Car Starter Problems? Five Starting-System Inspection Tips
Car starter problems arise unexpectedly and for more than one reason. Whenever there's corroded terminals, loose connections, a bad, worn out or damaged system component, you'll notice. Starting your car becomes more difficult or it simply refuses to start.
Unfortunately, you won't see the source of the problem when all of a sudden the system fails. And repeatedly turning the ignition key, hoping that eventually the engine will fire up when it refuses to start, doesn't always help. Most often, it creates more problems.
Fortunately, common starter system problems happen in predictable places. And you have at your disposal more than one strategy to help you check the system in your car. Whether it is lack of power, a bad electrical connection, or a bad starter component, use these five troubleshooting tips to fire up your engine again.
Begin with one of the most common sources of engine starting problems.
Checking the Battery Voltage
You need to know whether you have enough juice to operate the starter motor by measuring the amount of voltage in your battery using a voltmeter.
- Set your voltmeter to a range higher than battery voltage, like 20 volts on the DC (direct current) voltage scale.
- Turn on the meter and connect the test leads across the battery terminals. Touch the negative lead to the negative (-) post on the battery and the positive lead to the positive (+) post on the battery.
- Turn on your car's headlights.
- Read the display on your meter. Your battery should have between 12.4V (75% charge) and 12.6V (100% charge) to properly operate the starter motor. If there's less than 12.4V, recharge the battery and try to start the engine again.
With a reading of 12.4V or less on a three to four years old battery, it's a good idea to hydrometer-check your battery. The hydrometer is a simple tool that lets you know the state of charge and health of your battery. So you'll know whether one or more cells have failed. Buy an inexpensive hydrometer online or at most auto parts stores. Then check this article on troubleshooting a car battery using a hydrometer.
Common Sources of Starter System Problems
- Loose electrical connections in the starting system
- Dirty connections
- Corroded battery terminals
- Worn out or failed starter system parts
Inspecting Cables and Wires
Corrosion around battery terminals prevents electrical flow. This is a common problem on a battery or starter system that hasn't received much attention. If you notice a layer of corrosion around one or both battery terminals, clean them with a solution of baking soda and warm water.
- Mix 8 ounces of warm water for 1 tablespoon of baking soda in a small container.
- Thoroughly mix the solution.
- Disconnect the terminals from the battery and apply the solution to the terminals and battery posts using a soft brush.
- Clean the battery top with the solution as well to remove dirt and acid, which drains battery power, but don't let the cleaning solution seep under the filler caps.
- Remove the caps from the top of the battery and check the electrolyte level. The electrolyte should reach the bottom of the filler rings. If necessary, add distilled water to bring the electrolyte to the correct level.
- Check the tray where the battery sits and clean it as well.
- Reconnect the terminals and try starting the engine again.
Inspecting the Starter Solenoid
Check the connections at the starter solenoid (the small cylinder on top of the starter) or starter relay. Most Ford vehicles use a remote starter relay instead of a solenoid. The positive (red) battery cable connects directly to the solenoid or starter relay. Can't find the relay? Consult the vehicle repair manual for your particular car make and model.
If the solenoid or relay fails, the car won't start:
- To quickly check the solenoid, disable the starting system by disconnecting the thick wire from the center of the distributor cap or by removing the fuel pump fuse — consult your vehicle repair manual to locate the fuse, if necessary. This will prevent the engine from accidentally starting as you check the solenoid or starter relay.
- If you disconnected the wire from the distributor, ground it to a bolt or unpainted metal bracket on the engine block using a jumper wire.
- Ask an assistant to try starting the engine as you listen for any sounds coming from the starter solenoid or relay. If you hear a solid and loud click, it means the electrical current is reaching the solenoid and it's properly working. If you hear a weak click or chattering sound, check the wires connected to the starter solenoid or relay.
- Check for dirty, loose, disconnected or broken wires that will prevent electrical current from reaching the motor. If the wires and connections are in good condition, the starter motor, solenoid or relay have failed, and you need to replace it.
Starter Motor Components
- Main Housing (yoke)
- Overrunning clutch
- Field coils
Checking the Starter Motor
Depending on your particular vehicle model you may need to raise the front of the car or remove the intake manifold or some other component to reach the starter motor. Consult the car repair manual for your particular model, if necessary.
If you need to raise your car, safely support it on jack stands, engage the parking brake and block the wheels to prevent the car from rolling.
- Make sure the starter mounting bolts are tight. Loose mounting bolts will keep the starter drive from properly engaging the flywheel. When this happens, you'll hear a grinding noise as you try to fire up the engine, since the ring gear on the flywheel and the pinion gear on the starter clash, unable to mesh properly.
- If the mounting bolts are tight, remove the starter motor from the vehicle and check the pinion gear — this is the small gear at the front of the starter that engages the flywheel to crank the engine. Check the condition of the pinion gear's teeth. Worn or damaged gear teeth will prevent you from cranking the engine as well.
- Using a standard screwdriver, try to rotate the pinion gear in both directions. The gear should only rotate in one direction. If it moves in both directions or doesn't move at all, replace the starter.
Make sure to watch the following video to get a visual reference of the trouble points you want to pay attention to.
Inspecting the Engine Flywheel
If you removed the starter motor for inspection, this is a good chance to check the flywheel as well. The flywheel is the large, heavy wheel between the engine and transmission. This is the wheel that the starter pinion gear engages to crank the engine.
- Once you've removed the starter motor, set your transmission to Neutral.
- Have an assistant rotate the crankshaft by turning the center bolt on the crankshaft pulley using a ratchet or breaker bar and a socket. You'll find this pulley at the front and bottom of the engine block. This pulley rotates the drive or serpentine belt to run the alternator, steering pump and other components. Depending on your vehicle model, you may need to remove a wheel to gain access to the pulley center bolt.
- Watch the flywheel as it rotates and make sure the teeth are in good condition. Missing or damaged teeth will prevent the starter motor from cranking the engine. Replace the flywheel, if necessary.
Testing the Starter Motor for Proper Operation
If you suspect the starter motor, take it to an auto parts store for testing. Many auto parts outlets will test your starter for free. An aged starter motor may have worn out brushes, armature, shaft, or burned field winding that may cause unusual noises, excessive current draw, slow cranking or no cranking at all.
A quick inspection at an auto parts store will reveal the drive mechanism and motor general condition, whether the starter draws enough current to operate, and the general state of the internal components.
If the previous checks did not turn out anything wrong with the starting system, you still have other simple troubleshooting strategies to further test the starter motor. Check the tips outlined in the article "Bad Starter Symptoms: Why Won't My Car Start?"
When you face car starter problems, remember that lack of proper battery maintenance, faulty electrical connections and components will prevent your starting system from working properly. Whatever the source of the problem, these troubleshooting tips will help you when your car won't start. They'll provide you with a relatively quick way to solve your starter problems.
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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
My car is having trouble starting when I turn the key, and then after about an hour, it starts back up again. What’s going on?
You need to make sure you have good spark and fuel pressure. Another issue is poor compression, but this usually happens on high mileage engines. Match the symptoms to the descriptions on the headings. Also, follow the procedures described in the post. This could give you a clue about the problem.Helpful 45
My car won't start when I turn the key. The lights come on in the dashboard, so that means the battery is working (I changed it a few months back). There is no sign of cranking either. I leave it for an hour or two and come back, it starts easily as if nothing had gone wrong. Please advise?
If there are no cranking or click(s) sounds when trying to fire up the engine, the problem could be in the starting circuit. This other post may help:
If necessary, have the starter motor checked.
Also, make sure the charging system is working properly and charging your battery. You might want to have the battery checked, to see what condition it's in. Another potential problem is with the shift selector. The safety lockout will not engage until it feels the correct gear has been selected (Park or Neutral should make good contact). Move the shifter through the different gears and try starting again.Helpful 16
What happens if the wires that connect to the starter from the engine touch?
Those wires come from the power side of the battery. You can produced a bad electric shortcut if those wires touch the engine block itself, for example.Helpful 32
My starter won't disengage, but I put a new solenoid on. When you turn the key off, it won't shut off. Do you have any suggestions?
Check the wiring between the starter and the ignition switch. One of the wires may have a short to ground or the ignition switch may be the problem.Helpful 11
I have a 2017 Nissan Sentra. The first start in the morning is fine. But, if I drive it for more than 30 minutes and kill it, it doesn’t want to restart. It just continues to turn over and over. I can play with the gear shifter and finally get it to start. When it does this, I can smell something that smells like plastic burning. If the engine is cold, it starts fine. It seems to be getting worse. The dealership suggested replacing the wiring harness and ECM at $4000. What is your advice?
You may want to try this first. A circuit with a lot of unwanted resistance is preventing the engine from starting, and probably it’s the starting system. After driving for a few minutes something in the circuit gets too hot-- possibly a wire or connection-- because current can’t flow properly and it’s starting to burn the insulation or a connector. These other two posts may help you locate the fault.Helpful 4