There are few situations more frustrating that a car that refuses to start, especially when you're late for an appointment or trying to get to work or school on time. Starting problems range from simple issues you may be able to fix yourself to more complicated malfunctions that need the services of an auto repair professional.
Problem: No Fuel
It may sound simple, but checking to see if your car is out of gas is always a good idea. Without fuel, your engine can't start and run.
The car starts and then immediately dies. Alternatively, the car may refuse to start at all.
What to Do
- If you can read your gas gauge without starting the car, a quick glance should tell you if you're out of gas.
- If you can't read your gas gauge with the engine off, add gas to the tank.
- Attempt to start the car. If it starts and runs, you're all set.
Problem: Dead or Drained Battery
One of the most common issues that can cause starting problems is a dead or nearly dead car battery. Fortunately, this is a simple issue to detect and fix.
A bad battery usually results in a host of problems, depending on how drained the battery is. To tell if the problem is your battery, look at your headlights or turn on your inside overhead light. If they won't turn on or are not as bright as usual, you may have a dead battery. Try turning on your windshield wipers. If the wipers move back and forth but very slowly, then you only have a drained battery.
What to Do
If your battery is drained, you can boost the power yourself using these steps:
- Gather up your jumper cables, and make sure a good, running car is nearby.
- Connect the cables to both car batteries, red-to-red and black-to-black.
- Start your car.
- Let your car run for a while to recharge the battery. If your engine is less than three years old, it should charge back up fine. However, if it's an older battery then it may not properly charge, and you should replace the battery with a new one just to be safe.
Problem: Malfunctioning Ignition System
Sometimes the ignition itself may malfunction. The steering lock mechanism can jam, or the ignition lock mechanism may break. Also, on newer vehicles the system needs to be able to recognize the key electronically.
You insert your key, but you can't even turn it in the ignition. The car refuses to start.
What to Do
- First, make sure your vehicle is in park.
- Double check your key. If you drive more than one vehicle, you may have inadvertently mixed them up on your keychain. Also, be sure you aren't using the valet key.
- Next, try using a spare key, since key wear can keep the key from turning the ignition.
- If you can't even turn the ignition, try to wiggle the steering wheel to see if it unlocks.
- Finally, take your car to the mechanic if none of these solutions works. You may need a new ignition system.
Problem: Clogged Air Filter
For an engine to start properly it needs a precise combination of fuel and air. This balance may be disturbed due to a clogged air filter.
When you turn the key, the engine acts like it wants to start. However, it does not.
What to Do
- You can find the air filter just to the right and in the front of most engines. It's usually a large black box with a big plastic tubing on the front and back.
- Most air filters are held closed by screws along the lip. Use a screwdriver to remove the screws and open the box to check the white filter.
- If the filter is very dirty, replace it.
- If you can't get to a parts store, try tapping the filter on a wall or a driveway to get rid of as much dirt as possible.
- Replace the air filter and try starting the car again.
Problem: Broken Belt
Sometimes the engine won't start because you broke a belt and didn't realize it. You can check the belts yourself, but you'll need a professional to help install a new one.
The car tries to start but can't. You may hear a whining noise, but the engine won't turn over.
What to Do
- Open the hood.
- Carefully search around the engine for all of the round pulley wheels where the belts are normally attached. Each one should have a belt wrapped around it.
- Make note of any that have a lot of cracks and wear. Plan to have a mechanic replace any damaged pulley wheels. If you find one completely missing a belt, that's most likely why your engine won't start.
- Call a tow truck and have a professional replace the belt.
Problem: Bad or Loose Spark Plugs
One of the most difficult problems to diagnose when an engine won't start, or when it starts but coughs or runs erratically, is the electrical system. This type of problems is often, but not always, related to the spark plugs.
When you try to start the car, it sputters but refuses to turn over. It may start but then stall out right away.
What to Do
- Wait until night when it's very dark outside, or drive the car into a dark place. (However, never start the car inside a closed in space as carbon monoxide poisoning can cause death).
- Open the hood.
- Stand in front of the engine with a flashlight while you have a friend turn on the ignition.
- Turn off the flashlight and watch the engine closely. If you can see very small sparks coming from the plug wires, then you know that you just need a tune-up.
More Serious Starting Problems
Any time your car doesn't start, it could indicate a serious problem. One of the following may be at fault.
You may have a bad ignition switch that will need to be replaced in order for your car to start. When you have your mechanic perform your regular lube-oil-filter service, ask them to check your ignition switch and the wires surrounding it.
You could also have a bad starter solenoid. Again, this will have to be replaced at an auto repair center before you can start your engine. Ask your mechanic to check this every 30,000 miles.
Cars older than 1980 could have a carburetor that gets stuck so your engine won't start. A mechanic can confirm whether your carburetor is the source of your starting problem.
Helpful Tips for Dealing with Starting Problems
Keep these tips in mind as you deal with your starting issue:
- Invest in a basic automotive class so you understand what all the parts and components are under your hood. Many people don't even know how to check their own oil, so taking an automotive class can be gold. Look for them at your local community college.
- Read your owner's manual. Many times an engine won't start because the owner put in the wrong type of fuel. Read the manual and follow the directions if you have problems.
- If your vehicle is relatively new and still under warranty, call the customer service number in your owner's manual. The call will be toll-free and you can find out if your car is eligible for roadside assistance or a free tow to the nearest auto repair shop.
- Keep up with recommended service appointments. Many engines fail due to low or no oil from infrequent or no changes and bad air or fuel filters.
- Ask a mechanic to assist you in understanding how your engine works. If he or she can give you some tips on what different sounds mean when your car engine won't start, you may be able to handle some repairs by visiting a parts store.
Starting problems are frustrating; however, once you know what's causing the problem, you'll be one step closer to a running car. Even if you can't fix the issue yourself, you'll still be better informed when you speak to your auto repair shop.