Threading the Needle of Doom: My Alternator Adventure

There’s a curse that follows me in life. Though I have so much to be grateful for, when it comes to the small stuff like home repairs and computers, I seem to have the strangest luck–bad luck. Sometimes it seems like a cosmic conspiracy against me. My bad luck coupled with my natural flare for incompetence leads to some entertaining and occasionally educational moments. My most recent example came while attempting a car repair on my own (insert laugh track here), when a simple alternator repair would be enhanced with a series of unlucky coincidences and chance events that would lead me to thread the needle of doom and learn a few painful things about myself and life.

Short version: Encouraged by a mechanic, I replaced the alternator on my son’s car that he has named “Lucky.” With my characteristic bad luck, the alternator didn’t quite fit and took much longer to install than promised. That bad luck led to temporary loss of a protective cap on a highly charged electrical connection. But after many hours of struggling, the alternator was installed and worked properly. Then, foolishly yielding to temptation fueled by unusual circumstances, I threaded the needle of doom while replacing the protective cap. I apparently managed to find a natural and logical way to blow up the car, or rather, to destroy the car’s electrical system with a dangerous electrical shock. Hours of work wasted, a functioning car destroyed, all by one moment of risk taking contrary to the written directions I had. I narrowly escaped physical injury, but mentally was sorely jolted as I reviewed the errors I had made. After two days of shaking my head at my foolishness and the many chance events that had conspired against me to lead to the loss of the car, I would learn that the damage I had done was not catastrophic, but only required a 50-amp fuse to be replaced. I’m just amazed at how lucky I was — or rather, how lucky my son was once again. “There’s a reason I call it Lucky, Dad.” Several insights about life are drawn from this story, including the importance of paying attention to details, following the written directions for life, not taking foolish risks, and recognizing how quickly hours, days, or years of work can be negated by a foolish act.

Fixing an alternator on my son’s car proved to be one of those educational moments as the cosmos united to challenge my plans once again. I’ll let you under the hood for a moment, sharing some very personal pics to help you understand my experience. The first picture shows the engine of Lucky, my youngest son’s name for his 1990 Toyota Camry with about 250,000 miles. I bought it with used with about 18,000 miles on it in 1991. It has been a terrific car for my family and a good one for my sons. Part of the luck has come from using competent professionals to repair the car. My natural luck kicked in, of course, when I decided to try a repair that a mechanic encouraged me to do myself.

My mechanic friend observed that the battery wasn’t being charged and determined that the alternator wasn’t working. It was actually quite fortunate that he caught it, otherwise my son could have been stranded somewhere. Good luck for my son. He explained that I could save a lot of money by changing it myself, and gave me a quick explanation of what was needed. Loosen a bolt that applies tension, remove the belt, disconnect the cables, take out a bolt, pull out the old and put in the new. Insert bold, attach belt, connect cables, tighten things up, and voila. The location of the alternator made this “ridiculously easy.” It’s just sitting there in the open, a guaranteed piece of cake. I had a lot to do that Saturday, but figured I could spare the 30 minutes to switch out an alternator and save a wad of cash. A nearby Autozone had just the alternator I needed. I headed home and began the simple DIY project.

The new alternator had printed directions. I didn’t really need to read them since I had absorbed all the directions from a pro, but took a look anyway. I noticed that the written directions had one step I don’t recall hearing: first disconnect the negative cable to the battery. Well, maybe it wasn’t needed, but why take chances? A simple safety step–why not? I disconnected the cable. The removal of the old alternator was just as easy as described. Just a few minutes — sweet! This project was on time and on track. Now I just had to place the new alternator in the mounting area where a bolt would pass through the alternator and join it to the engine. Just place it right here, uh, push it right here, push, shove, shove, hmmm. It wouldn’t fit. Perfectly in line with my luck. It was close, but just a little too wide to fit. After numerous attempts, I realized I would have to get a file and physically shave down the metal of the alternator to help it fit. This began a tedious process of filing, shoving, pushing, and even hammering on the alternator. Just getting in into the frame that holds it took over an hour. Then came the hard part: getting the big bolt through the alternator and both holes in the engine block. The clearances were so tight that almost perfect alignment of the hole through the alternator with two holes in the mounting area was required. There was no guide to force it into place. After another hour, it seemed hopeless. It was also cold — about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps part of the problem.

After using a mirror to look into the bolt holes and determine where the error in alignment was, I decided to get a little more forceful and used a hammer to gently knock the alternator in the desired direction. Bingo — the shaft began to go in.

In the process of pushing and shoving the alternator and rotating it back and forth relative to the partially inserted bolt, a protective plastic cap (marked with an arrow on the photo below) on an electrical connection fell off. I heard it fall and thought it had landed on the garage floor. Not so. It landed in precisely the right location to later play a key role in the cosmic conspiracy against me. Had it been easily found, everything would have been different. Had it been too difficult to find, everything would have been different. Like several other parts of this story, every thing was just perfectly set-up to let me thread the needle of doom and leave me humbled and horrified.

The brute force technique with all its pushing, shoving, and hammering eventually succeeded and I got the alternator into the car. Connecting the other components wasn’t hard and everything finally looked great–except for the missing protective cap, but I figured I could worry about that later.

I reconnected the battery cable, tightened it up, and took a deep breath. Would everything work? I turned the car on. It started perfectly. The alternator appeared to be working. Hurray! I felt rather proud of myself.

It was now 7:30 pm. I kept the car running to charge the car battery while we had dinner before I took the car over to Wal-Mart. Oh, yes, that’s an important part of the cosmic conspiracy. My mechanic friend that day had observed that the battery was showing serious performance problems. They might be related to the alternator trouble, but could be something else. He gave me a printout of the battery test results and encouraged me go back to the vendor of the battery, Wal-Mart, and do it that day because that happened to be the last day of the 3-year warranty on the battery. That day was the last day of the warranty. Bizarre. What lucky timing, eh? If there was a problem not related to the incipient alternator issue, then it might be covered by the warranty. (Someone else had gotten the battery at Wal-Mart, for the record.)

I called Wal-Mart to see if they could look at the battery. It was almost 8 pm. Yes, they were open until 9 pm and I could bring the car in, but I needed to hurry. Might have to leave it over the weekend as it was, but perhaps they could look at it right away. This might be a waste of time, since whatever problems the battery had were likely to be due to the alternator, but what if there was something else wrong? Well, why not check? That was a mistake, in retrospect, and even if the battery was defective on its own, bringing it in on the last day of a warranty doesn’t quite seem fair, which is part of what I had to ponder as I reviewed this whole event. But it seemed like Wal-Mart was in the cards for me and without thinking carefully, I assumed I needed to rush over there, just 5 minutes away. So I went back to the car intending to zoom over to Wal-Mart.

Wait, what about that missing protective cap? I looked under the car and didn’t see it. I backed the car out a little to get a different perspective. I looked around the floor some more and saw nothing, but when I looked into the engine again, now I could see the precariously lodged cap at the side. I turned the car off, retrieved the cap and decided to quickly replace it, afraid that it might be dangerous to leave the electrical connection on the alternator exposed–wouldn’t want a mechanic at Wal-Mart or somebody getting shocked or anything. I can still remember the time when my father got a third degree burn on his hand from a big electrical spark while helping to jump a dead battery when something went wrong–dangerous levels of current can flow in the electrical system of a car when it is running (and I would soon be reminded that dangerous electric charges can still be stored in a car that is off).

The protective cap could have been snapped onto the exposed terminal of the alternator and onto the cable leading to the terminal, but I missed that detail in the design and thought that the right way to put it back would be to remove the connection that was screwed onto the exposed alternator terminal and slide the cap onto the cable, then reconnect the cable to the terminal and then slide the cap forward and snap the big end of it in place onto the terminal. (The rear end of the cap had a little opening to receive a cable, but that opening could actually snap onto the cable without having to disconnect it.) With the car off, I figured it would now be safe to work with the alternator again. (Some of you may sense the danger here. Yes, I took an electrical engineering class in college and have a Ph.D. in chemical engineering–but that doesn’t necessarily mean I can do actual stuff or be trusted with electrical devices or power tools.)

As I began unscrewing the nut that held a cable in place on the exposed terminal of the alternator, I felt a little tingle in my fingers. Hmm, maybe some residual charge. Perhaps I should disconnect the battery terminal before messing with the alternator, as the written directions said. I tried to disconnect the cable but realized I had secured it quite tightly and couldn’t get it off easily with my pliers. I would need to go downstairs and find the right wrench to remove the cable. Time was running out–what that really needed? The mechanic didn’t mention that–must not be important, probably just one of those redundant safety directions. No need to disconnect the cable, but to remove any risk from working with the tingly connector, I put on gloves. Simple. So I removed the bolt, lifted up the cable with the connector that had been bolted to the alternator, and now just needed to slip the plastic cap onto the cable. The cable slipped a little as I tried to put the cap on–my gloves made it harder to do delicate work–and the exposed end of the cable contacted the body of the alternator. ZAP! A small ball of lightning erupted as contact was made. The loud spark was followed by my horrified silence as I considered what I had just done. Had I fried the car’s computer? Destroyed the alternator? Trashed the battery and the ignition system? Maybe all of that?

The car that had started and run beautifully just moments before gave no sign of life when I tried to turn it on. A desperate attempt to jump it gave no signs of life either. The headlights could turn on, so the battery hadn’t been completely destroyed, but it wouldn’t start. For all I knew, I had just trashed my son’s car. I had become the Dr. Kevorkian of automobiles.

I knew the destruction was my fault. I had written directions that I had ignored. All that work, a whole afternoon and evening, trashed by my foolishness. But at the same time, I also felt cheated by the cosmic conspiracy against me as I considered all that it took to bring me to this painful state where victory had been so thorough shoved back into the jaws of defeat. The mechanic urging me to take on the repair, forgetting to warn me about the importance of disconnecting the battery cable, the improper fit that required all sorts of extra efforts to get the alternator to fit which caused a protective cap to be dislodged, the perfect landing of the cap making it hard to find at first but findable after the car had been charged up with destructive electrical potential, the strange coincidence of the battery being on its last day of warranty and the pressure to hurry to get the car into Wal-Mart, and my own clumsiness in letting the cable slip at the key moment to short a circuit with destructive power. So much seemed to conspire against me to put me in a situation where I could fail so dramatically.

This is an important lesson to me. All of us are and will be in situations where in spite of all our joys and successes, we will have unusual opportunities to fail dramatically. If we let unusual concidences make decisions for us, we may become unwitting architects of our own downfall, especially when we violate sound principes and written directions.

We will face unusual temptations that seem custom made to lure us in, where tragic errors may seem like the right thing to do IF we make the mistake of compromising our principles, taking improper shortcuts, or ignoring the directions we have in the scriptures. Then, when we give in, we can find that years of effort can be vaporized in one brief burst of improperly discharged potential.

That tragic zap was the beginning of three days and two nights of personal mourning, from Saturday evening until late Monday afternoon. Not quite Alma-like, but painful. (If I had skipped the gloves, I might have done the full Alma the Younger routine, complete with lengthy unconsciousness.) I tried to be cheerful, but was grieved by my stupidity. I have so little time and so much I’m supposed to do, and to throw away the better part of day and then to destroy rather than repair an automobile that my son really needed just left me horrified and gave me a much-needed humbling.

I contemplated the need to pay attention to details and not take foolish risks, especially when I have so often seen that the cosmic dice are loaded in the house’s favor when I am not diligent and careful. I considered all the warnings I ignored, including the tingling in my fingers that let me know there was real danger in what I was doing. Like the promptings of the Spirit, there are hints and warnings we receive in life and often ignore when we are dealing with forces we don’t understand. I examined a variety of errors in thinking, in assumptions, and in actions. The loss of the car just seemed so unnecessary and painfully stupid. Shortcuts that violate sound principles often lead to such pain.

I was sure that the car would cost far more to repair than it was worth, but had it towed (thanks to AAA) to my local repair shop on Monday morning. To my amazement, I learned that all that was needed was a new 50-amp fuse. The troubleshooting and repair would only cost $60. It’s now back to normal and running great, with no signs of battery or alternator trouble.

Wow–how could I get any more lucky than that?

This also reminds me that sometimes the Lord does give us second chances and helps us get past the worst of our stupidity. Sometimes He can help us repair much of the damage we are tempted to create. Other times we really do cause destruction that is not so easily repaired, which is why we should seek the Lord daily and beware of our own pride that constantly lures us to disaster.

I learned a lot from this experience, so much that I’m ready to take on other car repair jobs. Bring your vehicle by and let me role the cosmic dice as I do some ridiculously easy repairs for you! Hey, what could possibly go wrong?


Author: Jeff Lindsay

13 thoughts on “Threading the Needle of Doom: My Alternator Adventure

  1. I read your story outloud to my husband. He feels your pain. (He saw it coming though; he was cringing quite audibly.) Great writing!

  2. You wouldn't have been "zapped", since you were only dealing with 12 volts. But if you had completed the circuit through a ring or a metal watch, you would have been badly burned.

  3. That thought was in my mind: 12 volts – no big deal. right? But whatever blew that 50-amp fuse also made a bright and loud "zap". Still not sure why that would happen. Wasn't just a tiny flicker of a spark. Maybe I'll go try it again . . . anyone have a car in need of some easy repairs?

  4. Jeff, I've worked on a few cars in my time. I think your problems may be attributed to servicing a "Japanese" automobile.

  5. Whew, glad it was the car's fault! I'm sure I'd be much more successful repairing GM-built cars. Would also have many more opportunities to do so. These darn Camry's don't give owners many chances to do repairs.

    I hope y'all won't badmouth Toyota, BTW. The current witch hunt against Toyota by the government owner of its competitor is simply troubling.

  6. The bright and loud zap is very similar to how arc welding works. Without the fuse you would have seen much more spark, melted connector, and could have possibly been seriously hurt due to a number of reasons. (including exploding battery)The story was good. I can repair most things very well, but I wish I could write half as good as you can. Great job.

  7. Great story. However, your "witch hunt" comment is an insult to the Toyota owners who have been impacted by the mechanical problem Toyota stalled on addressing. Witch hunt? People have died. Blaming cmpetitors for wanting that mechanical problem resolved and making a jab at the government should be beneath a person of your intelligence and station. If your son had been a victim of the mechanical issue and dead or injured, I doubt you'd call it a witch hunt.

  8. Don't mean to insult any Toyota owners, but don't you think there's a chance of a conflict of interest? The US government has taken over General Motors and is working hard to support the UAW. GM's competitor and the UAW's enemy, the UAW-free Toyota motors, is now being hounded by the entity that owns GM and is allied with the UAW. See the potential for conflict here?

    Automotive recalls occur all the time. A small number of tragic accidents occur with almost every mass produced product involving power, speed, or fuel. If you compare Toyota's situation with related problems in the past from Ford or GM, I think it's fair to suspect that what we are seeing now is completely blown out of proportion and smacks of a witch hunt. But think it over for yourself.

    Yes, I would feel terrible if my child died because of any product. But my emotions notwithstanding, I would hope that the Federal response, if any, would be applied fairly.

  9. I glad to know there are others plagued by the cosmic conspiracy. I had what should have literally been a 5 min job spill over to another day for something even more simple than droppping that protective cap. I thought I could change a power steering hose in my wifes van. Screws into the resevoir and into the pump that was located under the van. I started at the bottom and reoved the old hose then from the resevoir. Since I was already at the resevoir it seemed logical to start installing the new one there. I could not get the hose to thread back in under the car. I tried every angle I could for some time and frequently checked the threads for trouble. I compared the hoses, the same. I took the hose off, day 2, and was going to return it or see if by some magical chance I had the wrong one, and decided to give it one more try. Since I was having trouble at the pump end, that's where I started. It screwed right in, only took seconds. then the end for the resevoir went right in. Go figure that it would make a difference which end you started with on a hose!
    There is a standing project joke at my house. "This should only take a few minutes so I'll see you in a couple of days when I'm finally done."
    Details, details.

  10. [I've been out of computerland for a while.] The loudness of the zap and brightness of the arc were not a function of the voltage, but the amount of current that was flowing. You basically shorted the battery out. The fuse limited it to 50 amps, or it could have been worse. No potential of fatal shock involved here, just serious burns.

    Where you find high voltages under the hood is in the ignition system. Grab a spark plug wire on a running engine and you'll get a feel for it. High voltage and low current, but pretty exciting.

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