Wrench Wench has been in love with automotive mechanics for decades. She loves sharing advice with fellow DIY mechs and curious cats.
First things first, Don't panic! As my social communities go to gal for mechanics, I often am the first to receive that panicky call from a friend or family member, or even a friends friends mother in law, who just found themselves in the midst of what appears to be a crisis because their car won't start.
I don't mind this, which is why I tell everyone to program my number into their phones so that they can call me when things like this happen. Though my first bit of advice to them is the same advice I want you to start with - don't panic.
Usually when your car won't start, it's nothing major. The main culprits, unless you have had reoccurring mechanical failures in other areas, is the starting system - your battery, starter, alternator, fuel or ignition system. These aren't the only problems that can sneak up on you, but 80% of the time they are what you will run into and if you have one of these problems, it will only keep you grounded for 30-60 minutes if you can keep your head on straight.
Now, because there are many variables involved in answering the question "What do I do when my car won't start", this article is going to focus mostly on mitigating the immediate problem. Sometimes that means you'll get your car running right away. Other times it might mean finding alternative transportation.
Either way, the main goal is to make sure you can get to work, pick up the kids or do whatever immediate thing you may have to do, since this article is most likely to be read when you are in the middle of an urgent task, and not when you just so happened to be looking up ways to prepare for when your car doesn't start right up. We call that Murphy's Law, and it can be a doozy.
Make Three Calls
If you don't already have 3-5 people you can call in a situation like this, right now is the perfect time to do so. If you happen to be in an immediate situation with your failing to start car and a direct need for transportation, just think—"Who are the top 5 people I would call right now to get help?"
Consider who works or lives near where you are, as well as who would be free enough at this time of day to come and help you. Then consider who might have any mechanical diagnosis and/or repair experience, as well as just some people who could pick you up or help you finish the tasks you needed transportation for while you figure out what to do with the car.
My own personal call list looks like this:
- My Husband - He has more than 30 years of mechanical diagnostic and repair experience, a tow truck and he's usually up at the same times that I would be traveling. Though he has a little bit of freedom when he's at work, he's not always free, so depending on where in the world I am, the next on my call list is:
- My Dad - He doesn't have a ton of mechanic experience, but he's always able to bring me gas, pick up and take me where I need to go, or he's available to use a tow rope and get my vehicle back home. He's my most dependable option, though he's getting older so I try to keep from dragging him out of his warm chair at home.
- My Sister-in-Law - is my next option if the first two don't work. She is usually working and unavailable, but she is the most likely to be available and awake to help me with evening crisis or if I just need someone to go and grab my kids while I handle the car crisis.
- My Aunts - are in different parts of the state, but if I'm in their neck of the woods and one of the above three options won't work, I can usually beg them to come and rescue me or bring me a needed item such as a car part or tool.
- A Taxi Service - Not my favorite choice, but if I'm stuck at home and need to get to work right away or I have no way or remedying my transportation issues but I have some cash, then I know I can always call a cab.
- Big D Towing - This is one of my hubby's friends towing company. He's average in price, so it's definitely not my first choice. Though if I need a flatbed tow, there is no way to leave my vehicle where it is or I can't get my hubby to tow me home, then I call a towing service, while always giving priority to those I know first. =)
If you're not in the middle of an immediate transportation crisis, this is still a great time to put together this list. Most importantly, don't just go through the list in your head. Sure, you might have a cell phone with everyone's numbers in it, but that won't help you if your car won't start and you're cell battery is dead, there is no cell signal where you or for any other reason you're not able to use or access your cell phone. Make sure you actually get a physical piece of paper and write down at least 3-5 people you can call in the event that you have a transportation challenge. Make at least two copies. Put one in your cars glove box and the other in an easy to find place in your home. That way if you are stuck somewhere that you have to use a payphone and you can only make one or two phone calls, you can have someone go to your home, get the list and see who can come and help you this time.
The radiator cap on top of your radiator, will be HOT if the engine has been running. DO NOT open it until the car has cooled down. If you vehicle has overheated, there is a serious chance that your radiator coolant will have become pressurized and it will spray out water hot enough to leave 3rd degree burns or greater. DO NOT open your radiator cap until your vehicles engine has completely cooled down.
Also, carry some spare rags in the vehicle to test the temperature of the cap and to keep your hands from touching any hot coolant on accident.
DIY POE = Do-It-Yourself Process-of-Elimination.
This is really simple, and is a matter of checking every basic thing you have access to immediately. In a situation where you're car is not starting, you want to narrow down the likely cause of your no-start situation. Not only does this give you the best chance of getting your car running quickly again, but if you cannot fix it yourself, it will help you explain to someone else what the problem is and possibly get them to help you fix it yourself.
You'll want to start with the easiest things you can check yourself:
- Coolant System - Remove your radiator cap and check to see that you still have plenty of cool green liquid coming up to the top of the resevoir. If it's full, you're fine. If it's not full, check your overflow container, your coolant hoses and the ground. Look for any leaks, holes, tears or punctures to find the culprit of your coolant leak. Having no coolant in your engine can kill it very effectively if driven like that for any substantial amount of time and in many of the newer models of vehicles, it will tell your car not to start until it full of coolant, to prevent break down.
- Oil - You'll want to check your Oil Dipstick first, as it has a handy measuring feature on the end of the stick that will tell you if the tank is full or not. If it is full and the oil is not tar black and as thick as coffee, then you're probably fine there. If it is low or looking gruesome, take of the oil cap on your valve covers and look inside. If the engine is cool, place your finger inside and test to see if it is dry. If it is, you've probably been out of oil a while or there is a clog and it's not getting where it needs to go. This can mean a larger problem that cannot be fixed immediately, or it can simply mean that you need to put more oil in it right away. Either way, make sure you look around for any large oil leaks that may be draining you of valuable petroleum. Check the valve cover gaskets, the sides of the engine, the oil filter and the ground to find out where you leak is and if it's bad enough that you might need a tow.
- Starting System - If you turn your key and nothing happens, it just clicks at you or it turns over slowly but doesn't start, then it's likely a starting system problem. First, you always want to check your battery. Make sure the cables a securely attached, that there isn't any calcium build up and that the cables are not broken, frayed or disconnected at another point. After that, your first step should always be to give your battery a jump with jumper cables or a jump-box. If that doesn't do it, your next objective is to check the connection points on your alternator to make sure they are not corroded or unattached. If your car turns over but the lights keep dimming, it's likely that you need a new battery or alternator. If your engine turns on electronically, but the engine just won't turn over, it is likely to be your starter. Sometimes you can get lucky by taking a large metal object or hammer and heavily smacking the side of the starter to get the plunger unstuck, but it most cases, if it isn't your battery or just a dying alternator, you're going to get more involved, meaning you can make calls to let others know you won't make it to your destination for a few hours. If you have an Ampmeter or Voltometer, now would be the time to use it to make sure your battery has at least 12 volts and that your alternator is reading at least 12 amps when the key is turned or the engine is turned over.
- Fuel System - If you haven't checked your fuel gauge, do so now. It's not just that you might have forgotten to fill it up, or that someone else may have run it dry, there is also the chance that you have a fuel leak. If your gas gauge works, it can tell you how much fuel you have. If it doesn't work or it doesn't show that you are on empty, remove the gas cap and listen for a large his or "pop" sound when you pull it, as this can either mean you had a bubble in there, that it is filling with pressure or that you are actually out of the gas and the gauge has stopped reading properly. If everything seems fine on that end, get under the car and look for your fuel filter. On newer cars, it's usually on the passenger side near the mid or rear of the car. Just find and following the small fuel lines to find it. If you cannot find it, that means you either have an engine compartment filter or an in-tank filter. If it's the former, then check near your engine, if it's the latter, then you're screwed for eliminating that as a cause until you check everything else that could potentially be an issue. If you have any mechanical inclinations, you can check your fuel injection or carburation system to see if gas is getting from the tank to the engine. If you're not so inclined, then keep in mind that could be the problem. If you are so inclined and you find you're getting gas from the tank to the engine, you're fine. If you're not getting gas to the engine, that is definitely your problem. You'll need to continue your POE if you find that problem and look for clogs in your fuel lines, your filter, your Exhaust-Gas-Regulation valve, your air manifold and your injection system.
- Ignition System - we backyardagins call this your "Spark System", and it includes your spark plugs, distributor, cap & rotor, ignition and battery. Now, almost all of these components require at least a small amount of mechanical experience or understanding. Your car needs spark, fuel, air, fuel and compression to start and stay running. To check to see if you have a spark problem, you can do something as simple as checking your spark plugs. One by one you can remove them from the engine, keeping them attached to the spark plug wire, place them next to the metal tip of a screwdriver and turn the engine over. If you get a spark, that plug is fine. While you have the plugs out, smell each one and look for a scent of pungent gasoline or a "burnt" smell. If it smells like a lot of gas, the plugs are being flooded with so much gas they can't spark inside the engine. If they smell burnt, it could be that your car is burning up the gas before the spark can ignite it. If it doesn't seem to be the plugs themselves, you want to next check your spark plug wires to make sure they are not extremely old, torn up, broken or disconnected from the distributor cap. Next, remove your distributor cap and check to see that the small metal points around the cap and the two big ones on the rotor are not covered in corrosion or broken in any way. You can also check to see if it's so worn down that the metal points are not touching anymore, which would make it hard to get a spark going. If these don't seem to uncover your problem and your battery is fine, then it is likely a compression or ignition problem, both of which require more experience to diagnose or fix, if you don't have that experience yourself. If you don't need the car for regular transportation, it's a great time to learn as you go.
- Air System - Check your air filter, exhaust pipes, map sensor and/or carb ratio screws to find out if your car is getting enough air to get started. More often than not, a no-start from a lack of air is from a clogged air filter. If it's not that and your car is newer or mostly electronic, it's probably just a simple sensor change. If your car is older and you have a carb, it's likely that you'll need to adjust your idler screw.
If you can deduce that it is not any of the above problems that are easy to be check from pretty much anywhere you are with your car, then it is likely a bigger problem that you will need a trained professional or highly experienced friend to check out for you. Give them a call as soon as you can and let them know what you were able to confirm on your own, so that they can bring the proper diagnostic tools to help you get back on the road quickly.
Commit to an Action
With a no-start looming over you, you'll want to commit to taking action as soon as possible. If you were able to find out what your immediate problem is using the above list and you can fix it yourself right away, then do so. If you need parts, tools, some help or other resources, then make sure you call those people first. If you seem to have a larger problem, then plan on calling a taxi and/or a tow truck service to get you picked up. If you are a AAA member, now is a great time to call them so they can get to you sooner.
If you have no one to come and help you, then be ready to signal for help from someone driving by. Make sure you put your hazard lights on and that you open your hood and stand it up. These are universal signals for "Help me! I'm stranded!" and will help keep you visible. If it's not freezing outside, stand out behind your car and wave at other drivers to show them you need their help. If you have any roadside flares or signals, now is the time to put them out.
While you are waiting for aid, make any calls to get other people in your life taken care of. If your kids need to be picked up from somewhere or you have anyone else who depends on your for a ride, then call and get that situation handled.
Nothing is a better action then preparation. If you're in a comfortable situation right now with a healthy running vehicle, NOW is the time to prepare for a transportation crisis when you're car might not start. You never know when it might happen, especially if you're not able to keep up on the maintenance of your vehicle or if it is beyond the 150,000 mile mark. Get everything together now, so that you are ready when the worst happens. Being prepared can save your job, your health, your wallet and the trouble of letting down anyone else who may have been counting on you at the time your car might not start.
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.