My friend recently purchased a 1991 Mazda Miata from its original owner, in immaculate condition and with incredibly low miles. Except for one issue: the Air Bag light on the instrument cluster was indicating a trouble code. The number of blinks of the light indicates the fault and the light was flashing 10 times, meaning the System Down Fuse had opened. This fault keeps the air bag system from working resulting in reduced safety in the event of a crash, so it’s important to take care of. Used modules can run around $100, with new computer modules starting over $200.
As these cars are getting to be over 20 years old, these module issues have been known for a while and the cause identified: faulty electrolytic capacitors cause the thermal fuse to blow, disabling the system. Capacitors are at the root of pretty much every electrical problem, it seems. We decided to try repairing the module after some research that showed it’s a common problem with a fairly straightforward fix.
This rest of this article demonstrates modifications to your car’s occupant restraint system that are not approved by the manufacturer and if executed improperly could result in your serious injury or death from the air bag failing to deploy, or deploying unexpectedly.
The repair involves sensitive components which can be damaged by improper handling, furthering the risk of an unexpected failure. This information is provided only for experienced automotive and electronics technicians as an academic exercise, and KF7LZE is not liable for any consequences arising from following or failing to follow these instruction.
The module is a little blue package that lives up near the steering wheel on the 1990-1993 Miatas. This part wasn’t used in the entire range of the first generation’s production due to revisions that happened along the way. It was also used in similar years of the Ford Taurus, the Mazda RX-7, and there may also be other Ford and Mazda cars using the same air bag module which have similar faults.
We unmounted the board from its housing, then got down to business by removing the bad capacitors:
If one capacitor of a set is bad, it’s very likely the rest of them will be soon. This board uses 5 x 100uF 35V electrolytic capacitors and 3 x 10uF 35V capacitors, all rated at 105°C, along with an assortment of other components that aren’t subject to failure the same way. When replacing, you can use any voltage rating as long as it’s 35V or higher. (I’ve linked to 50V variants above, which will last even longer in this circuit.)
The System Down Fuse is the long, red-tipped object parallel with the connector on the right side of the photo. A quick continuity check revealed yes, it was in fact open.
After removing the bad caps, from the black spots around the bottom of C7 (center-left in the photo, lower right of R42) you can clearly see the electrolytic fluid had leaked from the bottom of the cans and etched the board a little, but the damage wasn’t that bad. Rubbing alcohol took off some of the residue, but it’s more cosmetic than operational damage and since this board lives inside of a plastic housing itself located inside the steering column nobody is ever going to see it. Replacing the capacitors was very straightforward: de-solder pads, pull old caps, insert leads, and re-solder pads. My Hakko de-soldering tool makes this job very easy, but with any tool it’s important not to overheat the joint or the traces could de-laminate from the board and that usually means the part is destroyed.
Here’s the thermal fuse on its housing. The fuse is the center component, and wrapped around it is a flexible trace completing a circuit between the two center pins.
I’m not sure what purpose it serves, but it makes a complete circuit so it’s important to save it. It might be a current sensing winding around the fuse to send a signal when the inflators are triggered, but that’s just speculation based on its placement. Reader Craig Mason wrote on describing the flexible wrapping’s purpose: it’s the heater designed to cause the thermal fuse to blow. When the system detects a fault, Q2 in the circuit switches on and triggers the SCR U2 to conduct current through the heater wrap. At 141°C, the fuse opens and the system is taken offline.
Be very careful – the foil contacts are very, very fragile and difficult to solder.
As you can see, the foil came off the terminal when it was removed. Not good, but not the end of the world either – it’s fixable.
Here’s another view of the board, showing the replaced capacitors mounted up.
Repairing the foil trace was a delicate process. The original connection was a very small contact area, and when it snapped off it removed a bit of foil. There was a thin layer of resin-like insulation over the remaining portions of the foil wrap that needed to be scraped off to expose the bare metal underneath. We first tinned the metal contacts on the fuse mount body, then heated the foil contact pad from the back while applying pressure to force the foil pad into the metal terminal. Once the solder starts to flow, remove the heat but continue to apply pressure – rolling the iron back so it wasn’t applying heat, but could apply pressure as the joint cooled. This took quite a few tries – looking at it wrong the first few times caused it to break off, taking a little more foil off each time. It finally made a good, solid connection and we wrapped it back around the new thermal fuse.
There was a lot of controversy about the thermal fuse replacement on various Miata forums while we did pre-op research. Most commenters who have attempted this repair in the past have been held up on a lack of information about the part number for the thermal component. I can only assume the flexible heater destroyed the part numbers on the fuse in most cases. For a safety-critical part such as this one, it’s important it have the right ratings or it could fail to allow the air bag to ignite in a crash or cause an electrical fire after a crash. Several people suggest to replace it with various alternate standard resistors and fuses, but I don’t recommend this shortcut.
…replacing it with a standard fuse, metal film resistor, or whatever would circumvent its primary function. Thus, the bottom line is that replacing it with anything but an identical item would risk air bag deployment at the improper time…
After unrolling the film from the old thermal fuse, there were still some very faint, but readable, part numbers listed – very surprising. It’s a Motorola part, which goes well with the Motorola controller chip onboard. Part number 4283A.
The bag the old fuse is resting on gives away the next step a bit. When looked up in the NTE Cross Reference, 4283A brings up a modern part number replacement. It’s an NTE8139: 141°C, 15A thermal cut-off! And it’s available in modern production. No need to worry about replacing it with a different part and changing the operation of a safety-critical circuit when an identical component will do!
This bears repeating: the air bag system down fuse in a first-generation Mazda Miata is an NTE8139 It’s about $5 on Amazon.
The new fuse gets installed and soldered into place, wrapped again in the original flexible trace that covered it before. It’s very important to remember this is a heat-sensitive device, and you’re soldering to it. We only applied heat for about 10 seconds max at a time, and it was just barely enough to get it to take the solder. The first 10 seconds were a cold joint with the solder holding it in place, the second 10 seconds reflowed the cold joint to be a proper joint to ensure the fuse wouldn’t open up while it was being installed. If you overheat the thermal fuse, you’ll destroy it.
Finally, clip the extra-long leads down to size, reinstall the board in the housing, the housing in the car, and fire it up: The light came on briefly at the start like it should, then blinked off. NO CODES! The air bag system passed all self-diagnostics. We think it’s ready to protect him in the unlikely event of a collision, but there’s of course no way of testing that short of crashing the car. The controller thinks the system is fine, and the parts were replaced with identical new replacements, but full system functionality testing is impossible.
The total cost of the project was about $15 worth of parts, and a couple hours standing over a soldering iron.
This is a fairly straightforward rework job, but you must take special care to not overheat the thermal fuse when installing the replacement or it will fail. I’d recommend using an a solder clip or other heat-sink between the terminal and the fuse body, and it really helped to have two pairs of hands working on this to hold the fuse in place while the other person soldered. If you don’t have a friend who can hold it in place, definitely use a soldering assist device.
NTE8139 Thermal Fuse ~ $5
100uF 50V Electrolytic Capacitors ~ $5
10uF 50V Electrolytic Capacitors ~ $5
And remember, use this information at your own risk. You should not attempt this repair yourself, and KF7LZE is not responsible for the consequences of failing to follow these warnings. Any fixes you do based on these instructions is as your own risk!