View Full Version : '97 outback electrical fluctuations

02-11-2009, 12:11 PM
I have a 97 outback wagon that I bought used at 88K but in excellent condition - all major services (30/90/120k) have been performed, regular oil changes etc. The recall on the '97 alternator was performed at 67K in 2001.

Since then I have had the water pump replaced, but no other major issues other than normal maintenance repairs. We had an exceptionally cold winter here in Seattle and so a couple of times I had to get the car jumped in order to start. And I noticed that it just didn't seem to have as much pick up and go as it usually does. Slight lags in shifting into gear (AT btw) but no other issue until the other day when I changed out the right headlamp. I had my battery checked at the same time and it was at 53%, so still OK for another couple months (bought in 10/05) . But later that night when I was coming home in a light snowstorm the dashboard lights began to dim, the radio cut out and the wipers were at half speed. I turned off all unnecessary electrical components - seat heater, etc. and got her home but when I turned off the car and then tried to turn it back on again it wouldnt turn over. The next day I checked all the fuses and they appeared to be good and the car did turn on so....??? any thoughts what might be going on?

02-12-2009, 12:31 AM
You should drive to your closest decent auto-parts store and have them do a "drop test" on the battery to see how much load it can handle. Batteries when they rest (such as overnight) may build back up a residual charge enough to start the car, but then it drains quickly. Obviously your alternator isn't keeping up with the electrical drain either, so some examination is due there also, perhaps in the voltage regulator circuit. Have you checked the belts to make sure they're not slipping on the alternator pulley and not giving it full speed rotation?

02-12-2009, 01:30 AM
All really great advice, I will check on all of those possibilities, thanks!!

02-13-2009, 12:53 AM
Depending on the quality of the battery, 4 years in a cold winter environment is about par for the battery to give up the ghost. 53% on a load test means it has enough to start the car, and then is pretty much drained until the alternator charges it back up. Depending on the length of your commutes, if it's a lot of short trips the battery may not fully charge back up before you shut the engine down and then start the car up again.

02-13-2009, 01:38 AM
Thanks again for that bit of info - I do hope it is just the battery and not an alternator. I don't drive alot because I work at home and I can walk everywhere I really need to go, so most of my trips are less than 5 miles and not every day. That would explain why it doesn't stay charged. Looked at the belts today and they appear to be OK and had a friend check the voltage and it was at a 12 which is apparently too low to keep things going.

02-13-2009, 09:39 PM
No, 12V is nominal battery voltage although they will usually run around 13-14V. The real issue is the current-carrying-capacity and yes, lots of short trips are worse than long trips. The battery gets whacked during starts, and then isn't getting sufficient recharge before you shut'er down. If you have access to a decent battery charger (or a buddy with one) most of them have a deep-cycle feature which will take the battery down to zero and then recharge it all the way up. Much better than just blasting a quick charge on top.

02-14-2009, 12:33 AM
OK so I took it to a shop today (friday) to have it checked out and all they could find was that the battery was shot. So they replaced the battery and I drove it away thinking all was well until later this evening when all of a sudden while I was driving the "Battery" and "Brake" warning lights went on. The Sub manual says don't drive and get the car to the nearest Subaru dealer or dire consequences could result. The power and brakes seem fine (new front brakes were put in 2 months ago in fact). An ideas what might be causing this before I take it back in? Also my car stereo doesn't work now. Very strange! So frustrating! Thanks for all your help by the way.

02-14-2009, 11:02 AM
The symptoms point to the alternator recall issue, WXX-81. You stated in the first post that this recall had been done, but it's possible that when they shop pulled the battery they disturbed some feature, or else the new battery isn't being fully charged by the alternator. Lots of lights coming on usually means a faulty or low voltage to the engine computer, so I'm sure your radio and brakes are fine, just not getting enough juice. Did they test the alternator while it was in the shop?

02-14-2009, 04:40 PM
Yes they supposedly tested all the electrical systems but obviously something is not working. They are supposed to be one of the number one subaru shops in town so I am a little wary of going back there. How does one discern that the alternator is the problem then if they didn't pick that up when they checked it? Also is it safe to drive the car with these new issues?

02-14-2009, 07:37 PM
It's safe to drive as long as you charge the battery to full before your day begins. Once that low-voltage indication comes on then things like the anti-lock brakes and emissions control unit go snaky. And when that happens is ..... I think (not 100% sure) that they have to pull the alternator to test it, so if that didn't happen they may just read off the charging leads and consider that good. Let me investigate that.

02-14-2009, 07:43 PM
Do you have an Autozone auto-parts place near you? They're one of the better shops (IMHO) that will do a complete test on the charging system for you if you can drive over there.

02-15-2009, 01:32 AM
So I drove it around a little more tonight about 2 miles, parked it for about 3 hours and drove back to my house another 2 miles and on the way back the dash lights began to dim again, the headlights weren't as strong, the seat warmer lights were also out, and couldn't get the heater to blow full on. This with a brand spankin' new battery! Does not bode well.....

We do have an autozone but its about 15 miles away and if my car is doing all of this I'm not sure I can safely make it there and back to get them to look at the alternator. But thanks for the tip!

02-15-2009, 03:49 AM
Your best alternative is to either pull the alternator and take it in to them to test, or drive back to the Subaru place you first mentioned and tell them "it ain't fixed". Only a massive ground would drain your battery this fast, and since everything else works (usually) and it starts that's not the problem. You're not blowing fuses so it's not the voltage regulation circuit. That leaves us the alternator. Even if you drove to the Autozone and they tested the alternator and found it bad, they're not a shop so they can sell you a new one but won't install it. The best bet is to take it to the Subaru place again and insist that it isn't fixed. Make them either give you a loaner and tell the shop lead mechanic to drive it around for a day or hopefully your insurance has rental car reimbursement.

02-15-2009, 03:41 PM
I checked with a local Subaru guy who told me the same thing. Alternator VR circuit. Did they pull your alternator last time to check it or just put some test leads on the output harness?

Are you handy with a meter & test leads? One thing you should also try is to pull the negative terminal off the battery, and put a lighted test probe between the battery negative terminal and the battery negative lead. If the bulb lights up, you've got a ground somewhere and a current drain. Then you start pulling fuses until the probe light goes out and find which circuit has a ground in it. That's the only other item if the alternator truly is good, which I doubt.

02-16-2009, 04:18 AM
Thank you so much for bird dogging this for me! I'm sure you are right about the alternator so will have them properly check it out tomorrow and also do the other tests you suggested. All I want is peace of mind that my car won't up and stop somewhere unfortunate, (have had that happen with a previous car so am a bit spooked) so I want them to run down all possible issues. You have certainly helped me a great deal, thank you so much!!!

02-16-2009, 04:24 PM
No problem, that's what the online forums are about. Two cars in a row.... maybe you're hexed! :rolleyes: Please make sure when they fix it up that you post the final result so anyone searching these threads knows the resolution if they have the same problem.

02-17-2009, 03:13 AM
Yes I will do that. It goes in tomorrow to have everything checked out so hopefully it will be resolved! As for being hexed, well that was a cute little red honda civic and all the main electrical wires somehow overheated and just fused together! Hope it wasn't my "Kar"ma. Prefer to think it was just a hot little car!!

02-17-2009, 05:00 PM
Hope it wasn't my "Kar"ma.

Oooo, a punster too. Crossed fingers for the trip in tomorrow.

02-19-2009, 12:29 AM
Well what an ordeal!! In trying to GET the car to the shop I had to jump it 6 TIMES to only move it 500 feet and get it safely to the side of the road for a tow! Sheesh! Turns out it was the alternator after all like you thought......

and so let this be a lesson to all - TAKE YOUR CAR INTO THE SHOP EVERYTIME THE CHECK ENGINE LIGHT GOES OFF! The light was on for a couple of days two weeks ago but I ignored it because it occasionally does this and when I've taken it in its never been anything important - like the gas cap is loose or some such thing. So there you go, lets hope nothing else goes wonky for awhile. Thanks again for the tips & support Scorpion8!

02-19-2009, 01:20 AM
Thanks again for the tips & support Scorpion8!

Glad to hear there was a happy ending and that you got the car (and yourself) in safely. With a new battery and alternator, hopefully there shouldn't be any electrical issues for awhile. Enjoy!

02-20-2009, 02:52 AM
She runs like a charm now and sounds like her old self - so I think the alternator was failing for a good long time, just didn't recognize the signs until it was too late. Glad I only had to have it towed 5 miles instead of 50 !( which would have been the case had I taken it up into the mountains last week).

Will certainly tell my friends with Subarus about this forum. You have been so very helpful!

02-20-2009, 11:22 AM
Will certainly tell my friends with Subarus about this forum. You have been so very helpful!

Glad to hear you're up and running well again. Enjoy!

03-04-2009, 05:38 PM
the saga continues........so now after the new battery, and new alternator, the check engine light came on once again! This time I went in straight away to see what was up. The message was from a sensor indicating the throttle position was too low. I had actually gotten that message once this past summer but the repair guy (who didn't correctly identify the alternator issue but put in the battery and said that was the source of the electrical problems)
he said it was an unusual issue and an expensive fix so just watch it and see if it happens again and then he cleared the code.

Fast forward to this week, after the alternator was fixed alot of things turned on that hadn't been on in awhile, including this sensor apparently. So I took it to the mechanic that fixed the alternator and he also said it was unusual but he did adjust the throttle so that it was in the proper range (tweaked a screw it looked like) and said to watch and see. Indicators that it was still a problem would be problems at idle and stalling out. Of course that would be a bummer if it stalled out when I was off skiing in the mts.!

So I just need a second opinion, is this something I should just go ahead and replace? And does this pose a safety issue, meaning could it stall out while I was driving and not at a stop? I don't know enough about throttles to soothe my concerns. Thanks!!!

03-04-2009, 09:51 PM
The TPS (throttle position sensor) is very easy and pretty cheap ($80-150 for the part) to replace on these. More likely it will not start or idle rough than stall out while driving, except at a stop sign. The TPS sends a signal to the electronic control unit (ECU) which adjusts several parameters to make sure you're getting your best/efficient/emissions-wise performance. Can you drive with a funky one? Sure can, it's at the extreme ends (start/idle) where you'll have most of your problems.

What you need to do is:
(a) never go see the first guy again. Unless he's handsome, rich and single he sure doesn't know cars.
(b) having the TPS go bad is just one of many electrical widgets we learn to live with on these cars ever since emissions became such a big issue.

The worse thing that'll happen is you may get worsening fuel economy and rough idle and possibly difficulty starting. You can live with it, but myself I'd get it fixed because the check-engine light bugs me interminably and you may start ignoring it if another sensor goes bad. It may also be a cold-weather issue and once the car and outside air warms up the TPS operates just fine.