The chief source of power of the electrical system is the alternating-current generator, or alternator. Its shaft is driven by the same belt that spins the fan and it keeps the engine running. It converts mechanical energy into alternating-current electricity, which is then channeled through diodes that alter it to direct current for the electrical system and for recharging the battery.
Modern automotive alternators have a voltage regulator built into them. Typical car alternators generate the field using a DC current through slip rings. The field current is much smaller than the output current taken from the fixed stator windings, and so heavy duty slip rings are not required. For example, in an alternator rated to produce 70 amperes of DC, the field current will be less than 2 amperes. The voltage regulator operates by modulating the small field current in order to produce a constant voltage at the stator output. In many older designs of car, the field windings are initially supplied via the ignition switch and charge warning light, which is why the light glows when the ignition is on but the engine is not running. Once the engine runs and the alternator is generating, a diode feeds the field current from the alternator main output, thus equalizing the voltage across the warning light which goes out. The wire supplying the field current is often referred to as the “exciter” wire.
This system is simple and avoids the need for a heavy duty switch in the main alternator output circuit, which can carry very high currents—up to 100 amperes (though typical cars have 40–60 ampere alternators). One drawback of this arrangement is that if the warning light fails or the “exciter” wire is disconnected, no priming current reaches the alternator field windings and so the alternator will not generate any power. However, some alternators will self-excite when the engine is revved to a certain speed. The driver may check for a faulty exciter-circuit by ensuring that the warning light is glowing with the engine stopped. Modern systems have more complex electronic monitoring and should alert the driver when such problems occur.