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An enlightening case of how a correct diagnosis can save a fortune!

It’s not often that Adam (our service manager) has a day off but last Friday was one such day so I was left in the ‘hot seat’ in reception. Amid the usual chaos of cars arriving, parts being delivered, staff bickering and cold calls from ‘your local energy provider’ that just happen to sound like they’re in Delhi, we usually have some genuine enquiries from ‘real’ customers.

I answered a call from a chap that asked us to fit a new alternator to his son’s Toyota Corolla. For those of you that don’t know much about the workings under a car’s bonnet, the alternator is the part that’s driven by the ‘fanbelt’ that generates electricity to charge the battery. It’s a vital piece of equipment on any car and I’d say we change around four or five a week, so nothing particularly unusual in such an enquiry. Something was unusual though as with most customers, it’s the symptom that they describe to us, not their diagnosis of what needs changing to remedy it!

Here's a new Alternator from Euro Car Parts

Here’s what a gleaming new Alternator from our friends at Euro Car Parts looks like.

Now, if you’ve ever had an alternator fail, particularly at night or in the rain, it’s a very distressing experience. First of all, you’ll usually notice the red ‘Battery’ warning light on the dashboard glowing ominously, generally followed by one or many of the following symptoms:

  • Headlights becoming very dim.
  • Warning lights on dashboard for ABS brake system, Airbag and entire dashboard resembling an Xmas tree
  • Wipers getting slower and slower
  • Loss of power steering assistance
  • Eventual breakdown as electric fuel pump for engine ceases to work.

As you may imagine, any of the above give a fair indication that something is awry under the bonnet and an imminent visit to a garage (or long wait for breakdown service) is but minutes away!

Before taking the trouble to start looking up prices of alternators and fitting times etc, I thought I’d ask the customer a few simple questions, based on the above mentioned symptoms, that would confirm to me that it was indeed a new alternator that was required. The customer said that his headlights were really dim but that none of the other problems were apparent, which immediately sounded alarm bells in my head (as well as a small chuckle) as alternator failure invariably causes the car battery to go completely flat and all of the car’s electrical loads to progressively shut down. A couple of dim headlamps but everything else normal said only one thing to me – that BOTH headlamp bulbs had blown and that they appeared ‘dim’ simply because the only visible light from within was from the little 5 watt ‘sidelight’ bulbs.

I asked the customer if, by flashing the ‘main beam’, the lights became bright, to which he confirmed that they did. This of course confirmed my theory and I asked him to pop down so we could change the bulbs for him. Once our technician had fitted a new pair of H7 halogen bulbs to the outer ‘dipped beam’ positions, the lights were fine again and the (rather sheepish) customer was very much relieved (of only £15!).

Imagine if you will what could’ve happened had we not attempted to quantify his fault and simply, on his advice, ordered and fitted a new alternator and charged him the best part of £280 for the privilege, only to have to still change the two blown headlamp bulbs afterwards (hopefully before he came back and noticed).

Whilst we’d have undoubtedly made a decent profit from changing that perfectly good alternator, it wouldn’t sit comfortably with our ethics and reputation. Imagine his relief at such a simple solution to the exact problem he had, when the opportunity to spend unnecessary money arose! He also now knows exactly what the symptoms of the actual alternator failing are, for future reference.