Dan Ferrell writes about do-it-yourself car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in automation and control technology.
To check a starter solenoid, you can use a digital multimeter and a few common tools. Basically, a starter solenoid works just like a regular relay: It acts as a switch that uses a small current to control a higher current that energizes the starter motor.
You may suspect a bad starter solenoid if you can hear a single, loud click when trying to start the engine. Still, a starter motor can fail in other ways and produce different symptoms due to an electric current resistance, loose wires or bad grounds. So don't blame the solenoid just yet.
Starter solenoids come in two types: On-starter configuration—most solenoids—and as a remote type relay—used on many Ford vehicle models and some other models. With an on-starter solenoid, you'll probably need to remove one or more components or lift your vehicle to gain access to the solenoid for the next tests. Testing a remote-type solenoid—aka starter relay—works relatively faster because of its physical location near the car battery on the fender well. So let's start the tests.
Tools You'll Need
- Set of wrenches, if you need to move components
- Ratchet and socket set, if you need to move components
- Digital multimeter
- Small jumper wire
How to Check the Solenoid
Before you start these tests, make sure you have a charged battery. Then, set your transmission to Neutral and disable the ignition system. You can do this by removing the fuel pump fuse or relay, or by disconnecting the ignition coil from the distributor cap — if your engine has it — and grounding the coil wire with a jumper wire. This will prevent the starter motor from accidentally starting the engine during your tests.
Testing the starter solenoid electric ground:
- Open the hood and locate the solenoid — the small cylinder on top of the starter motor. A remote-type relay, sits usually near the battery, on the fender well, and the red battery cable connects directly to it.
- Ask an assistant to turn the ignition key to the start position — as if starting the engine — while you listen to the solenoid. If you can hear a strong click coming from the solenoid, continue with the rest of the steps in this section. If the solenoid or relay produces a weak click, chattering sound or no sound at all, go on to the next section, Checking for Current Resistance.
- Let's check for voltage drop:
- Set your multimeter to 15 or 20 volts on the DC Voltage scale.
- Touch the red wire (battery) connection on the solenoid with the red meter probe, and the other main connection that has a small strap going to the starter motor (no wire). On a remote relay, this is the connection with the thick black wire.
- Turn on the meter and ask your assistant to turn the ignition key to the start position.
- You should get a voltage drop of around 0.2 volts or less. If your reading exceeds this voltage, disconnect those wires from the solenoid or relay and remove corrosion, grease or dust using a wire brush. WARNING: Disconnect the battery negative (black) cable first, before cleaning the wire terminals on the solenoid or you make cause a strong electric short and seriously burn your hands.
- Reconnect the wires and the battery negative cable.
- Check for drop voltage again. If you still get over 0.2 volts, replace the starter solenoid.
Checking for Current Resistance
The solenoid also has a thin wire connected to it. This is the ignition switch connection, usually marked "S", and it's referred to as the control circuit. This connection only has current when you turn the ignition key to the Start position, when cranking the engine to start it.
1. If you heard a weak click, chattering sound or no sound at all coming from the solenoid as your assistant turned the ignition key to the Start position in the previous section, disconnect the control circuit wire and check the connector for corrosion or looseness.
- Also on a remote-type solenoid, check for dirt or corrosion between the solenoid mounting bracket and the mounting surface.
- The mounting bolts should be tight.
- Also on a remote-type solenoid: Set your meter to the Ohms scale and check for resistance between the control circuit terminal and the solenoid's mounting bracket. If you get more than 5 Ohms, replace the solenoid.
2. Connect a jumper wire between the control circuit terminal and the battery wire terminal on the relay or solenoid.
- You should hear a solid click, indicating the solenoid is operating properly; if you hear a weak click, a chattering sound, or nothing, and you're positive you have no loose connections and no corrosion or dirt between the connectors and wires, replace the solenoid.
3. Now, check for voltage at the control circuit — this should confirm your results in the previous step.
- Remove the jumper wire from the control circuit connector.
- Touch the control circuit wire with your meter's red probe, and the relay metal case or starter motor metal case with the meter's black probe.
- Ask your assistant to turn the ignition key to the Start position.
- If there's voltage (12V or more), replace the solenoid. Otherwise, check for an open in the ignition side of the circuit.
The following video can help you identify the solenoid wiring connections if you need some visual help.
When you need to check a starter solenoid or remote relay, using the systematic approach outlined here will help you find the source of the fault much faster. Sometimes, you'll find that a corroded terminal, loose wire or a different component is behind the fault. Other times, you'll discover that your solenoid or relay has reached the end of its service life. Whatever the cause, this procedure will help you save time and money and get your car back on the road sooner. If you need to replace the solenoid or relay, you'll spend between $10 and $30 dollars, depending on your vehicle model. You can buy one at your local auto parts store or online.
Vehicle Repair Manuals
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Symptoms of a potential bad solenoid or relay
- Starter engages but doesn't turn engine
- Starter makes a grinding noise
- Starter disengages before engine starts
- Starter doesn't engage or disengage
- Starter doesn't engage or disengage
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why won't my car start?
Answer: If the engine cranks, this other post may help:
If you need to make a quick starting system diagnosis, this other post may help:
Question: Why is my solenoid clicking?
Answer: Usually, it's because not enough voltage is reaching the solenoid. It could also be because there isn't enough battery charge or because of dirty or loose starting system connections (including battery terminals). Do some checks with your digital multimeter. Check specifically for voltage drops:
Question: My starter in my 1999 S10 2.2L engages, turns the engine over but grinds and disengages before the engine starts what could be the problem?
Answer: Check that the starter motor is properly mounted. Check the bolts torque. A loose starter motor can grind and prevent the engine from starting. Also, there could be a problem with the armature preventing the pinion gear to properly engage and mesh with the flywheel to fire up the engine. If you are positive the pinion gear is not holding, have the starter motor tested, before replacing it.
Question: What are possible causes of a starter on a 1984 Monte Carlo to not disengage when key is turned off?
Answer: First make sure the starter mounting bolts are tight. Then make sure the battery is fully charged and in good condition. Have it tested, if necessary. Full voltage should reach the solenoid; otherwise there's a problem in the circuit. Also, a faulty solenoid could be the problem. You can check for power at the solenoid once the ignition key is released when starting the engine. Be very careful with moving components when doing this. And make sure the car will not move. Test for power at the solenoid cables. If there's power with the ignition key released (at "run" or when off) then check the ignition switch (possibly a short). If there's no power, then the problem is with the solenoid. Hope this helps.
Dan Ferrell (author) on March 25, 2019:
The coil probably is inducing some current through the magnetic field. But not enough current to turn the engine.
Sam Marriott on March 25, 2019:
I have a solenoid that when the control terminal (S) is energised and the motor is grounded and with the main solenoid power terminal disconnected, the motor turns slowly thus showing that the motor is being energised through the windings of the solenoid. This should not be happening should it ? The only thing that should happen it that the solenoid should click shouldn't it?
Dan Ferrell (author) on June 19, 2017:
These other links may help you troubleshoot the starting system. Check out the first one first, then the other two:
Dan Ferrell (author) on May 25, 2017:
Not unless you are driving a stick shift. You can try push start it:
luke on May 25, 2017:
my starter is dragging it's a Honda 2004 CRV all will drive I'm trying to get it started to get it home it's sitting in the driveway of somebody's house.is there any tricks I can use just to get it to start one time to get it home to fix it