Thursday, June 10, 2010

Upgrade Time, and Your Cars Electrical System 101

Summer time means different things for different people. For some it is R & R time. For others it is playtime. Playtime can also mean different things for different people. If you car like me, it means tinkering with and maybe upgrading your car stereo. This upgrading could come in the form of new toys, such as a new subwoofer and a new amplifier to power that big subwoofer.
What many people don’t realize, is than in order to fully utilize that new amplifier and subwoofer, you may need to do some additional upgrading. Subwoofers need power and the bigger they are, the more power they need. So, you get a big amp. But is your car’s electrical highway big enough for your amp and sub? Many amplifiers will use at least 100 amps of power, especially if you are becoming a member of the 1K watt club.

This all starts with your alternator, then goes to your battery, and along your wiring before this power ever reaches your amplifier. Do you know how much current your stock alternator puts out? My little Honda Del Sol stock alternator puts out around 70 peak amps. So needless to say I put in a high output 160 amp alternator to provide the juice I need. Just 70 amps would not have been enough for my sub amp, let alone my 4 channel amp and also running the car! It would have been like having a turbo in the car, but also having a small wood block behind the gas pedal so I can only push the pedal down half way. Sure I would have a turbo, but with only being able to push the gas pedal down half way….what would be the point if I can’t use it. But we also do not want to forget the battery.
Having a capable battery is also crucial to the equation. You want to make sure you have a battery that will be able to output 12 volts constantly. For this I turned to Optima for their Yellow Top battery, which is well known as a top choice for car audio enthusiasts. Optima uses a proprietary Spiralcell Technology. They have a unique shape which incorporates six spiral-wound AGM (absorbed glass mat) cells that are tightly compressed into a sealed case which allows superior performance in both starting and deep cycling applications. Their technology provides many advantages over traditional lead acid batteries including:
· Up to two times longer life
· More than 15 times the vibration resistance
· Maintenance free
· Non-spillable, can be mounted anywhere
· Low self-discharge (longer shelf storage life)
· Faster recharge capability
· Optimal starting power, regardless of temperature
Unfortunately having a capable alternator and battery is not quite enough. You still need to get all that power to your amplifier. That takes us to our wiring. And with wires not all are created equally. You need to make sure you are using the correct gauge of wire. In other words, if you are using 16 gauge speaker wires to go from your battery to your amp, you definitely need to upgrade. I would use nothing less than 8 gauge from your battery to your amp. But that is only for low power systems, like having your door speakers running off of your deck, and a small amp that powers a sub. If your amp(s) will pull around 50 amps, then I would suggest going up to a 4 gauge wire, and for 100 amps and over I would jump up to a 1/0 gauge wire.
With that being said, you still need to be careful with what wire you buy. Not all wires are created equal. Sure Ebay or Craigslist is a good place to buy wires cheaply, but you tend to get what you pay for. Here is an example of a cheap wire bought on Craigslist. The wire on the left is an 8 gauge wire made by Rockford Fosgate. The one on the middle is a cheap 4 gauge wire made by Performance Teknique, followed by the one on the right which is a 4 gauge wire also from Rockford Fosgate. Does the cheap wire look like a 4 gauge? Remember you are purchasing the wire based on the needs of your system. If you are needing to purchase 4 gauge wire because that is how much current your amps will pull and you want to makes sure they get all of the current they need………….the Performance Teknique wire will probably not get all that power to your amp. At least not if you are needing 4 gauge wire and you are using their 4 gauge wire. Theirs is actually just a tad bigger than Rockford’s 8 gauge, but not by much. The Rockford Fosgate 4 gauge is almost twice the thickness of the Performance Teknique! The insulation is about twice as thick on the Performance Teknique, but we want a lot of wire, not insulation. For that reason I would suggest Rockford Fosgate. You know you are getting wire true to the AWG rated size. They also use a 100% Pure Crystal-Oxygen Free Copper (PC-OFC), with a high strand count for not only high performance, but for high flexibility for ease of installation. Their strand count is 735 for 8 AWG, 1,862 for 4 AWG, and 4,704 for 1/0 AWG.
For increased flexibility and convenience, Rockford Fosgate also offers amplifier kits. These kits come with the hardware needed to hook up your amp(s). The RFK1 is a great 1/0 AWG amp kit. It includes 17 feet of 1/0 AWG power wire, 3 feet of 1/0 AWG ground wire, ANL/Maxi fuse holder and fuse, 20 feet of remote wire, a 100 amp fuse, and misc. connectors. For dual amps, their RFK4D is a great dual amp kit. It includes 17 feet of power wire in 4 AWG, 6 feet of power wire in 8 AWG, 3 feet of ground wire in 4 AWG, and 6 feet of ground wire in 8 AWG. For your speakers there is 30 feet of 16 AWG speaker wire. Also included are 2 pairs of 20 feet twisted pair RCA’s for reduced noise and enhanced sound quality. Two 4 AWG distribution blocks gets the wire to your amps. And then there are also 20 feet of remote wire, a Maxi fuse holder, a 100 amp fuse, and more misc. hardware. For high power systems I would recommend both kits. The RFK1 retails for $233.99 and the RFK4D retails for $159.99. You may also opt for some high quality terminal rings, such as RFT1 for $18.99 retail.
Just as critical is your ground. For a smooth flow of power, you also cannot forget your ground and what is called upgrading the “Big 3.” The “Big 3” is known as the positive cable going from the alternator to the battery, the ground cable from the battery to the chassis, and the ground from the engine block to the chassis. If you have a poor ground, you will have poor power output from the positive side. And just the same, if you have a thick gauge positive cable and a smaller ground, your power on the positive side will be limited. If you are upgrading your wiring to 4 AWG for example, you will want to have 4 AWG all around (4 AWG positive from alternator to battery and from battery to your amp(s), and 4 AWG negative from battery to chassis and from engine to chassis). My suggestion is using the same location as your current stock wire. There is also no reason to remove your stock wire. Just add to it.
You also do not want to forget in line fuses. You should have one next to your battery. I would actually recommend a circuit breaker at that location. If you are ever working on your system, it is really easy to just flip the breaker. Also if it gets tripped you are not replacing fuses, so it is cheaper to maintain. It is also smart to have a fuse next to your amps.
So you thought upgrading would be easy. Well, it can be. But if you want to get the most out of your amp(s), you need to know what they need in the way of amperage. Then you know if you need to also upgrade your alternator and wiring. This often will show itself with the dimming of the headlights. If that happens, your amp is drawing too much from your alternator and showing itself through your headlights. The cheapest potential fix is upgrading the “Big 3.” If that does not fix it, then you could be looking at a new better performing battery and higher output alternator. It’s a little bit of work, but worth it in the end. In the meantime, happy upgrading.
And for more information and complete specs on the Optima Yellow Top battery, and Rockford Fosgate's amp kits and accessories, check out their websites below.