Two symptoms... 1) Doesn't charge capacitor, no whine, flash ready no longer illuminates. 2) After the flash is on for a while, lcd displays 'bat' even though I swap batteries to known good units. It stopped charging after a time of heavy flash use.
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The energy for the very short, very high brightness flash is held in the flash capacitor of the photo flash lamp. This capacitor degrades if is not charged for long (years), and needs formatting, which is a slow charging and 2-3 consecutive shots. Sometime the first charging takes significantly longer than normal time, even minutes. If however the ready lamp does not come up even after some minutes, the flash lamp may have developed an internal fault, which can only fixed by a trained repairman. Another common culprit is wrong contact in the battery compartment. Batteries left in the flash for long often leak, and corrode the contact springs and leaves. These can be cleaned with soaked with vinegar cotton tabs (ear cleaning buds), followed by mechanical cleaning with pencil eraser.
It is strange that all three units have the same problem. I am assuming that when you tested your three units that you did so by attaching them to your camera. If all three are bad, it could be that the problem is in your camera. Let's disregard the ready light for the moment because the ready light could be bad or your flash is only partially charging. As an experiment, turn on one of your SB-600's and after allowing time for it to charge, short out the contact pins on the flash shoe. If it flashes, it could be the camera at fault.
The SB-600 is an older unit. If you have three of them, I will assume that you are using them professionally and they have had heavy consistent use. As a result, your speedlight's capacitors may have reached the end of their life span.
Let's look at what may be happening. By charging, it means that the batteries in your speedlight are supplying a low voltage to a capacitor bank that charge to a higher voltage that is sufficient to fire the flash tube. All capacitors deteriorate over time and use and will lose their ability to charge and maintain a charge. Given the age of your equipment, that may be the case. If you have the knowledge and equipment, I would replace the capacitors on one of your units and see if it works. If not, I would send one of the units into Nikon for a free repair estimate. They can be reached at 1-800-645-6687 9AM-8PM EST, Monday to Friday.
I have had the same problem on CT-1 s and CT-5s.
In both cases the flash cable (called PC synch cable) was to blame. If flash fires correctly with the test button on the handle, then cleaning the cable contacts with contact cleaner spray seems to be the best first step.
You are right, the flash capacitor isn't charging. The camera however doesn't have a sensor monitoring the capacitor charge, but has one on the circuits that charge the capacitor. If they aren't powered on (because of faulty connectors or damaged components) they will not be able to suply power to the inverter circuits that will charge that capacitor. The led is blinking because at some point the charging tension is sent to charging circuitry but doesn't stop blinking because charging doesn't take place or it takes place but the wires that carry the "I'm charged and ready" signal are severed or don't make a perfect electricaly contact. I don't recomand a DiY fix for this because by opening the camera you can damage the lens assembly or expose yourself to some 300-350Volts from that capacitor if it's charging. If you decide to try to diagnose yourself this problem I can suggest you to check if that capacitor is storing some tension on it, if it does, then the problem is shurely related to that "I'm charged and ready" signal wire. In either case all the connectors must be checked.
Please note also that if the inverter, or charging circuitry is broken (damaged components) the service centers will change it as a whole and woun't try to repair it. This will cost about $50-$80 without labor part. Please post a reply if you nead more directions. Good luck.
The recycle time using flash gets worse pretty quickly if you are using the onboard flash. The delay is pretty much inversly proportional to the remaining charge in the battery. I.E. the less charge, the longer the time. This happens with any camera.
You might check the time with fresh batteries (or freshly charged) and then after maybe 20 shots or so. I would not find 5 seconds atypical, but 10 seconds sounds like you are pretty close to dead battery.
If you get 10 seconds at the start of a fresh battery, then you may have a problem. Also, capacitor charge time can vary from capacitor to capacitor and a 1-2 second variation between camera flash units, either onboard or off board is probably normal. Age of capacitor can also have an effect.