Feature March 1, 2014 by
Jim Anderton, Technical Editor
Endless Electrical Woes
In our business, we see vehicles not as they are but as they were designed seven or eight years ago. We see technology when things begin to break. And today, the things that break are more likely to be body and chassis and electrical...
In our business, we see vehicles not as they are but as they were designed seven or eight years ago. We see technology when things begin to break. And today, the things that break are more likely to be body and chassis and electrical components, and less on the mechanical side. When was the last time you rebuilt a steering box?
Electric window lifts and locks, however, are a bread and butter item. As vehicles age, I’m surprised at how rarely actuators and motors fail, and how often the problem lies in relays and connectors. Relays I can understand. They are moving parts with contacts that arc and spark with each make/break cycle, especially in high current circuits like wipers. Connectors can be frustrating as hell. I grew up with British cars which used open bullet-type connectors that would corrode on the way home from the new-car dealership. So by the time the machines were out of warranty, dim lights and dead circuits were very common.
The lack of weatherproofing was a problem in electrics up until the 1980s when the Japanese began encapsulating critical connectors, which led to GM/Delphi’s excellent Weather Pack system. I’ve retrofitted Weather Pack connectors on everything from Suzukis to Craftsman riding mowers with excellent results. When we have to work with corroded or grimy underhood connectors, however, my issue is not just with corrosion, it’s the way the plastic housings are molded. These things get greasy and a rough texture and a bigger external size would make these things easier to grip. Then there are the locking tabs. I’ve broken off severa; trying to get the damn things to release, and have often ended up zip-tying the connectors back together again, an ugly and unsatisfying job. We should never have to pry up a tab with a 1/8 screwdriver or squeeze one with channelocks to get it to release. It’s amazing to me that automotive engineers continue to design electrics to frustrate service, even when the changes needed wouldn’t add to the cost of the connector.
A manufacturer who shall remain nameless comes to mind, with a heater blower circuit that stays live with the ignition off, draining the battery . . . and another that uses underhood diodes that fail open, nor closed, allowing current to leak back through multiple circuits to create bizarre and almost impossible to understand behavior. Connectors are a common problem, and the unit often fails closed-circuit, with the doors jammed mid-cycle. Reach in there with your hands, and it’s very possible to jog the system into trying to complete the open/retract cycle, crushing your fingers in the process. That kind of lunacy is thankfully gone, but the frustration of chasing a phantom or intermittent open to some small chassis connector (usually over the fuel tank) is tough to take…and tougher for the customer, who wonders how it can take three hours of labour to replace a five–buck component.