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OK...I am a complete novice. We recently moved to Germany with the military and my husband is out of country...so I need a little help. The weather dropped into the 30s over the weekend and my 03 Outback didn't want to start. No sound when I turned the key. On third turn, it started. No other issues. It's done this for three straight days the first time I start it. I drove it to a shop and was told I need a new battery and alternator...no diagnostic printout to refer to. I read through all the posts on here for alternator issues and I'm not having them (so far)...lights not flickering or dimming, the battery/charge light comes on with key in position three then goes off once engine is running (and they don't come back on, no issues with speedometer. Should I order one now to have it installed or wait to see if other "symptoms" occur?
 

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These symptoms are likely related to corroded battery posts or other poor connection. Once you get it to arc, it self-welds and the connection is made with low enough resistance that you can get some current flowing.

Try cleaning the battery terminals. Get a volt meter and measure the battery voltage right after you park it and after it sits all night. If the voltage drops significantly you probably need a new battery, although there could be a path to ground somewhere, so you should also look at the current draw from the battery with the key off. There's a spec somewhere for what is expected. (100 mA?)

Tom
 

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do you know how old the battery is? If it is over 3-4 years old, changing it to help cure OR diagnose the problem is not unreasonable.

IF you eventually need an alternator or some other issue is discovered after the battery swap, it isn't like you dumped a new battery as, many batteries only last 4 years or so anyway.

do not go back to that shop.
 

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Welcome to the forums! We can help! While it is possible both battery and alternator are bad, it probably isn't true! In cases like this you should take it by small steps. If the problem remains, you go onto the next step.

1: Remove both battery cables, negative cable first, and clean the posts and terminals to bright shiny metal. Reinstall the cables, negative cable last. (Order of installation or removal is important so you don't short out your wrench - ZAAAAPPPP!) Corrosion is a VERY common problem. You can do this yourself with a cheap brush from the auto parts store or eBay:



If they are really nasty, with corrosion growing like fungus, you should first dissolve the crud using a strong solution of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and water ... enjoy the fizzing ... followed by a thorough water rinse. Then use the tool to clean the terminals and posts.

2: Have the battery load tested in a shop. You can remove it and take it there or drive the car. It has to be fully charged first, so it makes sense to give the shop some time to do this, or put a small charger on the battery overnight. They will put a heavy load on the battery to see if it is performing right. If the battery won't support the load, or won't charge in the first place, replace it. If the battery is more than five or six years old, just go ahead and buy a new one, since it's on its last legs.

3: If the battery is good, most likely the alternator has failed, but the shop should first inspect the wiring for corrosion or breaks. They should hook up a tester and check for correct charging voltage at idle and say 1500 rpm. If one of the three diodes has failed (very common), the alternator will put out adequate current at higher rpm, and barely any at idle.

It's a very good idea to check the charging voltage after installing the new battery, to make sure the rest of the system is working correctly! The alternator should put out about 14.7 volts at idle and higher rpm, with a good charged battery. You can do this yourself with a $10 digital voltmeter. Turn on the lights and fan, and the voltage should not drop below about 14.5 - if it does, the alternator is weak. If it keeps dropping and gets to around 12 volts, the battery is discharging, showing that the alternator is toast...

4: Replace the alternator. A new alternator with a bad battery is really hard on the alternator. So always make sure the battery is OK first! Always put a new belt on at the same time, unless you know yours is in like-new condition, and inspect the pulleys and bearings. The belt is cheap and it won't cost any labor to replace if the alternator is changed at the same time. A rough idler pulley bearing will take out the belt in a month or a year, so change it now.

While they are doing that they can easily inspect the rest of the belt driven accessories (water pump, power steering, air pump) and make sure there are no other issues.

Some shops like to skip all the intermediate steps since it saves them time and makes them a lot of money. These shops you visit one time, and never return to!

Good luck, and thanks for your husband's service and for your sacrifices. Please post a followup when you get this fixed.

John Davies
Spokane WA USA
 

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There is simple test that might provide a preliminary idea of whether the battery is the problem and possibly avoid unnecessary replacement of the battery and/or alternator.

On a typical cold morning when you don't expect the car to start on the first try, turn the key to the 3rd position and make sure that the warning lights all come on, as usual, in the instrument panel. Then turn on the ceiling (dome) lamp, or just leave the door open so that it's on. Note the brightness of the ceiling light. Now, while watching the light, turn the key to the start position. If there's no start, and the light only dims a small bit or not at all, the battery is not likely a problem. If the light dims down low and recovers when the key is released, then there's a chance the battery, or a connection to is (as has already been mentioned) is the cause.

There is a non-uncommon problem that tends to show up especially as temperatures drop, and that is the starter solenoid. It's an electrical device with a plunger inside that is pulled in when the key is at start. The plunger has to move in order for the starter to work. Often, grease used to lubricate the mechanism can become dry and stiff, especially as temperatures drop. This prevents the plunger from moving, or moving as far as it should, and as a result, the starter doesn't run. When the key is turned several times, the plunger is eventually freed and the starter works. If the ceiling light does not dim significantly when the key is at the start position it means the battery isn't being loaded down by the starter, and this is one of the signs of the solenoid problem.

Certainly have the battery load tested, and if you can, make the voltage measurements that were suggested. But if it looks good, and the connections are clean and tight, and if the problem shows up only on cold mornings and not at other times, check the ceiling light.
 

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Alternator would be a big jump a faith they are not known for failing it would be a rare case you needed one.

Very cold temps like how cold? I have a co-worker at close to 8000ft in Colorado and if the car sits out in 0-25 below for more than 4hrs or so it was freezing up ie would not turn over or start.

She did a couple of things to help improve this -she switched to a lighter synthetic weight oil in the engine at her next oil change - and had a better quality cold weather battery installed. This made a fairly big improvement in the cold weather start situation.

Start there - far cheaper and your mechanic isn't swapping a good quality Subaru alternator for a cheap knock off and making a few extra bucks off of you.
 

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+1 on Plain om suggestion
Id say it was in the starting system, loose wiring, bad ground or a faulty starter solenoid. The fact that it does nothing and then eventually starts kinda rules out the battery and alternator for me. The symptoms don't suggest battery problems to me. Where I used to work had a late 90's Ford E-350, sometimes you would have to cycle the ignition up to 10 times before it would start, those are the symptoms of a sticky starter solenoid, as was mentioned they do eventually free up after several attempts but better to fix it before your stranded.
I definitely would not be paying for a new alternator, but replacing a battery every now and then is always a good idea, although as I said I don't think the battery is the problem.
 
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