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Golf Cart Troubleshooting and Maintenance

Golf carts can be a pretty serious investment. According to recent figures by golfcartreport.com, a brand new golf cart can cost anywhere between $4,000 and $15,000. A used one is better but can still be priced between $2,000 and $5,000. The price discrepancy is caused by a variety of factors like the brand of the cart or whether or not it’s legal to drive on the road. Regardless of how much you paid for it, you probably don’t want your golf cart to last as long as possible. And that can come from only a bit. Your golf cart and everything that keeps it running can feel almost like a mini-car. In some ways, it is. It has brakes, tires, an engine, and all kinds of other things. Taking care of something like that can feel a bit daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing what to look for can make regular maintenance checks easy. We will learn that over the course of this article.

Before you start, make sure you have all the necessary reading materials. All new golf carts will come with an owner’s manual. This will include general instructions, maintenance tips, and maybe even some simple repairs for basic problems. Many will have a golf cart parts manual with information on the parts included in the golf cart and what to look for if you need to replace them. A few carts may even come with a repair manual that will show you how to make various repairs to your cart. These manuals are often available for sale online.

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If all three are available to you, then grab them. You may even want to read through them before you start. If not, a simple user’s manual may suffice. Once you have that and a few tools you’re ready to start. To make this easier to process we’ll break things up section-by-section. We will inspect your cart’s lights, engines, brakes, batteries, and tires.

Tires

Your tires are the part of your cart actually touching the ground, so you want to make sure they’re operating at their absolute best. Start by making sure that they’re properly inflated. Check your handbook or the side of the tire to see the proper pressure range. Aim for the middle of the outlined range. For example, an ideal tire pressure range of 20 psi - 30 psi would be best filled at 25 psi. You may be tempted to over inflate or underinflate your tires. That can cause a whole host of new problems. Too much air will decrease tire drag but also lower your traction as most of the tire isn’t actually reaching the ground. Too little air will increase your traction but wear the sides of your tire unevenly.

Check your tread and look for any holes or other irregularities. If you’re overinflating your tires you’ll see far more wear on the tread in the middle of the tire. If you see excessive wear on the sides, you’ve been underinflating them. Keep an eye out for steel cords showing beneath the rubber. If you see this, it’s time to replace the tire immediately. This is a sign that the tire is close to exploding. Unless you absolutely have to, don’t even inflate the tire at this point. It could cause it to explode and spread dangerous shrapnel that can seriously injure you or someone else. So don’t wait to replace them at this point, replace it immediately.

Brakes

Your brakes may be one of the more complicated parts of inspecting your golf cart. However, if you take your time and follow these instructions it should be a lot less intimidating than you may think. You will want to check the brakes every few months to spot any problems that could be on the horizon.

Start by checking your cart’s pivot points and return springs. Use your owner manual to locate both. The pivot points should move freely and the return spring should be clean, lubricated, and just tight enough. It should be able to return the pedal to its default position without making pressing the pedal too hard. Check your e-brake/parking brake lever for similar problems.

Next, check the cable system. Look at the battery carriage to make sure there’s no corrosion damage to the cable. Make sure the cables are well lubricated and have good tension. Then check them for friction damage, frayed ends, gashes, or any other problems. If you see these problems replace the cable immediately.

Now it’s time to check the brake drum, where the bulk of our work will be at. Start by jacking up the back of the golf cart and remove the wheels. Look for the big part that the wheels were attached to. This is the brake drum. Look for damage, tightness, and good motion. Take the drum off to check the shoes and other internal parts. Take special note of how many times you turn the adjustment wheel. You should try to use the same amount of times when you replace it. If you forget how many times you turned, don’t panic. Try turning it until you feel resistance and then twist it back for a turn or two.  

Look at the shoes and all the brake system parts inside of the brake drum. The shoes should have at least a millimeter of material left and be wearing evenly. Use some brake cleaner and clean off the springs if you see any dirt. Check them for damage. Replace anything that doesn’t look right.

Carts with hydraulic brake systems will need their brake fluid checked. Make sure it’s in its recommended range and not leaking. You may want to contact a professional if you see any problems there.

You may be able to figure out the problem with your brakes based on the noise. A squeal likely means the shoes or drum are too dirty or wet. This is likely the problem if you only hear this sound during the rain. If you’re hearing excessive grinding from the brakes, the parts are likely to blame. The shoes may be worn. If so, replace them and consider replacing the drum as well. Check how the cart stops. If it tends to stop softly, the brake cables may be loose. If you’re dealing with hard stops, the cables may be too tight. A hard stop may also mean low shoe material.

Batteries

Poorly maintained batteries are one of the most common sources of golf cart problems. Your cart likely has either a lithium-ion or a deep cycle battery. Lithium-ion batteries require less maintenance than deep cycles. They also usually run longer between charges. Deep cycle batteries use two cells and need water and a sulfuric acid solution to produce an electrical current and it takes some special steps to properly charge.

If your golf cart has a run/tow switch, turn it to the “tow/maintenance” position. Then switch the key into the off position before you begin any work on the batteries. Make sure you wrap all of your tools in vinyl electrical tape to keep the battery from shorting out, or even worse, potentially exploding. Finally throw on some gloves and goggles, just in case of splashing.

Take these steps to charge your deep cycle battery. Read your battery charger manual for any special recommendations. Recharge your batteries after every use unless otherwise instructed in the manual. Find a well-ventilated area to work and check the charger connections for debris, dirt, and frayed wires. Then check your lead plates and their water levels. The plates need to be completely submerged. Add some distilled water until the water level is about ½ inch above the lead plates. Do not use tap water, as it can damage the battery. Finally, check your vent caps and make sure they’re tight. Then make sure the charging connector is connected to the receptacle.

Your golf cart’s battery releases water, acid droplets, and hydrogen gas during charging cycles. This can cause problems if and when those fluids land on other components. If you want to clean and neutralize your golf cart’s battery acid, you’ll need baking soda, lots of water, a spray bottle, battery terminal cleaner, and a terminal protector.

Take 2 teaspoons of baking soda and mix it into a quart of water. This will be your battery acid neutralizer. Put the mixture in a spray bottle. Cover any other electrical components before you start spraying. Double-check those vent caps and make sure they’re closed tightly. Now you can spray the mixture on your batter and let it sit for 3 minutes. Take a cloth or a soft bristle brush and wipe down the top and sides of the batteries. Rinse them with clean water to get rid of the neutralizing solution. Next, dry it off with a cloth. Grab some terminal cleaner and clean the battery terminals and post. Then spray them with a terminal protector. Reconnect any disconnected battery terminals.

If you find that it’s time to replace a battery, replace all of them at the same time. Older batteries put a strain on the life of the new batteries. They also take longer to charge which can overcharge and damage the new batteries.

Engine

Engine issues may send you to a repair shop, but there are some simple solutions you can use if your cart won’t start. Begin by checking the gas pedal if the engine won’t turn over. Look for frayed or corroded battery cables and make sure they’re tightly connected. If those are fine, check the distributor cap. Look for moisture or cracks and let it dry out if you find the former.

If the engine still isn’t turning over, your next stop is the spark plug wires. Look for breaks, cracks, burns, frays, or disconnects. Replace any damaged wires. Take a look at your air filter to make sure it isn’t clogged. If all else fails, check your fuel lines for leaks and see if the filter is clogged.

Lights

It’s not exactly the engine or the tires but your lights are pretty important on a heavy overcast day or if it’s allowed on streets. The lights can protect you, other drivers, and pedestrians, by making your moves predictable through your signals. Checking those lights is easiest with two people. One can operate each light and the other can make sure the lights are coming on as they should. If you don’t have anyone available to help, don’t worry. Grab a stick and wedge it to hold the brake pedal down. Then check to see if your brake lights are coming on as they need to be. Leave the stick and put your cart in reverse to check the reverse lights the same way.

If you find a light out, you will likely need to remove a bulb. Check the bulb, socket, and connections. If the bulb is obviously done, replace it. Things should go back to normal. If it looks fine check the socket to make sure it’s functioning properly. Look for burns or other signs of damage. Replace it if you find it. A damaged socket will damage future bulbs over time. If the socket looks fine as well, try replacing the bulb again. If a new bulb doesn’t work the problem may be in the fuse and connections so check all of them.

If you spotted a problem with the brake lights, especially if your brake lights are staying on even when you’re not hitting the brakes, check the brake light switch. That switch can usually be found near your pedal. It’s a small button that’s usually pressed when your pedal is in the “rest” position. Press the pedal, it will let the switch turn on by releasing the button. You may be able to simply adjust it, but if it’s obviously broken you may need to replace it.

General Troubleshooting

We’ve covered several ways to troubleshoot common issues. Here are a few other pointers to consider.

“Start with the fuse”

If your cart isn’t starting there is a very good chance a fuse could be behind it. Instead of wasting a lot of time disassembling the whole cart, start with the fuse to save yourself time and headaches.

“Connections come next.”

It’s very easy for the many exposed wires to become corroded. That corrosion can create extra resistance in your key switch system and can even cause those fuses to blow. As we said before, if you find damaged wires, replace them.

“A switch in the system”

If all of the key switch circuits are working fine and your cart still isn’t starting it’s time to test your key switch. Grab a voltmeter or jump the switch. A voltmeter can read voltage on one wire no matter what. but the other should only send volts when the switch is turned on. If you’re not getting enough voltage or none at all contact a professional to help.

“A forward/reverse problem”

There can potentially be three problems with your forward/reverse switch: Your cart can’t move forward but can move in reverse. Your cart can move forward but cannot reverse. Or your cart cannot move in either direction. Find the switch itself using your owner’s manual. It should have two lugs that get contacted by a pin. Make sure the selector is actually moving the switch pin. If it’s still not working, you may want to consult an expert.

Make a list, check it twice.

Once you’re comfortable troubleshooting basic issues, establish a checklist to make regular maintenance checks. The sooner you discover problems, the less damage they can cause. Try using the checklist that we’ve designed or create one that suits your specific workflow.

If your cart is gas-powered you may have some other issues to contend with. Again, try this checklist and make tweaks to it to fit your workflow, if necessary.

Here are a few extra things to consider. Make sure you don’t load up too much stuff on the cart. Take a look at that owner’s manual to see what the maximum weight is and be careful not to go over it. Stop driving any cart that you suspect has some sort of issue. This will only make it worse over time. Finally, make sure you get in contact with a golf cart repair shop to help you if you ever can’t fix something yourself.