9 Causes of a Car Battery Light On While Driving

Last Updated on April 30, 2020

When driving, it’s always important to pay attention to the signals your car is sending you. Many of these can be seen as glowing little symbols on the dashboard. But what should you do if the battery warning light comes on?

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Most modern vehicles have a 12 volt battery. Electric vehicles usually have one of these batteries as well as a special electric vehicle battery, in order to allow the vehicle to use the conventional accessories which are made to be used with a 12 volt battery. 

If the voltage created by the electrical charging system is too low, a battery warning light illuminates to indicate that the battery cannot be properly charged. Without a charging battery, the vehicle will not stay running for long.

How Conventional Vehicle Batteries Work

how a car battery works

Batteries are used to store energy to keep the vehicle and its power accessories working. Chemical energy stored in the battery is how the vehicle can be started initially and then as it runs, the battery is recharged. 

Recharging happens when the crankshaft pulley turns the alternator belt (also known as serpentine belt or accessory belt) which spins a rotor inside the alternator (which is sometimes referred to as a generator).

The alternator takes kinetic energy from the rotating pulley and converts some of this energy into AC power, which is then converted into DC current and stored in the battery. This energy is then used to power things such as headlights, power windows, heated seats, radio, air conditioner, DVD players, and cell phone chargers.

Note: Older vehicles may use a dynamo (also called a DC generator) instead of an alternator.

The voltage regulator maintains the desired voltage while charging the battery. It is often a component of the engine control unit (ECU).

The current (made of electrons) flows from one post of the battery, through the accessories, then into the other battery post. Various wires around the engine bay called ground straps connect parts of the wiring harness to the chassis, which help complete different circuits.

Top Reasons a Battery Light Comes On 

Every time the vehicle starts up, the battery warning light should briefly turn on, then back off after a few seconds. This is a system test that indicates the battery light on the dash, along with any monitored components of the charging system, are working as expected.

The warning light for the battery will stay on if a fault is detected in the charging system. If this occurs, there are a number of potential causes to check out when troubleshooting. 

Safety is important whenever working with electrical systems, so check your owner’s manual for general tips. It’s a good idea to wear gloves or goggles to protect your eyes if battery acid splashes, and rubber gloves to protect you from shock. Disconnect the battery before cleaning or closely examining it.

If the battery is having trouble charging, you should notice other symptoms such as dim headlights, clock running slow, or things such as the air conditioner or radio not working. 

#1 – Bad Battery

battery voltage

Normal 12 volt batteries have a 3 to 5 year lifespan. Some manufacturers tout a longer lifespan, but the batteries should not be expected to last that long. 

These conventional batteries each have a lead dioxide plate and lead plate submerged in a sulfuric acid electrolyte solution in each of the six cells. With age, the cells or plates can break and the electrolyte solution can leak. If this happens then the battery needs to be replaced

Bad wiring or bad grounds can also cause the battery to not take or hold a charge.

#2 – Bad Alternator

alternator not charging battery

It’s relatively easy to check the function of the alternator with a multimeter. The voltage should be between 13.6 volts and 14.6 volts. If the voltage is less than 12 volts, the battery light is triggered and you’ll likely need to replace the alternator. 

The voltage regulator, the component that limits the output to a safe limit of 14.5 volts, can also be the culprit if it isn’t working as it should.

See Also:  Difference Between a Dead Battery vs Bad Alternator

#3 – Bad Alternator Belt

broken belt

An alternator belt is crucial since it connects the alternator, engine, and accessories together. Belts can crack with age or even completely break. They can also be misaligned, too tight, or too loose.

If a bad alternator belt is the cause of the battery warning light, it may also cause squealing from the hood when the vehicle is running. 

#4 – Corroded Battery Terminals

car battery corrosion

The positive and negative battery terminals are channels for the electricity, so it’s important not to increase the resistance by covering them with other substances that are poor conductors. Corroded electrical components are poor conductors. This is often a source of bad connections in an otherwise healthy system.

Corrosion is the white, blue, or green product of a reaction that happens with normal use and is accelerated by persistent heat, so hot climates are associated with more corrosion.

It’s an acidic substance and will eat away a vehicle’s paint and irritate your skin, so use caution. Typical rust has a reddish tint and may also affect the electrical components’ conductivity.

If you notice corrosion on your battery terminals, don the appropriate safety gear and clean the terminals with a stiff-bristled brush and a solution of 1 tablespoon baking soda dissolved in 1 cup water. This solution is alkaline so it will neutralize the acid in the corrosion.

Battery terminal cleaners are special brushes that are specifically designed to clean battery posts and the inside of terminals. They are cheap and may make the job a bit easier. 

#5 – Loose Battery Cable

weak car battery

The battery cables should fit snugly around the battery terminals to provide a good connection. You should not be able to rotate the cable end by hand around the battery post.

If there doesn’t seem to be a good connection, tighten it with a wrench or pliers so that it fits snugly. Some battery bolts can strip out if over tightened, so be sure not to overdo it. 

#6 – Bad Battery Cable

bad car battery

Battery cables deliver the power from the battery to the vehicle itself. If the power can’t get to the vehicle, it’s unusable, so these cables are small but mighty. 

#7 – Bad Ground Strap

symptoms of bad engine ground wire

A ground strap, or ground wire, completes the circuits of different components around the vehicle so electricity can flow as it should. If the ground strap is damaged or detached, the battery may not be able to charge.

More than likely, you will notice a specific subset of components in a localized area start to act up if a ground strap is loose or corroded.

#8 – Faulty Wiring

alternator wiring

There are a lot of wires involved in the electric charging system so if any of these are broken or disconnected then the battery warning light may come on.

Wires typically break around the connectors rather than further up the wiring harness. The wires and connectors may become stiff and brittle with age.

#9 – Too Many Accessories in Use

too many electrical accessories in car

Since the vehicle’s accessories run off of the alternator belt, which is also how the battery is charged, using them in excess can siphon too much electricity, leaving the battery “hungry”.

This can sometimes occur with an aftermarket sound system that uses an amplifier that consumes more power than the alternator can handle. Usually this is the case when adding a large, power-hungry subwoofer.

What To Do If the Battery Warning Light is On

If you are driving and the battery warning light comes on, know that you probably don’t have much time left of driving before your vehicle dies. Try to get home or to a mechanic as soon as possible.

To get the most out of the juice left in the battery, reduce the accessory load to the bare essentials – turn off the HVAC system, don’t use power windows, take your phone off of the charger, and sing to yourself instead of using the radio (you may want to keep the windows rolled up).

Whatever you do, don’t turn off the engine until you’ve reached your destination! The starter motor takes a lot of electricity and if there isn’t enough charge in the battery then the vehicle won’t start. 

Keep an eye on your temperature gauge, as overheating can be an associated issue with charging problems.

 

Comments

  1. I have a question please….
    My cars battery light came on after a new starter was installed, I bought a brand new battery the month prior. My mechanic thought it was the alternator!! He changed the alternator and battery, and checked all of the belts, fuses etc and nothing seems to make the light go off. I’m confused does anyone know what else it could be that causes the battery light to come on??? Is it the cars computer?

    Reply
  2. So what if your driving down the road and your head lights dem in and out and at the same time you lose power you can and feel the lost of power to your motor

    Reply
  3. It may be that the altenator was not an OEM replacement for the old one. If that was the case, then the new alternator may not be a good replacement. You may want to try and start the car and then disconnect one of the battery terminals. You the engine stall upon disconnection, then the alternator is the culprit. You may also get a multimeter and test how much volt the alternator is chunning out (it should be atleast 13v). If the voltage generated by the alternator is below this voltage, once again you have a faulty alternator.

    Reply
  4. My battery light came on while i was driving home from work which is about 30 miles one way and then when i parked the car and turn off the engine for a few mins then I turned the car back on the light went away. what can cause this? also during that time my check engine light went on and the code said it was the thermo went out but then that light went off to after i turned the car off then back on.

    Reply
  5. My light goes on and off but alt tests good (13.5-14,5),new battery ,cables clean ,starts even if you keep lt parked .2wks stays steady with lights and heater on,voltage never drops below 12.2 battery .starts everytime ???? HELP ……2007 ford focus ses

    Reply
        • The first generation Ford Focus seems to have an issue with the fusible link and parts of the wiring harness near the alternator going bad, causing a battery light when the alternator and battery are both good.

          To test if this is your issue, you’ll need a multimeter. Do a quick search with your year and exact issue and you’ll find a couple things you can try that are fairly well documented on forums and YouTube.

  6. My interior lights go on and off while I’m driving
    I’ve had check charging system light for a couple of years
    What needs to be checked

    Reply
  7. I recently replaced my alternator and since replacement I have had a battery and stop light flash on and back off again within a second only comes on every few mins doesn’t effect power or anything checked all fuses cables etc but everything seems fine any idea

    Reply
  8. My battery light came on when away on holiday, i had a local garage check the battery was fine and the alternator was fine but its still on i noticed i went through a large amount of water on the road and the light went out for about 30 seconds but came back on again. Its doing my head in any help would be appreciated before i book into an auto electrician.

    Reply
  9. I conect the wrong wire with new battery and the alternater produce smoke and smell
    And the battery sign show after starting the car

    Reply
    • Check that you have no blown fuses, and have the battery and alternator tested. You can do this at a local parts store and it shouldn’t cost anything. It’s easy to cause damage by wiring the battery backwards or jump starting the car incorrectly.

      Reply
    • There is a battery charging or voltage problem. I would have the battery and the alternator tested so you aren’t left stranded when you go to start the car one day.

      Reply
  10. I replaced a new battery 5 months ago on Peugeot partner 2011 last night the battery sign came on dashboard and while I was driving down hill switched off the car but didn’t start with ignition then I had to start it on 3rd gear and it was fine after few minutes the battery sign came back on dashboard then while driving it the lights started to fade and all lost all lights and the car stalled, I checked the the battery for a green light it was ok then checked all wires and fuses they were all ok as well I tried to turn on the car but didn’t even start. So these signs looks like alternator or battery? Also the car starts by pushing but when you take of the car battery Negative or Positive the engine stops straight away. I’m thinking to change the alternator to see if the goes back to normal.

    Reply
  11. My Toyota Previa 2006 has a newly replaced battery & alternator(reconditioned/2nd hand)But the dashboard battery lights on. I run the engine for an hour in the parking lot still the dashboard battery lights on… What would the fault this time?

    Reply
    • It’s impossible to say without some testing. See if there are any codes to scan to give you a starting point. Next, I would do some searching on Google to see if there’s a common issue specific to that model.

      Sometimes remanufactured parts come faulty out of the box. I wouldn’t assume the alternator is good, and would have both the alternator and the battery tested just to make sure.

      Reply
  12. Hi,
    I have a Toyota RAV 4 2010. Last week my car started making whistling noise, the battery light was flickering while driving and steering got locked. With some difficulty i parked on the side and took the car by Recovery van to a mechanic. As expected the issue was on Alternator. They changed some bearings inside the alternator and the car was fine for couple of days. After two days again battery light was on. Once again i took it to the same mechanic. He fixed the bearings again and for two days it was okay.
    Today i have encountered the same issue. No noise. But battery light was flickering while driving every 30 seconds. Steering got locked and unlocked couple of times. It was scary but somehow i drove to safety. I spoke to the mechanic. He said he has checked it twice and there is no electric issue in the car. Can you please share your opinion. Thanks

    Reply
    • I would not drive the vehicle any more until you get that issue sorted out by a qualified technician who can see the vehicle in person. Locked steering is very dangerous and has a high risk of causing an accident.

      If I had to guess, the alternator locking up is causing issues with the power steering pump. It’s the only way I can think those two systems would be related. If the alternator bearings failed, I would examine the other pulleys driven by the accessory belt to make sure they are functioning correctly. Perhaps the alternator belt tension is being set too tight and is causing premature bearing failure.

      I would be worried about the water pump pulley in particular if your water pump is driven by the same belt as the alternator (I’m pretty sure your RAV4 is designed this way). One of the most common causes of water pump failure is incorrect belt tension.

      Reply

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