When diagnosing a specific problem, organized troubleshooting is a must. The complexity of a modern automotive vehicle demands that you approach any problem in a logical, organized manner. There are certain troubleshooting techniques, however, which are standard:
Experience has shown that most problems tend to be the result of a fairly simple and obvious cause, such as loose or corroded connectors, bad grounds or damaged wire insulation that causes a short. This makes careful visual inspection of components during testing essential to quick and accurate troubleshooting.
This test already assumes the existence of an open in the circuit and it is used to help locate the open portion.
- Isolate the circuit from power and ground.
- Connect the self-powered test light or ohmmeter ground clip to the ground side of the circuit and probe sections of the circuit sequentially.
- If the light is out or there is infinite resistance, the open is between the probe and the circuit ground.
- If the light is on or the meter shows continuity, the open is between the probe and the end of the circuit toward the power source.
- Isolate the circuit from the vehicle's power source.
- Ensure that the ignition key is OFF when disconnecting any components or the battery.
- Where necessary, also isolate at least one side of the circuit to be checked, in order to avoid reading parallel resistances. Parallel circuit resistances will always give a lower reading than the actual resistance of either of the branches.
- Connect the meter leads to both sides of the circuit (wire or component) and read the actual measured ohms on the meter scale. Make sure the selector switch is set to the proper ohm scale for the circuit being tested, to avoid misreading the ohmmeter test value.
- Isolate the circuit from power and ground.
- Connect the self-powered test light or ohmmeter ground clip to a good ground and probe any easy-to-reach point in the circuit.
- If the light comes on or there is continuity, there is a short somewhere in the circuit.
- To isolate the short, probe a test point at either end of the isolated circuit (the light should be on or the meter should indicate continuity).
- Leave the test light probe engaged and sequentially open connectors or switches, remove parts, etc. until the light goes out or continuity is broken.
- When the light goes out, the short is between the last 2 circuit components which were opened.
If a short circuit has caused a blown fuse, a suitable automotive test light can be used to help locate the cause. A test light is connected in series to the fuse terminals to diagnose the source of the short circuit. Using a suitable automotive test light proceed as follows:
- Carefully remove the blown fuse.
- Attach one lead of the automotive test light to one of the fuse terminals, and the second lead of the test light to the other fuse terminal.
- If the circuit is a switched circuit, turn on the ignition switch and/or the switch for the component that is causing the fuse to blow. When the appropriate switch is turned on, the test light should begin working.
- Once the test light is operating, begin to inspect the wiring and components of the circuit. Systematically disconnect and reconnect the electrical connectors in the circuit being tested. When the test light goes out, the shorted portion of the circuit has been located. The short could be either a failed component or a shorted portion of the electrical circuit for the component.
- Repair the short, or replace the shorted component and reinstall the correct amperage fuse and retest.
Pinpointing the exact cause of trouble in an electrical circuit is most times accomplished by the use of special test equipment. The following describes different types of commonly used test equipment and briefly explains how to use them in diagnosis. In addition to the information covered below, the tool manufacturer's instructions booklet (provided with the tester) should be read and clearly understood before attempting any test procedures.Jumper Wires
Jumper wires are simple, yet extremely valuable, pieces of test equipment. They are basically test wires, which are used to bypass sections of a circuit. Although jumper wires can be purchased, they are usually fabricated from lengths of standard automotive wire and whatever type of connector (alligator clip, spade connector or pin connector) that is required for the particular application being tested. In cramped, hard-to-reach areas, it is advisable to have insulated boots over the jumper wire terminals in order to prevent accidental grounding. It is also advisable to include a standard automotive fuse in any jumper wire. This is commonly referred to as a 'fused jumper'. By inserting an in-line fuse holder between a set of test leads, a fused jumper wire can be used for bypassing open circuits. Use a 5-amp fuse to provide protection against voltage spikes.
Jumper wires are used primarily to locate open electrical circuits, on either the ground (-) side of the circuit or on the power (+) side. If an electrical component fails to operate, connect the jumper wire between the component and a good ground. If the component operates only with the jumper installed, the ground circuit is open. If the ground circuit is good, but the component does not operate, the circuit between the power feed and component may be open. By moving the jumper wire successively back from the component toward the power source, you can isolate the area of the circuit where the open is located. When the component stops functioning, or the power is cut off, the open is in the segment of wire between the jumper and the point previously tested.
You can sometimes connect the jumper wire directly from the battery to the 'hot' terminal of the component, but first make sure the component uses 12 volts in operation. Some electrical components, such as fuel injectors or sensors, are designed to operate on about 4 to 5 volts, and running 12 volts directly to these components will cause damage.
Multimeters are an extremely useful tool for troubleshooting electrical problems. They can be purchased in either analog or digital form and have a price range to suit any budget. A multimeter is a voltmeter, ammeter and ohmmeter (along with other features) combined into one instrument. It is often used when testing solid-state circuits because of its high input impedance (usually 10 megaohms or more). A brief description of the multimeter main test functions follows:
The test light is used to check circuits and components while electrical current is flowing through them. It is used for voltage and ground tests. To use a 12-volt test light, connect the ground clip to a good ground and probe wherever necessary with the pick. The test light will illuminate when voltage is detected. This does not necessarily mean that 12 volts (or any particular amount of voltage) is present; it only means that some voltage is present. It is advisable before using the test light to touch its ground clip and probe across the battery posts or terminals to make sure the light is operating properly.
Like the jumper wire, the 12-volt test light is used to isolate opens in circuits. But, whereas the jumper wire is used to bypass the open to operate the load, the 12-volt test light is used to locate the presence of voltage in a circuit. If the test light illuminates, there is power up to that point in the circuit; if the test light does not illuminate, there is an open circuit (no power). Move the test light in successive steps back toward the power source until the light in the handle illuminates. The open is between the probe and a point that was previously probed.
The self-powered test light is similar in design to the 12-volt test light, but contains a 1.5-volt penlight battery in the handle. It is most often used in place of a multimeter to check for open or short circuits when power is isolated from the circuit (continuity test).
The battery in a self-powered test light does not provide much current. A weak battery may not provide enough power to illuminate the test light even when a complete circuit is made (especially if there is high resistance in the circuit). Always make sure that the test battery is strong. To check the battery, briefly touch the ground clip to the probe; if the light glows brightly, the battery is strong enough for testing.
This test determines voltage available from the battery and should be the first step in any electrical troubleshooting procedure after visual inspection. Many electrical problems, especially on computer-controlled systems, can be caused by a low state of charge in the battery. Excessive corrosion at the battery cable terminals can cause poor contact that will prevent proper charging and full battery current flow.
- Set the voltmeter selector switch to the 20V position.
- Connect the multimeter negative lead to the battery's negative (-) post or terminal and the positive lead to the battery's positive (+) post or terminal.
- Turn the ignition switch ON to provide a load.
- A well-charged battery should register over 12 volts. If the meter reads below 11.5 volts, the battery power may be insufficient to operate the electrical system properly.
When current flows through a load, the voltage beyond the load drops. This voltage drop is due to the resistance created by the load and also by small resistances created by corrosion at the connectors and damaged insulation on the wires. The maximum allowable voltage drop under load is critical, especially if there is more than one load in the circuit, since all voltage drops are cumulative.
- Set the voltmeter selector switch to the 20V position.
- Connect the multimeter negative lead to a good ground.
- Operate the circuit and check the voltage prior to the first component (load).
- There should be little or no voltage drop in the circuit prior to the first component. If a voltage drop exists, the wire or connectors in the circuit are suspect.
- While operating the first component in the circuit, probe the ground side of the component with the positive meter lead and observe the voltage readings. A small voltage drop should be noticed. This voltage drop is caused by the resistance of the component.
- Repeat the test for each component (load) down the circuit.
- If a large voltage drop is noticed, the preceding component, wire or connector is suspect.