Dan Ferrell writes about DIY car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in Automation and Control Technology and Technical Writing.
Use Your Ears and Your Headlights to Help Diagnose Your Starter System
Bad starter-system issues are more common than you may think.
Starting system troubles may be caused by poor maintenance, or just wear and tear. Even with decent maintenance, the different system components get a lot of wear during their service life and are bound to start having problems eventually. Problems may show up as a no-crank or slow-cranking condition, caused by a worn-out component, a bad electrical connection, or an undercharged or failed battery.
Unfortunately, a problem in the system can catch you unprepared and leave you stranded with a huge repair bill.
If you have a little experience with car repair, you may feel tempted to rush out and start buying and swapping components, trying to fix your car. This may lead to frustration and a waste of time and money.
But troubleshooting the starting system is actually relatively easy, compared to other electrical systems in your vehicle. This system can give you some clues about the type of problem you are facing. And, armed with your car repair manual, you may be able to make the necessary fixes to get your car going again.
So here are some of the most common symptoms you may notice when having troubles with the starting system in your car.
Diagnosing a Problem With a Starter: What Noise Does It Make?
- "I hear a whirring sound."
- "It's a buzzing sound."
- "I hear a loud click."
- "It's more like a grinding noise."
- "I don't hear anything!"
- "My headlights don't work."
- "Cranking the car makes my headlights dim or go out."
- "My headlights are fine, but my car still won't start."
All of these instances will be thoroughly described and diagnosed below. If your engine is cranking as usual and still refuses to start, you're likely dealing with an ignition or fuel system issue, not a starter issue.
What Do You Hear When You Try to Start Your Car?
As discussed in the video below, there's a difference between a "crank-no start" situation and a "no-crank-no start" situation. If your engine is cranking as usual and still refuses to start, you're likely dealing with an ignition or fuel system issue, not a starter issue. Below, we discuss different situations where you turn the key and hear either nothing or something other than the engine turning over. Depending on the situation, the problem may be the starter itself, or something else.
Sounds May Indicate Electrical Problems in the Starter or Elsewhere
Funny sounds, or no sound, upon the turn of the key may indicate electrical problems in the starter or elsewhere in the starting system. Some of the most common electrical problems are corroded electrical connections, an undercharged or bad battery, or a malfunctioning component:
- bad neutral safety switch (automatic transmission)
- bad clutch safety switch (manual transmission)
- bad starter relay
- bad starter solenoid
- corroded electrical connections in the starting circuit
- worn-out part in the starter motor or some other system component
Sounds and Their Possible Meanings
"I Just Hear a Whirring Sound."
Car starter motors use a small device called an overrunning clutch, or one-way clutch. When you turn the ignition key to the run position, the starter solenoid interlocks the starter's pinion gear with the flywheel on the engine to rotate the engine at "cranking speed." Once the engine starts and exceeds cranking speed, the overrunning clutch releases the pinion gear from the flywheel.
However, if the solenoid mechanism is too worn to engage the flywheel, all you'll hear is a swishing sound as the armature in the starter spins all by itself, unable to crank the engine to a start. So this sound may indicate that the solenoid in the starter is worn out.
Read More from AxleAddict
"I Hear a Buzzing Sound."
Sometimes you just hear a buzzing sound. Electrical current is making it to the starter solenoid, but all it does is try unsuccessfully to activate the solenoid's plunger to engage the pinion gear and flywheel. This failure is usually caused by poor current flow due to low battery charge or poor electrical connections along the starting circuit, including corroded battery terminals.
"I Hear a Loud Click."
On the other hand, if you can hear a single, solid click, the starter circuit may be getting enough current, but you may have a bad starting motor, bad solenoid, or even an engine mechanical problem.
"It's More Like a Grinding Noise."
If you hear a harsh or grinding noise as you try to crank up the engine, you may have a loose starter motor (mounting bolts), or a flywheel or pinion gear with broken or worn-out teeth. If the gears on the flywheel and pinion aren't able to mesh properly, all you hear is the sound of metal teeth clashing loudly.
"I Don't Hear Anything."
When you try to start your car, you may hear no sound at all. This silence may be due to electrical issues, such as:
- a discharged or failed battery,
- a failed system component (for example, relay or safety switch),
- or corroded electrical connections (including battery terminals) that prevent electrical current from reaching the starter motor.
Starter Motor Components
- Main housing (yoke)
- Overrunning clutch
- Field coils
Using Your Headlights as a Diagnostic Tool
OK, so now you have an idea about what may be the cause of your starting system problem. But, is there a way you can confirm your suspicions?
Actually, there is. And you don't need special equipment either. Let's use your car's headlights to confirm your tentative diagnosis.
The test: Have a friend or a willing assistant turn on the headlights and try to start the engine, as you stand in front of—but to one side of—your car (just in case your car decides to start and lurch forward).
"My Headlights Don't Work."
If you hear no sound, and the headlights don't come on, you're on the right track. Either:
- Your battery is dead,
- there's an open circuit in the starter, or
- corroded terminals (most commonly battery terminals) are preventing electrical current from reaching the starter motor and other systems.
"Cranking the Car Makes My Headlights Go Out."
What if the headlights turn on OK, but go out as soon as your car starts cranking? There are several possibilities:
- Your battery may be undercharged.
- If your battery is properly charged, you could have a short in the starting motor that is causing it to draw too much current.
- Another possibility is that you may not be dealing with a starting system problem at all, but an engine problem.
"My Headlights Are Fine, They Don't Change."
There's the possibility that your headlights remain bright while your engine cranks poorly. Then, it's likely you have an open circuit or too much resistance in the circuit.
Check for a failing component, or corrosion at one or more of the system circuit connections, including the battery terminals.
ACDelco Starter Motor
Starting-system problems are hard to diagnose sometimes, but paying attention to the symptoms will help you repair your car faster than you could otherwise. And not only that, it can help you save money in the process.
And if you are the DIY type or are mechanically inclined, having the repair manual for your particular car make and model can greatly help you zero in on the root cause of the problem and get it fixed, even if you don't have much car repair experience.
Car Repair Manuals
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: My lights are working and service engine light is on, but I hear a clicking sound when I turn the ignition. I put in a brand new battery. What is going on with my car?
Answer: Assuming your battery is properly charged, if you hear a rapid series of clicks, there might not enough current reaching the relay/solenoid. Check the cables and wires between the battery and starter.
If you hear a single solid click, have the starter or relay/solenoid check.
Question: When I try to start my car, I hear rapid clicks, what could that be?
Answer: Probably not enough voltage is reaching the solenoid, or the solenoid itself is bad. Check the battery voltage and how much voltage is reaching the solenoid.
Question: A week ago my car wouldn’t start. A random person jumped my car, and it started. I went and had the starter, alternator, and battery checked. They were all good. During the week my car did it a few more times but turning the key a couple of times the car started. Each time I turn the key, there is one click. All the electrical is working the car just isn’t starting. It’s a 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew. What could be the problem?
Answer: It could be a loose wire or cable that is connecting and disconnecting. Wiggle the wires and battery cables and see if this makes a difference. And it'll be a good idea to check voltage drop in the starting circuit. This post may help you,
Question: My car cranks but won’t start. I have changed the battery, spark plugs and leads, coil pack and cat converter and still won’t start. Any ideas of what I should do?
Answer: If the engine turns over, usually the problem is in the ignition or fuel system. Make sure you have good spark and fuel pressure. You can use a spark tester and a fuel pressure gauge. This other post may help:
Question: Why is that when I start my truck the starter gets stuck? It sounds like it spins or gas doesn't pass, but after three times, it will start. I got a new battery for it, but still, the same thing happens.
Answer: Make sure the connections in the starting circuit are clean and tight. But it seems like it could be a leaking injector. After you spend the fuel, it leaked, and so the engine fires.
Question: My starter system comes in. That is the dashboard. I turned on the wipers and headlights, and they work. I hear a calm rumble sound on the passengers side. Could it be a starter? What do I do to get it started?
Answer: If you hear the sound when you try to start the engine, but the engine doesn't crank or turn over, most likely it's the starter. You need to check that you have enough battery power and make sure you got good connections between the starter and the battery. If all this checks out OK, then you may have a faulty starter motor. This other post may help you:
Question: If I just had my car battery replaced on 9-5-19, what would cause my starter to then go out 2 weeks later? My car was starting up great after I had the new battery installed, but last weekend it developed a "slow cranking" issue. The exact same day I planned to drive it to the shop & be checked, I got stranded & had to call AAA!
Answer: Probably the starter motor was at the end of its service life. But this can also be a problem with the starting circuit. When you install the new starter motor, check the circuit voltage drop and engine grounds to make sure that adequate voltage is getting to the starter. These other two posts may help:
Question: My car wouldn't start. I took the starter in. It tested and passed. But it sounds like the solenoid is not catching. Could it still have passed? Put new power cable on and now sounds like it is the battery?
Answer: Test the battery. The problem could be in the circuit. Full voltage might not be getting to the starter. This other post may help:
Question: I have a 1999 Oldsmobile and when I turn the key to crank it up I hear clicking sounds and it won't start but the lights in dashboard and inside come on. What do you think the problem could be?
Answer: Make sure the battery has a good charged. Also, too much resistance in the circuit can prevent the starter from working. Usually, a series of clicking sounds is a sign of low voltage reaching the starter motor. This other post may help you check the circuit, if necessary:
Question: My car is a 2014 Kia Optima. Working nicely, but for the last month, sometimes it doesn’t start while turning the key with no sound. The battery is in good condition and providing enough power. What is the problem of this repeated, intermittent startup? ?
Answer: If you don't hear even a click coming from the starter solenoid when this happens, as you try to fire up the engine, there could be a loose or corroded connection or wire between the battery and ignition switch, or switch and starter solenoid. When this happens, put the ignition key in the Start position while checking for voltage at the solenoid. Disable the fuel system [pull the pump fuse] to prevent it from starting while testing. Use a test light or multimeter. If there's no voltage, trace the circuit back to the switch. You may need the vehicle repair manual for your particular model to identify wires. With intermittent faults, this is usually a loose connection or wire.
Question: Why my car stops after 3 km drive with out any fault sign? The dash board lights on. It usually starts with jump starting. But it doesnt work. When it ignites, it makes a cracking sound.
Answer: You might want to check the computer memory for pending or stored trouble codes. Check fuel system pressure.
Ignition modules and fuel pumps - are two (but not the only ones) that when going bad can quit after components warm up.
Question: My 2001 Civic is cranking normally but not starting despite a new battery. Any ideas what could be wrong?
Answer: Check the spark and fuel pressure first.
Question: Our Kia minivan has had an alternator/ battery/fuse panel/ignition switch replaced, and still won’t start on a daily basis (1-2 times a day). I can hold the key in the start position for 30-90 seconds & it will finally start. All lights, doors, windows, etc. work. It seems to happen more in summer (very little in winter). Are we dealing with a starter issue?
Answer: Check to see how much voltage the starter is receiving, and how much current is pulling. There could be a circuit issue. Make sure all engine grounds are properly connected, and there are not missing. This can give trouble to the starter.
Question: My Toyota will not crank or make a sound. This happens intermittently; usually when it has been driven for a while. After it sets for a while, there is no problem. Could it be the starter contacts? When I turn the key on everything lights up, the battery is fully charged. There is just no crank or noise except for a click in the starter relay.
Answer: Check the cables for damaged, loose wires or corrosion in the starting circuit. Wiggle the wires and cables while trying to crank the engine when this happens. Also, check the starter relay, make sure voltage is coming out.
Question: I put a new starter in, I charged the battery and a new ignition but when I turn the key I get nothing. Any ideas?
Answer: If you don't get even a click (voltage getting to the starter solenoid) or clicking sounds (poor voltage reaching the starter solenoid), then check the starter circuit. Something is preventing voltage from reaching the starter motor. The connection at the ignition might be the problem. Check the voltage drop in the circuit. This will give you an idea what's going on:
Question: My 2009 BMW X5 won't start. I replaced the start 2 months ago. I went to the store, shut the car off, and when I tried to start it again, it tried but only cranks. I believe I noticed a new brake light on the dash. It should be yellow, but now stays on and is red. Could it be a sensor in the brake pedal? Why won't it start?
Answer: Basically the red light is a warning about the hydraulic brake system. It may be losing pressure, worn pads, or another related problem. This may or may not prevent your car from starting, depending on your model. Have the brake system checked first.
Question: Why is it that when my battery is fully charged, but in 18 to 20 hours my car won't start? They say that the alternator and other systems are fine.
Answer: If other systems are fine, do a hydrometer check on the battery - it may be failing. Or take it a shop for a diagnosis.
Question: My 98 Jeep Grand Cherokee wants to start, but there is no sound and no start at all. All lights work fine. I changed the battery, but nothing changed. So is it my starter?