Leading causes of mechanical breakdowns

February 2016

No matter how well you look after your car, there may come a time when you have no choice but to spend money on repairs. But prevention is better than cure and spending money on vehicle maintenance can save you a lot of frustration, and time, down the line.

According to Johan van Vreden, the South African Motor Industry Ombudsman, there are seven main mechanical problems which can cause a vehicle to breakdown. Being aware of these and being able to recognise them, perhaps even before they become a problem, is the key to hassle-free motoring.

Flat or faulty battery
A flat battery is by far the biggest reason for vehicle breakdowns. Most often this is caused by loose battery connectors, or by a loss of voltage.

To ensure that your vehicle’s battery continues to work effectively, battery connectors should be checked monthly. All surfaces should also be dirt and corrosion-free. If there are any green or white powdery deposits on the battery, these need to be removed. In addition, the water level in the battery should be checked and filled up with distilled water if necessary. Note that modern maintenance-free batteries are sealed and do not require a top-up.

Loss of voltage caused by short journeys is a frequent cause of flat batteries. To make sure that your car battery does not run flat, take the car on a longer journey every now and again. If this is not possible, charge the battery overnight with a battery charger.  

It’s also important to remember that car batteries don’t last forever. At some point you are going to have to replace it so make a note of the date it was installed.

Alternator faults
The alternator is a vital component in your vehicle. It generates an electrical current and distributes it to the battery, and other electrical components, such as headlamps, windscreen wipers and car radios. 

While there is little you can do to maintain the alternator yourself, Van Vreden points out that you can watch out for signs that tell you when your alternator is faulty. Look out for a flickering of your battery warning light on the dashboard, and keep an eye out for dimmed headlamps, and dimmed dashboard lights when the engine is idling. Also, if your vehicle turns slowly or takes longer to start, you may have a problem.

Starter motor faults
If your starter motor fails, your vehicle’s engine won't start. Regular maintenance can highlight issues with the starter motor before they become problems. 

Clutch faults
A clutch that will neither engage nor release correctly can cause serious damage to your vehicle’s transmission. Drag, a common problem, occurs when depressing the pedal does not release the clutch fully. This can result in noisy gear changes, or when engaging first or reverse gears. Many vehicles still rely on a clutch cable, which can stretch and even snap, rendering the clutch pedal useless. 

The moment you notice any changes in how the clutch feels, or changing gears becomes an issue, ask an expert to investigate.

Spark plugs
The spark plug is a much-neglected part of the ignition system. Spark plugs will age and, as time goes by, will not operate as effectively as they should. Fortunately, there are warning signs such as persistent trouble starting the car, engine misfire, or lack of power when accelerating.

“Make sure that you replace your vehicle’s plugs at the manufacturer's recommended service intervals,” Van Vreden warns.

Electrical faults
As cars become more and more complex, electrical faults are responsible for a greater number of breakdowns. There is little you will be able to do if your car breaks down due to an electrical fault. The best way to help prevent this type of problem is to make sure you get your car checked by an auto electrician when the first symptoms of a problem arise.  This can be something as simple as the headlights or windscreen wipers not working.

A vehicle’s transmission regulates the application of power from the engine to the driveshaft. In short, if something goes wrong it could be a costly exercise to fix. Following the vehicle’s maintenance schedule as prescribed by the manufacturer could save you much frustration and money. However, many people fail to have this done and the resulting stress, and wear and tear, could lead to premature failure of the transmission. 

A stitch in time… 
In conclusion, Van Vreden says that most expensive mechanical problems can be prevented with proper maintenance. That said, not many vehicle owners are diligent about checking their oil every month, and getting their car serviced on a regular basis. 

While it may seem like an inconvenience to have your vehicle checked regularly, the real inconvenience occurs when you are stuck on a highway for hours because of a mechanical breakdown that need never have happened.

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