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Summary
  • The alternator charges the battery when the engine is running. It also supplies electricity to the car’s electronics using electromagnetic induction.
  • There are three types of regulators: electromechanical voltage regulators, electronic voltage regulators, and computer-controlled voltage regulators.
  • The electromechanical voltage regulators have three electromagnetic switches with their own functions. They are the cutout relay, the regulator, and the current regulator.
  • Electronic regulators use semiconductors to control the alternator’s output.
  • The majority of late-model vehicles use the engine computer, referred to as the powertrain control module (PCM), to control the alternator’s output.

There are many different charging system designs used in automotive applications. One primary factor that differentiates one system from another is the voltage regulator.

Some classic cars have electromechanical regulators, while modern production vehicles use either an electronic regulator or a computer (sometimes both). The design of the regulator affects the entire layout of the charging system.

How The Alternator and Charging System Work

automotive alternator
The alternator charges the battery whenever the engine is running while also supplying electricity to the car’s electronics.

Before jumping into the different types of regulators, it helps to have a basic understanding of how the charging system works.

As most people know, the alternator charges the battery whenever the engine is running while also supplying electricity to the car’s electronics. The alternator accomplishes these tasks through electromagnetic induction—a phenomenon that generates electrical current from a magnetic field.

Components of a car's alternator
The alternator’s stator (background), rotor (center), and rectifier (foreground).

The primary components found within the alternator are the rotor, stator, and rectifier bridge.

  • The rotor, which is the rotating portion of the alternator, consists of coils of wire (known as a field coil) behind opposing magnetic poles.
  • The stator consists of three sets of stationary coil windings and a laminated core.
  • The rectifier bridge contains diodes that act as one-way electrical check valves.

The rotor’s field coil receives electrical current through a set of slip rings and brushes (located on the rotor’s shaft). That current creates a magnetic field, which is enhanced by the rotor’s magnetic poles.

Whenever the engine is running, the vehicle’s drive belt turns the rotor via a pulley on the front of the alternator. As the rotor turns, it causes the stator to create an alternating current. The rectifier bridge converts the alternating current (AC) into direct current (DC) that the car’s electrical system can use.

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But there’s one more piece to the puzzle. For the charging system to work properly, the alternator must produce enough voltage to charge the battery—but not so much voltage that the car’s electronics become damaged.

To address this issue, the alternator’s output is controlled by regulating the amount of current that flows through the rotor’s field coil. The voltage regulator is responsible for performing this task.

Electromechanical, Electronic, and Computer-Controlled Voltage Regulation (Diagram Examples)

Until the mid 1970s, many cars used electromechanical voltage regulators. Modern production vehicles, however, control the alternator’s output with either an electronic regulator, a computer, or both.

Although each type of regulator operates differently, they all perform the same task: controlling the alternator’s output. The output is regulated by managing current flow through the field coil.

Let’s take a look at each type of regulator and its circuit.

Electromechanical Voltage Regulator

a vehicle's electromechanical voltage regulator
Some vintage vehicles use an electromechanical voltage regulator that’s external from the alternator which contains three electromagnetic switches: the cutout relay, the regulator, and the current regulator.

Some vintage vehicles use an electromechanical voltage regulator that’s external from the alternator. Most of these regulators contain three electromagnetic switches referred to as the cutout relay, the regulator, and the current regulator. Each serves a distinct purpose.

  • The cutout relay closes to connect the alternator to the battery, thereby allowing the battery to be charged. The cutout relay will also open as needed to prevent the battery from discharging into the alternator.
  • The regulator opens and closes to control the alternator’s field circuit, thereby regulating the alternator’s voltage output.
  • The current regulator opens and closes to control the alternator’s field circuit, thereby regulating the alternator’s current output.
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Electromagnetic voltage regulators are no longer found in production vehicles. All modern charging systems use some form of regulation that’s purely electronic.

Wiring Diagram (External Electromechanical Voltage Regulator)

Refer to the simple diagram below for systems with an external electromechanical voltage regulator.

automotive alternator wiring diagram with external voltage regulator
A typical alternator wiring diagram with an external electromechanical voltage regulator.

Electronic Voltage Regulator

car relay voltage regulator
Unlike electromechanical regulators, electronic regulators are solid-state without any moving parts.

Electronic regulators use semiconductors (zener diodes and transistors) to control the alternator’s output. Typically, the regulator controls the alternator by opening and closing the ground side of the field circuit. Doing so permits or obstructs current flow.

Unlike electromechanical regulators, electronic regulators are solid-state without any moving parts. The solid-state design allows for quicker cycling and more precise control over the alternator.

Electronic regulators can be mounted internally (inside the alternator) or externally (somewhere else).

Exactly what wires go to an alternator will depend on the system design. But generally, an alternator (that’s not computer controlled) with an internal regulator will have three terminals. The terminals are as follows:

  • Battery terminal: Connects to the battery for charging.
  • Voltage sense terminal: Allows the regulator to sense the battery’s voltage.
  • Field or ignition terminal: Allows battery voltage from the ignition to flow to the alternator’s field coil during startup.

Electronic voltage regulators have been used on many cars since the mid 1970s.

3-Wire Alternator Wiring Diagram

Refer to the diagram below if you’re working on three-wire connections.

complete 3-wire alternator wiring diagram with internal voltage regulator
A typical 3-wire alternator wiring diagram with an internal voltage regulator.

Computer-Controlled Voltage Regulation

Many late-model vehicles use the engine computer, which is often referred to as the powertrain control module (PCM), to control alternator output. Most modules use an internal driver to turn the alternator’s field circuit on and off.

An example is the General Motors (GM) Electrical Power Management (EPM) system. With this setup, there’s an internal, non-serviceable regulator inside the alternator. But the PCM controls system output by changing the on-time of current flow through the field coil.

engine control unit
Many late-model vehicles use the PCM to control alternator output.

The PCM decides how much voltage the charging system needs by looking at data from the body control module (BCM). A data network allows the PCM, BCM, and other modules to communicate with one another. The BCM monitors a battery current sensor, which is located in one of the battery cables, to monitor the current going in and out of the battery.

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If there’s a failure within the EPM system, a message will be sent over the data network, instructing the instrument cluster to turn on one or more warning lights.

GM’s EPM system is just one example of a computer-controlled charging system. There are many other system designs, some of which do not use a regulator inside the alternator. Certain Chrysler charging systems, for example, house all of the regulator electronics within the PCM.

Typical Alternator Wiring Diagram

Below is a simplified diagram showing connections to the vehicle’s PCM and battery.

detailed PCM-controlled alternator wiring diagram with alternator connections
A typical PCM-controlled alternator wiring diagram with alternator connections going to the battery and PCM

You can also check this video to get an idea of how alternators work and how to replace one:

Where to Get a New Alternator for Your Vehicle

Given the importance of the alternator, driving while it’s malfunctioning is risky because it could damage electrical components. It could cause issues like stalling and a dead battery. Luckily, CarParts.com has a wide selection of high-quality alternator replacements for you to choose from!

We take pride in the quality of our alternators. We source them from trusted manufacturers in the industry to ensure they perform like your stock part. Not only that, but you can expect fast and efficient delivery because we ship orders from strategically located warehouses across the country. This means your replacement alternator can arrive at your doorstep as early as two business days.

If you have any questions, our trained customer service representatives are always happy to help. You can contact them anytime through our toll-free hotlines.

Check out our catalog and take advantage of the best deals on alternators today!

About The Author
Written By Automotive Subject Matter Expert at CarParts.com

Mia Bevacqua has over 14 years of experience in the auto industry and holds a bachelor’s degree in Advanced Automotive Systems. Certifications include ASE Master Automobile Technician, Master Medium/Heavy Truck Technician, L1, L2, L3, and L4 Advanced Level Specialist. Mia loves fixer-upper oddballs, like her 1987 Cavalier Z-24 and 1998 Astro Van AWD.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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Joshua Patterson

This was a great site very informative. I have been having an issue with my vehicle and it has been very expensive and the still is not been corrected. With this information, I can troubleshoot more precisely. Thank you.

Hi Joshua,

Thank you for the feedback! We’re glad you found the article to be helpful.

Klaus Heddergott

I’ve been trying to find an external regulator to replace my old “Filco VRF-330 HD.
It is an “A” circuit regulator. (externally grounded field)
All of the regulators I checked do not give any info about what circuit they have.
Where do I find that info?

Hello Klaus,

What is the year, make, and model of your vehicle? With that information, we’ll be able to check whether we have a replacement regulator for your application.

Klaus Heddergott

I have a modified Denso alternator. I removed the built-in regulator and mounted a Filco VRF-330 regulator along with a parallel wired over-voltage relay. This is in a homebuilt airplane.
The alternator was off a Geo Metro. (lighter than aircraft alternators)
This system runs an “A” circuit for the field modulation.
None of the regulators listed on the Internet, and there are dozens, say what circuitry is used for the field.

Often, the product descriptions on websites are rather limited. If you’re looking for more detailed information on a particular regulator, you might try searching for the manufacturer’s product datasheet. Another option (if you want to go with the same Filco VRF-330 regulator) is to look for a used unit on eBay and similar outlets. Good luck!

BobWinchester

Can I modify a 12v alternator to charge a 24v battery? thanks for any thoughts

Hi Bob,

You might be able to modify the charging system to produce more voltage, but the alternator would be operating at maximum capacity and would likely have a short service life. So, your best bet would be to find an alternator that’s designed for a 24-volt system.

Alex

With a newer/modern day alternator, do I still need a voltage regulator for my 292 inline 6 motor?

mm

Hi Alex,

Whether you need an external regulator will depend on the charging system design and whether the updated alternator has an internal regulator.

Joshua

Try quick start high output alternators

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