How to Troubleshoot a Car That Won’t Start

You get into your car, put the key into the ignition, and turn it. The darn car is not starting! What should you do? There are steps to be taken to determine why it is not starting.

First, notice whether your dome light works when the door is open and, if it does, is it as bright as normal. Second, see whether your dashboard gauges and warning (red) lights come on when the key is turned to the on position just before the cranking or starting position. Third, crank or start the engine by turning the ignition key all the way. What happens? Your choices are:

Troubleshoot Car How to Troubleshoot a Car That Wont Start

  • Nothing – no sound
  • One loud click each time the ignition key is turned
  • Grinding
  • Nothing – no sound. If there is no evidence of any power to either the dome lights, headlights, or dashboard lights and gauges, then there is no power coming into the car. This could be because the battery is completely dead, or is missing (stolen), or, most commonly, has a bad connection. First locate the battery and see if it has a power indicator eye. If so, it should be green, indicating the battery is okay. If it is not green, the battery is probably dead.

Warning: When working near or touching batteries, exercise caution, as batteries contain sulfuric acid and can burn skin, eyes, and clothing. Batteries can also explode.

Bad connection? Put the headlights to the on position, pop the hood, and get out and look at the headlights. If they are not on, grip one of the battery cables where it connects to the battery terminal and jiggle it. If the lights come on even momentarily then you have located your bad battery connection. Clean (with hot water and baking soda mixed together) and/or tighten the connection with a wrench. If jiggling of the cable end is to no avail, try this step on the other terminal. If this does not help, get a boost from another car or charge your battery on a battery charger.

Tip: Make sure your car is in park or neutral and the clutch pedal is down (if applicable).

  • One loud click each time the ignition key is turned. This could indicate that the starter motor gear is trying to engage the flywheel but is not spinning it as it should. Rapping or banging on the side of the starter motor with a hammer while another person tries to start the car from inside sometimes works (for now). This indicates that the starter motor has a dead spot and needs to be replaced.

Troubleshoot Car 1 How to Troubleshoot a Car That Wont Start

Caution: Always exercise extreme care when working around the engine!

A loud single click could also mean that the starter wants to turn or crank your engine but it cannot because the engine is seized or frozen stiff. This condition does not happen often, but if it does you are not going anywhere soon with your car.

  • Grinding. A grinding noise when starting indicates that the starter motor gear and flywheel gear aren’t meshing smoothly for the starting process. The starter motor bolts and the starter may be loose and need to be tightened, or the starter motor gear may be worn or broken. The flywheel teeth may be worn or chipped or the flywheel cracked. In any of the above cases, a professional will have to do the necessary repairs.
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Related posts:

  1. How to Repair Car Engine Cranks But Wont Start
  2. How to Replace a Starter – Changing Starter Guide
  3. How Does a Car Battery Work?
  4. Diagnosing Car Starting Problems
  5. How to Troubleshoot Ford F-150 Fuel Pump Problems

Filed Under: Car Tuning


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