Where do you connect the ground (negative) wire from the car’s battery?
You might face this dilemma if you have to change or install a new battery. Or, maybe you’re curious to know why the wire from the battery’s negative terminal is connected where it is. The ground wire plays an important role in completing the vehicle’s electrical circuit, which this article will help you better understand.
The ground wire from the battery is connected to a bare metallic part of the car’s engine or chassis under a ground return system. It provides a complete, closed circuit to allow the car’s electronics to operate.
The article not only reveals where to connect the ground wire, but it also describes the “ground return” system in detail; explains different types of ground connections; covers the order in which to connect or disconnect the ground wire, which is also important; identifying good and bad ground points; and three different checks involving the ground connection.
Where to Connect the Ground Wire
The ground wire is usually connected to a metallic part of the car’s engine or chassis.
This ground connection is critical to the proper functioning of the car’s electrical system because it is a closed-loop system. It involves a direct connection between the battery’s negative (-) terminal and the chosen ground connection, which can be any metallic part of the engine or chassis (see illustration below). The ground wire is normally black, and the ground point must be bare metal (not painted).
Various electronics are connected along the loop, which starts from the battery’s positive terminal and returns to its negative terminal (see next section). They can only function properly if the electrical flow is continuous and uninterrupted.
The ground point, such as the chassis, thus acts as a conductor between the battery’s positive and negative terminals. When you connect the two battery terminals and the circuit is complete with a load, the pressure difference between them generates an EMF (electromotive force) to drive the electrical current.
When you connect a battery to an electrical circuit, the positive wire serves as the “supply,” and the negative or grounded wire as the “earth” or “return.”
By grounding, we normally use the car’s chassis (metal body or frame) as part of the circuit, as it helps to reduce the cable length and simplify the layout. The car’s frame joined to the negative terminal becomes the ground, and the car’s polarity is called “negative earth” [Hillier & Thornes, 2012]
The return is so-called because it indicates a circuit’s (conventional) current flow. The substitution of the vehicle’s body for the return cable forms the “ground return” system (see diagram below).
It’s possible to make an alternative “insulated return” by using a two-wire system instead, but this arrangement is more common only in special vehicles, such as petrol tankers.
Ensure you connect both terminals to the correct ground polarity. Otherwise, components can get damaged, especially those containing electronic devices.
Different Types of Grounds
Note that we’ve distinguished between different types of grounds: electrical, chassis, and engine. There are also others.
The distinction is important because the car battery’s negative terminal makes one of two types of ground connection in a ground return system. It’s either connected to a bare metallic part of the car’s engine or chassis.
The car’s body or frame functions as the electrical ground. Electrical components and accessories inside the car are also grounded, as shown in the above diagram. Some of them have a specific term, too. For example, a “transmission ground” refers to the connection between the starter and the chassis. So the term “electrical ground” is relative.
This article concerns chassis ground, although the content applies to engine ground.
When to Connect the Ground Wire
When to connect the ground wire is as important as knowing where to connect it.
The reason for connecting and disconnecting in a certain order is to help prevent accidentally short-circuiting. Use the table below to identify which terminal to connect to when connecting a battery and which one to disconnect from when disconnecting it.
|When connecting a battery||Positive terminal||Negative terminal|
|When disconnecting a battery||Negative terminal||Positive terminal|
Use our Toolsweek mnemonic to help you remember the right sequence:
PiN to connect, NiP to disconnect.
So, the ground (negative) wire is connected last when connecting a battery but disconnected first when disconnecting it.
Also, I recommend applying a little petroleum jelly on the terminals after connecting the cable. It can help to slow down the buildup of corrosion.
Good and Bad Ground Points
The car’s chassis is large, so how do you tell which points would provide a good ground connection?
An ideal ground point is provided by one that has the following:
- Bare metal allows the electromagnetic waves to propagate unhindered and complete the circuit uninterrupted (without high resistance).
- No paint or insulator – A painted coating or an insulator between the wire and chassis has high resistance and will not allow current to flow freely.
- No rust or corrosion – Rust and corrosion can also make the point less conductive, so it must be removed to ensure good contact.
The best ground point is the factory-set one unless rust or corrosion has accumulated. You shouldn’t normally need to change it, but you must ensure it remains free of rust and corrosion.
Cleaning and Changing a Ground Point
If necessary, you can use WD-40 and a wire brush or sandpaper to clean the spot and apply some petroleum jelly afterward before re-securing the ground connection.
If you need to change a ground point, look for a solid bolt, stud, or screw connected to the car’s chassis. It must be non-painted, bare metal, and free of rust and corrosion. You can drill to create a new ground point, but using an existing one is better.
Ground and Battery Checks
Some ground and battery checks rely on the car’s chassis as the ground.
I’ll show you briefly how to conduct three types of such checks:
- Testing the battery’s voltage level
- Checking the quality of the ground connection
- More thorough checking of the chassis ground for high-resistance areas
Testing the Battery’s Voltage Level
When testing the battery’s voltage level, we connect the voltmeter’s red probe to the positive terminal and the black probe to a metallic part of the engine or chassis.
A fully charged battery should give a voltage reading of at least 12.6 volts (ideally above 13.5 volts). If the voltage falls below this level, it will be insufficient to crank the engine, although a little lower voltage (12.2-12.4) can also work if the amperage is high enough.
Checking the Ground Connection
A bad ground connection is one possible reason a car fails to start.
So, if your car fails to start, one thing to check is the ground connection. A bad ground connection breaks the electrical continuity necessary for the car’s electronics to operate. Although it doesn’t normally drain the battery, it can cause it not to charge properly and various other symptoms, such as hard starts, giving wrong signals, other glitches, misfiring spark plugs, problems with sensors and coils, etc.
You should check the ground connection in all these cases:
- Ensure the contact is tight and secure. It should never be loose.
- Look for any sign of damage to the ground wire and repair or replace it if necessary.
- Look for any rust or corrosion on or around the ground connection area.
- There should be no corrosion on the battery’s negative terminal either. Clean it thoroughly if there is, and apply petroleum jelly to prevent it from getting corroded again.
Thorough Checking of the Chassis Ground
We do a chassis ground check by measuring the resistance in the chassis.
You’ll need a voltmeter or multimeter set to DC volts. This is how to do it:
Firstly, disable the ignition and put the gear in neutral. Then, connect the black probe to the battery’s negative terminal and the red probe to any clean, unpainted spot on the chassis. It can be the body itself or a bolt connected to the body.
Now, crank the engine to get a reading. The voltage should not exceed 0.2 volts. Any reading higher than this would indicate resistance.
However, check more points on the chassis to be sure. Disconnect the red probe from the current one and attach it to a different spot.
Suppose you notice a significant variation in the voltage, i.e., a large difference between a voltage spike and a voltage drop. In that case, there’s a high resistance area between the two spots where you last took readings.
Inspect that area closely for any loose or broken connectors, wires, rust, or corrosion. If you notice any, fix the problem or change the electrical ground connection spot. Choose a bare metal spot free from paint, rust, and corrosion.
A damaged ground strap. https://www.gomog.com/starter.htm
Testing the ground connections in a car. V. A. W. Hillier & Nelson Thornes. Hillier’s fundamentals of motor vehicle technology. Book 1, sixth edition. Nelson Thornes Ltd. 2012.
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