Bad Starter Symptoms: Why Won't My Car Start?
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
No Crank, No Start Diagnosis
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.
"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 is 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:
- a discharged or failed battery
- a failed system component (for example, relay or safety switch)
- corroded electrical connections (including battery terminals) that prevent electrical current from reaching the starter motor.
Starter Motor Components
1. Main housing (yoke)
2. Overrunning clutch
4. 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
If after these diagnostics you decide you need a replacement starter, make sure you have exactly the right one for your make and model. ACDelco provides high-quality replacement parts, meeting or exceeding OEM standards, for all vehicle makes.
How to Bench-Test a 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.
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