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Old 08-30-2017, 07:22 PM   #1
MobileSaturn
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Question 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

My friend's '98 SL1 has recently developed an issue that sounds a lot like a bad battery connection / ground cable, but there's something slightly off.

First off, the alternator is only about a year old, and I've tested the voltage with ground connected to the terminal on the fender-well and positive from the battery: 12.7 with engine off, 14.4 with engine running, and stays stable just above 14 with lights and A/C full blast after warm. My friend says the issue only occurs with the headlights on, and when it does while idling at, say, a stop-light, the engine will sometimes die or almost die. So I stress-tested everything with the lights on and engine running, and nothing happened after 15 mins of idling at a standstill. Started driving it, and the gauge cluster / radio indeed started flickering. The radio is aftermarket and is connected to the dimmer; the dimmer is currently set all the way up, so the radio isn't receiving a signal to dim with the headlights on, thus the display is at full brightness. After a couple of minutes of driving, both the gauge cluster and the display on the radio began to flicker violently, but only intermittently, and between large intervals of time (e.g. up to five minutes for a recurrence). The engine never died with me, and never got a battery warning light.

One thing I noticed that seemed off to me was that the DRL lamp on the gauge cluster would flicker on and off when this happened. The DRLs are currently bypassed with the bent pin trick, so they shouldn't have the ability to operate at all. The headlights are LEDs for both low- and hi-beam, hence the trick (I checked the heatsinks and wiring: nothing's getting hot, and current draw is low, so no issue there). I checked the box under the hood to make sure the pin hadn't somehow magically been bent back and was making contact, but it was fine, and there's no physical contact whatsoever.

So, I'm at a loss. Aside from checking battery terminals and the ground cable, could it be anything else?

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Old 08-30-2017, 09:19 PM   #2
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

Most obvious for the dash light issue would be either the light stalk going bad, OR the dash knob dimmer over there on the left of the steering wheel.
Car dying? I don't believe the 2 troubles are directly related.

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Old 08-30-2017, 11:15 PM   #3
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

Quote:
Originally Posted by toggenburg View Post
Most obvious for the dash light issue would be either the light stalk going bad, OR the dash knob dimmer over there on the left of the steering wheel.
Car dying? I don't believe the 2 troubles are directly related.
The two problems began at the same time, and the car only dies when the lights flicker out. I did experience some engine hesitation when I took it out again, and it happened only while the flickering occurred. So I'm not quite ready to rule it as two separate problems just yet.

Checked the battery terminal bolts, and they're nice and tight. Can't get a wrench or deep enough socket down onto the ground strap bolt though. Anyone know what size it should be?

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Old 08-30-2017, 11:30 PM   #4
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

Get the battery checked. I had the same problem. It was a short in the battery. The battery was less than a month old.

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Old 08-30-2017, 11:43 PM   #5
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

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Originally Posted by BarnOwl View Post
Get the battery checked. I had the same problem. It was a short in the battery. The battery was less than a month old.
Will do, thanks! This one's two years old anyway, so who knows.

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Old 08-31-2017, 08:05 AM   #6
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

A dying battery will not kill a running engine by itself. You can start a car, and remove the battery from the car without affecting the still running engine.

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Old 08-31-2017, 09:31 AM   #7
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

Alligator clips and run the wires around the a-pillar to a DMM in the car while driving around, or make a cigarette lighter adapter to do the same thing....find some way of getting a volt-meter on it when it's acting up.

Actually remove the battery cables from the battery and if possible remove the nut & protective case to fully clean the contact areas (the nut pulls out of stock cables, not always the same with aftermarket replacements).

My DMM even has a battery test mode for 1.5v, 9v and 12v batteries. Not sure how accurate it is, but if the local parts store can't or won't test it for you that may be an option as well and better than simply guessing.

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Old 08-31-2017, 04:40 PM   #8
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

If main power wiring are considered, battery positive and negative connections may be the reason for this intermittent problem with the engine dying.

Battery positive connects three things, main fuse box, starter and alternator. Battery negative connects to two main grounds, chassis and engine block. If there's any hint of battery terminal corrosion, it may be hidden from view, underneath the heavy insulation of terminal covers. The red positive battery cable terminal is prone to corrosion and if severe enough, will eat copper wires yet the cable will appear clean. Disconnecting battery negative first before disconnecting battery positive is the rule. Once disconnected for close examination, peeling back the heavy terminal cover or cutting it away may reveal severe corrosion. If wires aren't missing from severe corrosion (battery acid venting dries out as a powdery residue with moisture reconstituting dried acid back to eat wires). A warm solution of water and baking soda with a toothbrush will dissolve and neutralize this acid with a water rinse. Battery ground connections don't seem to suffer this problem so inspecting chassis and engine block grounds may be all that's needed.

In theory and actual application, disconnecting battery negative on a running engine will allow the alternator to apply all the electricity a car needs but that's assuming the main power wires are clean, intact and free of corrosion. If the engine dies off at random with flickering lights, this may be the red battery cable being corroded and unable to maintain a good electrical connection. With the engine running and alternator working, if the red cable terminal is severely corroded underneath the heavy duty terminal cover with wires missing from acid eating them away, the alternator may not have an electrical connection. While grounds are good, battery positive connection disrupted at the battery, the fuse box may have intermittent power - electrical flow is negative to positive. While negative is alternator case ground to engine block and back to battery negative, alternator positive relies on the main positive cable connection from the starter where the fusible link is connected along with battery positive. Since battery positive comes from the battery connection, if the battery positive cable can't feed battery power to the fusible link wire, the alternator dies. Instant engine die off as the battery and alternator have no way to feed power thru main power connections.

Last edited by fdryer; 08-31-2017 at 04:45 PM..

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Old 08-31-2017, 05:54 PM   #9
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

Thanks for the input all, and fdryer's description of how a car's electrics work between the battery and alternator. I haven't hooked up a MM inside to read the voltage while driving *that will have to wait for when I have a proper amount of time to look into this in a couple weeks, provided the issue isn't resolved before then.

I did figure something else out though. I've been able to drive it a couple more times, and with the lights off, no flickering of the digital odometer or radio ever occurs, and the engine runs fine. With the headlights on though, the problem begins. So I decided to try driving with just the parking lights on; lo and behold, the issue persisted with the same intermittent frequency. I then turned off the parking lights in the same driving session, and the problem went away. So the issue seems to only present itself when either the parking lights or headlights are on, and not any other time.

Sounds an awful lot like the stalk to me, but at the same time, why would it be interfering with the engine's operation? Especially when running voltage shows the alternator is doing its job? Could corrosion somehow play in enough to cause an issue during a short? Of course, I would expect a fuse to go out if it were a short rather than just a dirty / breaking stalk, but no such thing has happened.

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Old 08-31-2017, 09:21 PM   #10
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

Well, you can wait for comments of someone already encountered the exact same issue or go ahead and remove the stalk switch for examination otherwise its guessing and its your car. Rather than guess, suggestions were given for you to decide which way to go. Process of elimination.

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Old 08-31-2017, 11:24 PM   #11
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

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Originally Posted by fdryer View Post
Well, you can wait for comments of someone already encountered the exact same issue or go ahead and remove the stalk switch for examination otherwise its guessing and its your car. Rather than guess, suggestions were given for you to decide which way to go. Process of elimination.
I see no reason to examine the stalk given the engine interference, unless again it's theoretically possible it could be interfering I have no idea. I'd like to see if someone has indeed encountered the same issue, since a number of old threads show similar (not exact) issues in the past. I'll be eliminating possibilities once I get time, but remember: this isn't my car, thus I don't have my hands on it on the reg. So the more ideas I have to work with when free time comes, the better.

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Old 09-01-2017, 12:16 AM   #12
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

I'd check for a parking light bulb that's either brighter than the others or dimmer, either way indicates a short in that bulbs socket which confuses the crud out of the voltage regulator in the alternator. Either way I'd start with the taillights first for a more in-depth check, the brake light bulbs are already prone to shorting out and you've stated it sometimes stalls at red lights...presumably with the brakes on.

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Old 09-01-2017, 12:45 AM   #13
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

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Originally Posted by toggenburg View Post
A dying battery will not kill a running engine by itself. You can start a car, and remove the battery from the car without affecting the still running engine.
An internally shorted battery will since it can pull the voltage down even with the alternator functioning.

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Old 09-09-2017, 09:09 PM   #14
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Default Re: 98 SL1 flickering gauges / radio, engine dying

Well, so far, it appears it was just a couple of backed-out bolts from both battery terminals. They seemed tight when I first checked it, but I guess I was in too much a hurry. In any case, it was the first thing I checked when I finally got my hands on it a couple nights ago, and they were perhaps a skosh loose, but not enough to even tighten down a full turn. In any case, I checked for corrosion, found none, and tightened the bolts back down. No issues thus far.

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