, frayed, or intermittent electrical cable could cause wildly fluctuating current draw, which could both drain the battery and shut down the electrical system.

All of these things are easy to test for, though, and a rebuilt alternator for that vintage of Honda should be around the same price as a new battery, so if it was me - and I tested the battery, and it came out good - I'd have looked to the alternator first. So, unless they are willing to do more work for free, I'd suggest finding a new mechanic.

There are shops that specialize in repairing and replacing alternators. A quick Google search shows that there are quite a few in the Winnipeg area. Many of these places only want to deal with the bare alternators, but if you call around, I'm sure there will be a few that will be willing to look at your whole car, and give you a diagnosis. This should be cheaper and quicker than taking it to a full-service mechanic.

Good luck.
posted by Anoplura at 7:05 PM on January 9, 2017

Damn, I went through something like this last year so I sympathise. Breakdown paranoia takes over!

Anyhow this screams alternator to me. Find a shop that specialises in them, there should be a few in a city of Winnipeg's size, and get them to inspect it. In my case I had several different problems that were related (bolt holding it in place broke off > rotor inside bent necessitating a rebuild > rebuild failed and they bought me a newalternator under the warranty > seal on the new one was loose and it flooded with oil).

So yeah, don't piss off the alternator gods.
posted by mannequito at 7:06 PM on January 9, 2017

Another vote for alternator. My daughter has a similar vintage Civic, and had almost exactly the same symptoms. She took it to two mechanics who argued back and forth over battery vs. alternator .. got both replaced, car still failing(*) .. eventually discovered the "new" alternator was faulty. No problems since getting a non-faulty alternators.

(* .. at night going over Hwy 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains; quite scary)
posted by anadem at 7:17 PM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you suspect that you are experiencing an intermittent failure of your alternator, you might consider getting a voltmeter that plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter. When you're driving the voltmeter should read about 13-14 volts, indicating the alternator is functioning. A voltage of ~12.5 volts with the engine off would be typical for a new battery (<12v would indicate either an older/failing battery or a discharged battery). If while driving the voltage suddenly drops from 14 volts to 12 volts this likely indicates something has gone wrong with the alternator and you are running your electrical system solely on your battery.
posted by RichardP at 7:29 PM on January 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Can't afford to have it towed to another mechanic. Sounds like I should get them to take apart the alternator maybe, or at least look more closely.
posted by Koko at 7:41 PM on January 9, 2017

Have been a mechanic. Yeah, my money's on the alternator. Insist on having this mechanic inspect/replace the alternator. If there is a more experienced mechanic at this shop, insist on having this person do the work, on the grounds that someone else already attempted a repair and it didn't work.

By the way, pretty much all replacement alternators are rebuilt these days, including the ones you get at the dealership, so it doesn't do much to ask for a brand new one. Just be aware that there is a slight chance of the replacement also being bad (as mannequito and anadem's comments demonstrate). If this is the case, the shop should do the second replacement for free.

All of Anoplura's advice is spectacular, especially this part:

The fact that they replaced the battery, when your problem occurred while the engine was running, makes me think that you might not be taking this to the best of mechanics.

In addition to the other possible issues Anoplura listed, I'd also look for a loose or frayed ground connection. A bad ground can cause all manner of electrical mayhem.

And after this particular issue is fixed, do find a new mechanic. Yelp reviews and asking on Facebook or a neighborhood message board are good places to start.
posted by Questolicious at 8:21 PM on January 9, 2017

I once picked up my Civic from a bodyshop, it was raining, and when I turned on the wipers all the electronics just dimmed. It was kind of intermittent but getting worse, so I pulled over and took a look under the hood... and a ground wire was loose. I tightened it and all the problems disappeared. I think your car has maybe three of them, you can look online for diagrams.
posted by Huck500 at 8:25 PM on January 9, 2017

This happened to my 2005 Honda Civic a few years ago, and it turned out to be corroded terminals on the battery connections - even with a new battery, the connection cables (I have no idea what the proper terminology is, sorry) were shorting out. The guys at the local auto parts store changed out the cables and it worked fine for a few years, at which point I had to replace the battery.

Did they check those cables?
posted by guster4lovers at 8:32 PM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and you could get it to another mechanic pretty easily if you wanted to, without towing.

Tell the current mechanic that you don't want any more work done, and to charge up your new battery. Then show up and drive your car immediately to the new mechanic, no more than 1/2 an hour away. For extra assurance, you could borrow a friend's car battery and if the car dies on the way to the new mechanic, just replace the dead battery with your friend's. All you need is a socket wrench and a 10mm socket. It's very quick and easy (watch some YouTube videos if you're unsure). If you really want to cover your bases, put in your friend's battery as soon as you leave the lot.

To be honest, I'd probably do this. Your current mechanic has some pretty egregiously bad diagnostic skills and/or is trying to sell you things you clearly don't need. Finding a new mechanic is probably less overall hassle than dealing with this one's incompetence.
posted by Questolicious at 8:34 PM on January 9, 2017

I had a 91 Honda that would die while driving. It happened mostly when it was raining. Turned out to be corroded wires in the wiring harness from the computer, which was under the passenger side carpet in the front. Whatever this eventually turns out to be, I bet it is random corrosion somewhere that causes the loss of power in some specific set of conditions. Keep track of conditions to help find a pattern. And have them check the wiring harness. Alternator suggestions are good too.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:53 PM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is something called the voltage regulator that is a part of the alternator system. It is some brushes (they call them that,) that wear out. It is a little piece outside the alternator. It will screw up everything, and make the battery not get charged. It can happen that the regulator works then doesn't, depending on whatever. Then you hit it with a stick, and the brushed come unstuck. Voltage regulators can be really cheap, the one I replaced was $3.50 USD. This is an easy fix, maybe people don't think of it. It is probably what is wrong.

posted by Oyéah at 10:08 PM on January 9, 2017

Ground wires would be the first thing I'd check. There should be at least one next to the battery and one on the underside of the car either coming from either the motor or transmission. (I forget which). The one on the underside often gets frayed and the one at the battery often works loose from the connector attaching it to the body. If both fail, you get exactly the sort of problems you're seeing.

If only one breaks, you'll just get a momentary dimming of lights when some large load switches on or off.
posted by wierdo at 3:29 PM on January 10, 2017

2001 Civic here. Turned out to be the wiring harness.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:58 AM on January 11, 2017

It was the alternator, as suspected. It took a second mechanic (their electrical expert, as I requested) four tries running a different test on the alternator for it to finally fail during testing. Electrical problems can be tricky, is my conclusion. Anyway, it's running mostly fine now (still needs all the other stuff on the list, but at least it goes!)

thanks all
posted by Koko at 5:27 PM on January 24, 2017

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