STOP THAT RIGHT NOW OR I'M GOING TO COME OVER THERE AND SLAP YOU!
DO NOT DISCONNECT ANY CABLE WITH THE ENGINE RUNNING!
Every year I did a demonstration on the generator test bench for my students to show what can happen when you do that. It was real easy for the voltage to reach over 35 volts. That WILL destroy any computer on the vehicle, the alternator's internal diodes, and any light bulbs that are turned on.
The thinking is that if you disconnect either cable and the engine stays running, the alternator must be working but a lot of them will stop working due to the voltage regulator responding to the dips in the "ripple" voltage being produced. That will make a perfectly good alternator appear to be bad so that test is not valid.
If a mechanic is caught pulling this stunt he will typically get one verbal warning. For the second offense he will be fired. It's that big a deal.
Some alternators respond to the high points in the ripple. That momentary higher voltage goes right back to the field winding and creates a stronger magnetic field. That stronger electromagnet creates a higher output voltage which again creates a stronger electromagnet. It's a vicious circle and voltage can keep on rising until something gives out. The main thing that smoothes out that ripple so it doesn't affect the voltage regulator or the alternator is the battery.
Three things are needed to generate the output current. They are a magnet, (electromagnet, in this case), a coil of wire, and most importantly, movement between them. That's why the belt needs to make it spin. One thing that can save you from doing damage by removing a battery cable is not raising engine speed. Generators are relatively inefficient at low engine speeds and their output voltage is less likely to rise to dangerous levels, ... As long as you don't raise engine speed.
One other thing to keep in mind is batteries give off explosive hydrogen gas. Regardless if your alternator is working or not there is going to be a big spark when you remove a battery cable with the engine running. Either the alternator's current will be recharging the battery, and that can be up to 20 amps, or the battery is going to be supplying the car's electrical systems, and that can easily be over 30 amps. That kind of current is going to create a big spark when a connection is broken or reconnected. Small arc welders run as low as 40 - 60 amps and look at the sparks they create. The reason we don't hear about more battery explosions is because people are careful to not disconnect the cables when there is current flowing through them. It's also why there are huge warning labels on all battery chargers to be sure they are turned off before connecting or disconnecting them from the battery.
Another common alternator problem is one defective diode out of the six. You will lose exactly two thirds of the alternator's capacity but system voltage will remain normal or it could even be just a little high from the voltage regulator responding to the greatly increased dips in the ripple voltage.
It's always a good idea to wear safety glasses when working around car batteries, but if you still insist on removing a cable while the engine is running, a face shield makes more sense, and have plenty of water on hand to wash any acid off the vehicle's paint.
Ford used to have a really nice generator design that allowed testing right on the back of the unit. Only Chrysler alternators are easier to diagnose. Unfortunately the engineers don't really care about ease of service on GMs and many other brands.
The way you tell if the charging system is working is to measure the battery voltage while the engine is running. It must be between 13.75 and 14.75 volts. There still could be a bad diode though. You need a professional load tester to test for that. Ripple will be very high and the most output current you will get will be one third of the alternator's design value. That is not enough to meet the demands of the electrical system under all conditions so the battery will have to make up the difference, until it runs down. You still could have an alternator problem. Either have it load-tested or use a home battery charger to fully charge your battery at a slow rate for an hour, then see if it is dead again the next day.
Okay, that's my standard copy-and-paste reply to removing battery cables. To address your specific vehicle, measure the voltages on the alternator's three wires. You must find full battery voltage on the large bolted-on output wire all the time. To be most accurate, a test light is a better alternative than a digital voltmeter. Next, measure all three wires with the engine running. If you found 0 volts on the first test and now there's well over 15 volts on the output wire, there's a break / blown fuse link wire or fuse in that line. If you always find the output terminal has battery voltage, look at the two smaller wires to diagnose the system. One must have full battery voltage, but only when the engine is running. If you have that, the other one must have less, but not 0 volts. 4 - 11 volts is typical.
Holler back with those numbers and we'll figure out where to go next.
Friday, March 21st, 2014 AT 5:28 PM