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Sounds of a Bad Starter

Dan Ferrell writes about DIY car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in Automation and Control Technology and Technical Writing.

sounds-of-a-bad-starter

The sounds of a bad starter can be varied:

  • A click
  • A whine
  • A squeak
  • A sluggish sound
  • No sound at all

That new sound–or the lack of one–when you turn the key or press the starter button can reveal a problem with the starter motor or its electrical circuit.

The good news is that any of these sounds can give you the clue as to the nature of the problem, and what you can do to find the fault.

Also, in most cases, the average car owner can fix the problem with a little elbow grease and a few common tools.

Automotive technicians use sounds all the time to diagnose starting system problems. And that's what you are going to do here.

Of course, having on hand the auto repair manual for your specific vehicle model will make your job much easier. Sometimes the manual is necessary when doing tests, locating components, or changing parts.

If you don't have this manual yet, you can get an inexpensive Haynes Manual for your make and model through Amazon. It will save you money if you maintain your car yourself.

Which Sounds Go With Which Problems

In the next sections, you will find the most common sounds a starter makes when something is not quite right, and how to go about finding what is wrong.

1. My Starter is Whining
2. My Starter Motor Squeaks Very Loud
3. My Starter Motor Sounds Like It's Turning Too Slow
4. I Only Hear A Humming Noise When I Try To Start The Engine
5. I Hear Rapid Clicks When I Try to Start the Engine
6. I Hear Only a Click When I Try to Start the Engine
7. I Can't Hear The Starter
8. Resources

1. My Starter is Whining

In recent years, starter motor technology has seen much improvement. So it is not uncommon to see a starter last as long as a car. Still, depending on usage, one or more components within the starter motor may fail due to wear and tear after a few years of use.

The parts of the starter motor that tend to wear out the fastest are:

  • The starter drive
  • The starter drive engagement yoke
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The problem may also come from:

  • The engine flywheel
  • A lot of space between the pinion and the engine flywheel

Diagnosing the Problem:

The diagnostic process requires access to the starter motor. Depending on your engine model, access can be as simple as lifting the front of the engine or removing several components.

  1. If necessary, raise the front of the car using a floor jack and secure the car with a pair of jack stands.
  2. Activate the emergency brake.
  3. Put the transmission in Neutral (manual) or Park (automatic).
  4. Visually inspect the starter motor and make sure the mounting bolts are properly tightened. If not, tighten them and try to start the engine.
  5. If the mounting bolts are tight, have a helper try to start the engine while you watch the starter motor. If the starter motor moves, you need to tighten the mounting bolts.
  6. If the starter doesn't move when trying to start the engine, remove the starter.
  7. If the starter motor doesn't show obvious mechanical failure, have it checked at your local auto parts store. Many auto parts stores diagnose the starter for free.

Some starters have adjusting shims located between the starter and the engine mounting surface to provide the correct distance between the starter pinion and the engine flywheel gear. Check your repair manual to see if your engine uses these shims. If the shims are missing, replace them with new ones.

2. My Starter Motor Squeaks Very Loud

When a starter motor squeaks as you try to start the car's engine, it usually indicates that the starter pinion and the flywheel ring gear are not meshing correctly.

Diagnosing the Problem:

  1. Make sure the starter motor is properly mounted and the starter motor bolts are properly tightened.
  2. Gain access to the starter motor. In some cars, the starter motor is on one side and towards the bottom of the engine; in other models, it is located at the top. Check your car's repair manual.
    • If you need to raise the front of the vehicle with a floor jack, secure the vehicle with two jack stands. Never work under a car that is supported only by a jack. It could collapse.
  3. Engage the emergency brake and place the transmission in Neutral (manual) or Park (automatic). Enlist the help of an assistant to try to start the engine. In the meantime, watch the starter motor.
    • If the starter motor moves when trying to start the engine, reinstall the starter motor, and tighten the bolts to the torque indicated in your repair manual, using a torque wrench.
    • Some starters use alignment shims to correct the distance between the starter pinion and the flywheel gear. If one or more shims are missing, the two gears will not have the correct distance, producing a grinding noise every time you try to start the engine. Consult the repair manual for your vehicle.
    • If the starter motor does not move when trying to start the engine, remove the starter motor. Check that the pinion shows no damage or wear. That could be the problem. If necessary, take the starter to an auto parts store to have it checked. Most auto parts stores check the starter free of charge. Even if the pinion gear seems in good shape, it might not be functioning correctly.
  4. If the starter motor is in good condition, you have to check the flywheel. For this, you need to remove the starter motor and visually check the teeth around the flywheel gear.
  5. Turn the flywheel so you can check the gear.
    • Put the transmission in Neutral.
    • Turn the flywheel clockwise using a ratchet on the crankshaft bolt at the front of the engine.
    • As the flywheel turns, check to see if any gear teeth are bad.

Watch the following video for a description of this issue and how to visually check the flywheel in your vehicle.

Why Is This Starter Grinding?

3. The Starter Motor Sounds Like It's Turning Too Slow

Usually, when you have a sluggish starter, it means it's not receiving enough voltage.

There could be one or more problems like:

  • Low battery voltage.
  • An electrical obstruction in the battery cables or connections, or in the electrical circuit of the starting system.
  • A faulty relay or solenoid.
  • A starter motor malfunction.

Diagnosing the Problem:

  1. First, check the battery cable terminals. It is common for corrosion to build up between the battery terminals and the battery posts, creating resistance to voltage.
    • If you need help cleaning your cables, see the Resources section at the end of this article for help. Also check in your repair manual.
  2. Visually inspect the battery cables, engine and body grounds, and starter relay or solenoid connections. Wiggle the wires and connections by hand to see if there are any broken or damaged wires, or loose connections.
  3. If you don't see anything abnormal in the electrical connections, check the battery's open voltage using your voltmeter. It should be around 12.4 volts.
  4. If your battery has caps on top, remove the caps and check that there is enough electrolyte.
  5. If the battery appears to have the proper open circuit voltage, disconnect and take the battery to an auto parts store for testing. Typically, these stores do not charge for battery inspection.
  6. If the battery is OK, remove the starter motor and take it to an auto parts store for diagnostic.
  7. If the starter motor passed inspection, it is time to check the starting system voltage drop. This test is easy to do at home, it's very effective, and will let you know the state of "health" of the electrical circuit and the parts connected to it. For this, you will need a voltmeter.
    • See the Resources section at the end of this article for help performing the voltage drop test for the starting system.

4. I Hear Only a Humming Noise When I Try to Start the Engine

A humming noise when trying to start the engine may point to a starter motor failure.

Or the problem may be the starter motor solenoid or relay. Some vehicles, like some Ford models, are equipped with a remote relay, which acts as a solenoid. This relay is usually mounted on the inside of the car's fender. A solenoid, however, is mounted on the starter motor itself.

A weak battery is another possibility for the cause of the humming noise.

Diagnosing the Problem:

  • Visually check the electrical circuit of the starting system.
  • Take the battery and starter to the auto parts store for a diagnostic.
  • If necessary, do a voltage-drop test of the starting system. For this, you will find help in the Resources list at the end of this article.

5. I Hear Rapid Clicks When I Try to Start the Engine

When the starter motor produces a series of rapid clicks, most likely the starter is not getting enough voltage.

Diagnosing the Problem:

  • Check the battery open circuit voltage using your voltmeter. If necessary, take the battery to your auto parts store for testing.
  • Carefully check the cables and battery connections. A loose or corroded connector acts as a resistor against voltage.
  • Make sure the wires and connections in the starting system, including the ones on the starter motor, are clean, tight and free of damage.

If your vehicle uses a relay instead of a solenoid, verify that voltage is going through the relay. Take a look at the article on "How to Check a Relay" listed in the Resources section at the end of this article, and refer to your repair manual as well.

Also, you can do a starting system voltage drop test. See the article listed in the Resources section at the end of this article.

6. I Only Hear a Click When I Try to Start the Engine

Unlike a series of rapid clicks when trying to start the engine, the sound of a single click when you turn the ignition key, or press the Start button, indicates that the starter motor is getting enough voltage.

However, the problem this time is that the starter itself is not responding.

Diagnosing the Problem:

  • Remove the starter motor and take it to the auto parts store for diagnosis.

Lifting Your Vehicle Safely

For your personal safety, when you want to work on your car, park on level ground, use a floor jack, secure the vehicle on jack stands, and chock the wheels.

7. I Can't Hear the Starter

The complete absence of sound can also be a symptom of something wrong with the starting system or another system.

Diagnosing the Problem:

  1. First, verify that the battery has around 12.4 volts by taking an open voltage reading using your voltmeter. Even if it has the minimum voltage, it does not mean the battery is in good condition, but it is a good start in the diagnostic process.
  2. Verify that the cable connections to the battery and starter motor are clean, tight, and in good condition. Wires and terminals should not be damaged, loose or corroded.
  3. If necessary, take the battery to the auto parts store for a diagnostic test. These stores usually perform these tests at no charge.
  4. If necessary, take the starter motor to the auto parts store for a diagnosis, to see if it has failed. The store usually does this diagnostic for free.
  5. Perform a voltage-drop test of the starting system. You can find help in the Resources section at the end of this article. This diagnostic test is not difficult and you can do it with a voltmeter in your own garage.

Other faults that can neutralize the starter motor:

  • A fault in the ignition switch.
  • A fault in the neutral safety switch.
  • A problem in the alarm system.

If necessary, consult the repair manual for your vehicle.

8. Resources

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.

© 2022 Dan Ferrell

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