How to Read Car Wiring Diagrams for Beginners
Electrical problems are every car owner’s worst nightmares; so many wires and complicated components to inspect. Luckily for you, automotive wiring diagrams are there to help you speed up the whole process. Obviously, you’ll first need to understand the different codes and symbols for electrical diagrams to be beneficial. To assist you with that, we have created this quick guide on how to read car wiring diagrams to troubleshoot and fix simple electrical system problems in no time.
And don’t worry if you aren’t that tech-savvy: understanding automotive wiring diagrams is actually much easier than it seems!
Most Common Symbols and their Meaning
In electrical diagrams, every straight black line represents a wire. Pretty simple right? On a diagram, there’s no visual difference between wire gauges and materials. All wires are then identified using a color code and a number, but we’ll see more about that later in this article.
The symbol used to show that two wires are connected is a tiny black dot. These wires are included in the same system or, at least, use the same power source or ground connector.
If wires run in the same harness but cross over each other without being connected, the symbol is the same but with a little bump. When testing for continuity, these wires shouldn’t trigger your multimeter. If they do, the wires may be skinned somewhere and may cause a short-circuit in the system.
Battery / Power Source
This is the symbol for a standard 6 cells 12v car battery. Some diagrams may use a simplified version which is only two vertical bars instead of 6. On more complicated electrical systems or electronic modules, diagrams can quickly become filled with tons of lines and symbols, making it hard to read for the user. Depending on the manual editor, this symbol could indicate a 2 cells battery or have been used simply to make the whole diagram a little easier to read.
Fuses serve as a mean of protection for the electrical system. If something goes wrong and a wire is damaged and causes a short to ground condition, the fuse will instantly blow, preventing any more damage to the whole circuit. It’s no surprise that blown fuses are the cause of most electrical malfunctions. When trying to diagnose an electrical problem, always start by inspecting the fuses related to the faulty circuit, and 9 out of 10 times, you’ll find the problem right away.
On electrical diagrams, fuses are often located on a different page than the circuit they protect. Most automotive repair manuals have a dedicated section reserved for all the fuses, relays, and pretty much everything included in the fuse boxes called Power Distribution diagram to make things easier.
In addition, most diagrams will indicate if the fuses are “hot at all times” or no, letting the reader know if the fuse is constantly powered by the battery or only when the ignition key is in the ON position. Never forget to check that out before testing a fuse, or you could end up with an incorrect diagnosis.
On a car, the ground is always the body of the vehicle. I should say that the ground is the negative post of the battery, but since a wire goes straight from the post to the body, every metal part touching the body is also considered as ground.
The most important components all have their dedicated ground wire to ensure that it’s grounded at all times. For example, the engine and the transmission have one or more large braided ground wires connected to the body. If, for some reason, one of the wires was damaged, the corresponding unit should still keep on working since the engine is bolted onto the transmission and vice-versa. On some occasions, though, the added resistance induced by the longer circuit may cause sensible electronic components to go haywire and cause various problems.
The alternator, for instance, usually gets his ground from the alternator bracket bolted onto the engine head. If the engine ground is broken, the alternator may not be able to produce enough current to power all the accessories simultaneously and may cause worrying charging system problems.
There is all kind of switches on a vehicle, but the most common one is the toggle switch. A good example of this is a simple dome light switch. Push to one side to turn the component on and to the other side to turn it back off. These are widely used throughout the car because of their simplicity and relative reliability.
Push Button Switches
These are a little less common but still used a lot by car manufacturers. Think of the rear defrost and emergency flashers switches. The same motion is used to trigger it on and off.
This type of switch is used to either control more than one accessory at the same time or when there’s more than one possible selection. The Park/Neutral position switch is probably the best example. Only one input for multiple different possible outputs (P, D, etc.).
Multi-function switches like the headlight/flasher switch are somewhat different but still work based on the same principle. They are basically more than one selector switch included in the same unit.
Relays are remote-controlled switches. They allow car manufacturers to install low voltage switches inside the cabin to control higher voltage components. They began to be widely used when manufacturers started to replace bulky headlight switches on the dashboard in favor of small combo switches on the steering columns.
Their working principle is quite simple. A low voltage switch is used to turn on and off a small electromagnet, which will activate a bigger switch to provide power to components such as headlights, cooling fans, fuel pumps, etc. Almost every major system and component on your vehicle are controlled using a relay.
Since the amount of power flowing through them is often higher than most other switch types, the smaller internal components are often prone to failure. It’s not rare to see a fuel pump relay burn and stop clicking.
This one is self-explanatory. Everyone knows what light bulbs are and what their purpose is. But in an electrical diagram, light bulbs are everywhere. It’s important to understand that headlights and blinkers are not the only light bulbs on your car. In fact, newer vehicles use light bulbs for pretty much every electrical component inside the cabin to indicate if they are turned ON or OFF.
Nowadays, it’s also common to see light bulbs enclosed in door panels, floors, under the dash, inside the parking brake switch, and even under the seats for the owner’s convenience.
Especially for light bulbs under seats and other locations where salt and water can easily reach, open circuits and bad connection problems often lead to lighting system failures. Being able to quickly identify light bulb symbols and locate them in an electrical circuit might be helpful to speed up the whole troubleshooting process.
Resistors are small electronic components used to apply a specific resistance to the current flow in an electronic circuit. There’s not much to do with them as an auto mechanic since they can rarely be replaced by themselves. They are reliable and rarely come into problems. If you are unlucky enough to find a burnt resistor in the circuit you are inspecting, the problem most probably lies elsewhere. A blown resistor is often the result of a faulty module driving too much power inside the circuit or an internal short to ground condition. In both cases, a defective resistor is usually the consequence of another problem and hardly ever its cause.
It still helps to know what resistors are, what they do, and how to find them, if only to not worry too much about it. Simply learn what the symbol looks like so you know what it is when you come across one in a car wiring diagram.
It’s worth mentioning that different manuals may use two other symbols to represent resistors. Keep that in mind if you use more than one type of repair manual, or you might end up with false test results.
This other small electronic component has the property of only letting the current flow in one direction. It is either used to protect sensible low voltage elements from being damaged by an excess of voltage going through expensive modules and components or to redirect the current in a circuit like inside an alternator. If over-voltage occurs, a diode will react exactly as a fuse and will instantly blow. You’ll then need to find its location using your vehicle’s wiring diagram and replace it.
This symbol is a bit more tricky to describe since the “Motor” logo can refer to multiple components. As a rule of thumb, one could say that they usually refer to the power-consuming element in the system you are troubleshooting. For example, power window regulators are represented as motors on the power window diagram—the same thing applies for the sunroof motor, power door locks, the wiper motor, power seats, and so on.
Solenoids are small electromagnetic switches, except that these are moving back and forth when submitted to an electric current. They usually serve to open or close a fluid or air passage, and they have numerous different uses in a vehicle. Injectors are the most well-known solenoid, but you could also think of the starter solenoid and automatic transmission solenoids connected to the valve body. They are so similar to switches that their symbol is one-half of the relay symbol. And for a good reason. The electromagnet making the relay click is also, theoretically speaking, a solenoid.
All automotive wires are color-coded to help you quickly and efficiently identify a specific wire in a wire harness or a connector. Colors often differ from one car manufacturer to another, but the code used to identify them in an automotive wiring diagram is always the same.
The color will be noted using abbreviation beside each wire following the same pattern: Wire color/Stripe color. For example, a white wire with a black stripe on the side would be identified as WHT/BLK. A dark green wire with a yellow stripe could be named DG/YE. One repair manual may use a 3 letter color-coding system, while others may use 2 letter abbreviations only. In all cases, make sure to refer to the color code chart at either the beginning or the end of the manual for more information on how the different wire colors are classified.
Connector Numbers and Locations
For the same reason, color codes are used, connectors and wire are also identified using a number corresponding to a physical location or a page in the manual. In both cases, the number will let you know where to go to quickly find where the connector is located on the vehicle.
This comes in pretty handy when you need to find an open-loop or a short-to-ground condition in a specific wire. Instead of removing all the carpeting and trims to follow the wires all the way to where the problem is, you can simply identify all the connectors first, find their location and only remove the trims necessary to gain access to them.
To sum it all up…
Learning to read car wiring diagrams is a tremendous skill to add to your auto mechanic skillset. Being able to master this competency will not only help you find solutions to common electrical problems a lot faster but will also give you a big headstart compared to less qualified technicians. And it’s not that hard at all. Once you get the hang of the most basic notions, all you’ll need is a bit of practice, and you should be able to fix most electrical system troubles like a pro.
The electrical system of a car is a closed circuit with an independent power source the battery . It operates on a small fraction of the power of a household circuit.
Current flows along a single cable from the battery to the component being powered, and back to the battery through the car's metal body. The body is connected to the earth terminal of the battery by a thick cable.
This type of circuit is called an earth-return system any part of it connected to the car body is said to be earthed.
The strength of the current is measured in amperes (amps); the pressure that drives it round the circuit is called voltage ( volts ). Modern cars have a 12 volt battery. Its capacity is measured in amp/hours. A 56 amp/hour battery should be able to deliver a current of 1 amp for 56 hours, or 2 amps for 28 hours.
If the battery voltage drops, less current flows, and eventually there is not enough to make the components work.
Current, voltage and resistance
The extent to which a wire resists the flow of current is called resistance , and is measured in ohms .
Thin wires conduct less easily than thick ones, because there is less room for the electrons to travel through.
The energy needed to push current through a resistance is transformed into heat. This can be useful, for example in the very thin filament of a light bulb, which glows white hot.
However, a component with a high current consumption must not be connected using wires which are too thin, or the wires will overheat, blow a fuse , or burn out.
All the electrical units of measurement are interrelated: a pressure of 1 volt causes a current of 1 amp to flow through a resistance of 1 ohm. Volts divided by ohms equal amps. For example, a light bulb with a resistance of 3 ohms, in a 12 volt system, consumes 4 amps.
This means it must be connected using wires thick enough to carry 4 amps comfortably.
Often the power consumption of a component will be stated in watts , which are found by multiplying amps and volts. The lamp in the example consumes 48 watts.
Positive and negative polarity
Electricity flows from a battery in one direction only, and some components work only if the flow through them is in the correct direction.
This acceptance of a one-way flow is called polarity . On most cars the negative () battery terminal is earthed and the positive (+) one feeds the electrical system.
This is called a negative earth system, and when buying an electrical accessory a radio, for example check that it is of a type suitable for your car's system. Fitting a radio with the incorrect polarity will damage the set, but most car radios have an external switch for setting the polarity to suit that of the car. Switch to the correct setting before fitting.
Short circuits and fuses
If the wrong-sized wire is used, or if a wire becomes broken or disconnected, this can cause an accidental short circuit which bypasses the resistance of the component. The current in the wire may become dangerously high and melt the wire or cause a fire.
To guard against this, ancillary circuits have fuses.
The most common type of fuse is a short length of thin wire enclosed in a heatproof casing often glass.
The size of the fuse wire is the thinnest that can carry the normal current of the circuit without overheating, and it is rated in amps.
The sudden surge of high current in a short circuit makes the fuse wire melt, or 'blow', breaking the circuit.
When this happens, see if there is a short circuit or a disconnection, then install a new fuse of the correct amperage rating (See Checking and replacing fuses ).
There are many fuses, each protecting a small group of components, so that one blown fuse does not shut down the whole system. Many of the fuses are grouped together in a fuse box, but there may also be line fuses in the wiring.
Series and parallel circuits
A circuit usually includes more than one component, such as bulbs in the lighting circuits. It matters whether they are connected in series one after the other or in parallel side by side.
A headlamp bulb, for example, is designed to have a degree of resistance so that it consumes a certain current to glow normally.
But there are at least two headlamps in the circuit. If they were connected in series, electric current would have to go through one headlamp to get to the other.
The current would encounter the resistance twice, and the double resistance would halve the current, so that the bulbs would glow only feebly.
Connecting the bulbs in parallel means that electricity goes through each bulb only once.
Some components must be connected in series. For example, the sender in the fuel tank varies its resistance according to the amount of fuel in the tank, and 'sends' a small electrical current to the fuel gauge.
The two components are connected in series so that the varying resistance in the sender will affect the position of the needle on the gauge.
The starter motor has its own heavy cable, direct from the battery. The ignition circuit furnishes the high-tension impulses to the sparkplugs; and the charging system includes the generator , which recharges the battery. All the other circuits are called ancillary (subsidiary) circuits.
Most are wired through the ignition switch , so that they work only when the ignition is switched on.
This prevents you accidentally leaving something switched on which might cause the battery to go flat.
The side and tail lights, however, which you may need to leave on when the car is parked, are always wired independently of the ignition switch.
When fitting extra accessories, such as a rear window heater which consumes a heavy current, always wire it through the ignition switch.
Some ancillary components can be operated without the ignition turned on by turning the switch to the 'auxiliary' position. A radio is usually wired through this switch, so that it can be played with the engine off.
Wires and printed circuits
Wire and cable sizes are classified by the maximum amperage that they can carry safely.
A complex network of wires runs through the car. To avoid confusion, each wire is colour coded (but only within the car: there is no national or international system of colour-coding).
Most car handbooks and service manuals include a wiring diagram which can be difficult to follow.
The colour-coding, however, is a useful guide to tracing wiring.
Where wires run side-by-side they are bound together in a bundle, in a plastic or fabric sheath, to keep them tidy and less difficult to fit .
This bundle of wires stretches over the length of the car, with single wires or small groups of wires emerging where necessary, and is called the wiring loom.
Modern cars often need room for many wires in confined spaces. Some manufacturers now use printed circuits instead of bundles of wires, particularly at the rear of the instrument panel.
Printed circuits are plastic sheets on which copper tracks have been 'printed'. Components are plugged directly into the tracks.
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