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Chasing down electrical gremlins in a motor vehicle can be an exercise in frustration—the kind of frustration that makes young men old and old men talk to themselves.

An electrical problem can often be traced to a single source: a bad ground connection. A bad ground can cause noise in an audio system, make electric fuel pumps run hot or produce low pressure, and make electronic engine controls do weird things.

Make Sure You Have a Quality Ground Point

Many think that as long as the accessory’s ground wire is touching some part of the vehicle, it is grounded. That is not the case. You must make sure the ground wire is attached at a point that is free of paint, rust, or plating. Paint on body panels and the engine acts as an insulator, resulting in a bad ground connection.

Best Practice for Grounding Accessories to an Engine

If you are grounding an accessory to the engine, it’s good practice to run a ground wire directly to the alternator case and make sure there is no paint between the starter and the engine block mounting surface.

Using a Voltmeter/Multimeter to Test the Connection

If your accessory still doesn’t work properly after redoing the grounds, you will need a voltmeter or multimeter to trace the wiring. Set the voltmeter to read ohms (resistance) and probe the battery’s negative stud and ground connection on the accessory (the ground terminal on an amp, for example). If you have a reading less than five ohms, the ground is okay.

If the resistance is okay but the accessory still isn’t working right, set the voltmeter to DC current (voltage). Turn the accessory on and retrace the grounding path as you did before. The voltage should be no greater than .05 volts under load. If you find a point where voltage is present, then you need to add a bonding strap or find a new grounding point so no voltage is present at any of the grounding points.

If the reading is higher, you need to probe the grounding path between the accessory and the battery. Starting at the battery, run the voltmeter probe from the battery to the first grounding point, usually a fender on muscle cars and trucks. Continue to where the fender attaches to the main body, and from there to the accessory. If you find a point of high resistance (over five ohms), you will need to attach a bonding strap or wire between the panels or parts where resistance is highest.

Consider Engine-to-Chassis Ground Strap

One of the best things you can do to help ensure a properly grounded vehicle is to replace or add an engine-to-chassis ground strap; Taylor makes a nice four-gauge, braided stainless steel strap ideal for most vehicles.

Consider Larger Gauge Wire

If you are adding a number of accessories or ones that draw a large amount of current, you should also replace the battery-to-chassis ground with a larger gauge wire. That’s because the factory ground wire is usually a less-than-adequate 10 or 12 gauge. A ground wire must be as large as the positive, or supply, wire to the battery.

Hopefully you will never have to experience the joy of tracing a bad ground. But if you find yourself in such a situation, these tips will help make the job go smoother—and get your ride back on ground level.

For more information on the basics of automotive electrical troubleshooting, check out our friend Eric the Car Guy’s two-part video series covering it:

Electrical Troubleshooting Basics, Part 1

Electrical Troubleshooting Basics, Part 2

car stereo wiring diagram
a braided electrical ground strap
a vehicle wiring harness on table
sunpro automotive electrical multimeter
actron electrical multimeter tool

None of your electrical stuff will work properly without being grounded to some point on either the vehicle or the engine. Take your audio system as an example. The best way to ground a system is to connect the ground terminals of all components to a common ground wire. That wire should be routed to a grounding point on the negative side of your vehicle's electrical system—the negative side of the battery is a good choice. Also, make sure the grounding point is free of paint, rust, or plating, which can prevent a good ground connection.

If you have a lot of accessories or ones that draw at lot of current, replace the battery-to-chassis ground with a large gauge wire or strap like this Taylor Diamondback braided ground strap. The strap is also ideal for grounding the engine block to the chassis. Many vehicles had an engine to ground strap from the factory; it's a good idea to check the stock strap and replace it if it is damaged or frayed.

A good ground is especially important with engines that are electronically fuel-injected or have some other type of computer control or digital ignition system. Aftermarket wiring harnesses have ground connections built into them, making the grounding process a no-brainer. Painless Performance has universal and application-specific harnesses for fuel injected engines, plus complete vehicle harnesses for muscle cars, street rods, and race cars. Tip: never use a test light to check computer-controlled components. Not only is a test light inaccurate, it will destroy the components. Use a good voltmeter or multimeter instead.

If you work on electrical systems often, a multimeter like this Sunpro Auto TroubleShooter is practically indispensible. You can use it to locate faulty wiring, test electrical components, engine sensors, ignition and fuel systems and starting/charging system voltage. Here is a sample of what the multimeter can check: *Engine RPM and dwell *AC/DC voltage, DC current and resistance *Diodes and continuity *Starting/charging, ignition and fuel delivery systems *Locate faulty wiring and components The Sunpro Auto TroubleShooter runs on a nine-volt battery, has an easy-to-read digital LCD, a hold button to retain display data, automatic reverse polarity indication, and automatic zero adjustment for volts and amps for accurate measurements.

This Actron AutoAnalyzer multimeter does most of the same testing that the Sunpro Auto Troubleshooter does, but costs a little less. It performs all standard electrical tests for on-car and bench troubleshooting. It has a backlit LCD for easy reading, color-coded detachable test leads, and alligator clips for hands-free test lead connections.

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Author: David Fuller

David Fuller is OnAllCylinders' managing editor. During his 20-year career in the auto industry, he has covered a variety of races, shows, and industry events and has authored articles for multiple magazines. He has also partnered with mainstream and trade publications on a wide range of editorial projects. In 2012, he helped establish OnAllCylinders, where he enjoys covering all facets of hot rodding and racing.