Symptoms of a Bad Starter, So Your Car Won’t Start!


Oh man, you’re late! Gotta hurry, gotta get out the door! You’ve got that big meeting! You race out to the car, stick your key in, turn it, and-

… Nothing happens. What’s going on? You’re not a mechanic, you don’t know the first thing about cars! Time to ask the plastic rectangle…

So Your Car Won’t Start!

Oh, hey, hi there! Looks like your plastic rectangle lead you here. Well that’s good, I’m here to help you out. When your car won’t start, there’s a lot of things that could be going on, and you’ve more than likely checked the main ones.

For example, if your radio still plays or your lights still come on, that means it isn’t your battery that’s the problem. If the engine still makes that sound like it’s trying to to start, that means you have a different problem on your hands.

What Are You Saying?

There’s a critical part to the whole “starting the engine” process that people forget about, even though it’s so appropriately named: the starter. The starter gets a pop of electricity that it uses to kick the engine and start it cycling, thus starting the car.

It gets that pop from the starter solenoid. It takes a little shock from the battery, amplifies it into a big pop, and punches the starter with it. Because of how important and sensitive it is, it can be a problem source, too.

Now, you don’t need to fret too badly just yet. What we need to do is make certain it’s the starter. There are a few things we need to check, so go ahead and call the office, tell them you’re gonna be late, and have Kathy hide a donut or two for you.

Symptom One: What’s That Sound Like?

Let’s see exactly what’s going on. When you turn the key, listen really close. Do you hear a clicking sound? Yeah? That’s a big one. Now, there’s a chance it might be something that isn’t the starter. So let’s check that out.

First, test your battery. Turn on your headlights. If they come on and stay on at full brightness without flickering or fading, that means your battery has enough power that it should be doing its job. We can rule that out, then.

There’s another sound you might hear. Have you ever started your car, done something like check your phone or run back inside the house, forgot you started the car, and tried to start it again? That loud grinding noise? You could hear that.

If you do, that means that certain gears are wearing out or just aren’t moving the right way. If you keep trying to start it when they’re grinding like that, it could cause permanent damage. So stop that!

Symptom Two: First You’re Hot…

Okay, so, not the battery, yes clicking noise… I mean, that’s really all you can do, friend. Gotta get this baby to a shop. That means calling a tow truck, rearranging your day, dealing with an unexpected repair. So much fun.

In your frustration you decide to try one more time. You turn the key. Holy gosh! Hear that sweet engine purr! It started that time, all by itself! Oh man, it must have just been some weird fluke, some dirt or loose bit or something, right?

That’s possible! The solenoid we mentioned earlier? Sometimes dirt or gunk can get built up and disrupt the connection. Occasionally a wire might short. That might be the case here.

Symptom Two, Part Two: Then You’re Cold

You realize suddenly that in your rush to get out to the car, you left your bag inside. Maybe this slowdown was a blessing! You turn the car off and jump out, running inside to get your bag. You put your hand on the door-

…Why did you turn the car off? You rush back over, get back inside, put the key back in, turn it! Oh, good. Clickity-click-clickity-click. This intermittency can be a big symptom, too. The starter should be all-or-nothing. Either it works, or it doesn’t.

Symptoms Three-Five: Um, Should I Run?

Okay, so, the car can’t decide if it wants to start. When it doesn’t, it keeps clicking. The battery is fine. Now sometimes when you try to turn it, instead of just clicking sometimes it makes this really loud grinding sound. Now something smells funny.

Is that smoke? That’s smoke. Smoke from under the hood of a car is very, very, rarely a good thing. So, at this point, let’s just stop doing everything right now. Go ahead and call for that tow truck. You definitely don’t want your car to explode.

Well… Now What?

Now you wait. The tow will take your car to a garage. They’ll be assess exactly what the issue is, how much damage has been done, which parts need to be replaced, and what the pricing will be.

Fortunately starters aren’t terribly expensive, and they aren’t too difficult to replace. Most starters are around $100. If you have one of them high-end, fancy cars, they may be $200 or more. They usually take less than two hours to install. So, on average it should be less than $350 total.

Technically speaking, the starter has no set lifespan. Some go through the entire life of the car they’re in without a single issue. Some have to be replaced multiple times. Usually that can be chalked up to user issues, like turning the key too long.

But really, as long as you use common sense and pay attention to what’s going on with your vehicle, there’s really no reason (other than bad luck or entropy) why you should have to replace this particular part more than once.

I Just Skimmed This Page; You Talk Too Much

Well pardon me for my thoroughness! If you’d like, the following video gives a good overview on what problems with no start scenarios can mean, as well as some quick first steps you can take to help diagnose them.

So! If your symptoms match up to what we’ve covered here, go ahead and call that tow truck, find that garage, plan to camp out for a few hours. Once the parts are all replaced and installed, you’ll be all squared away and good to go.

Thank you for visiting us with your plastic rectangle. Hopefully your problems get taken care of very quickly. If ever you have more crazy troubles, we hope you and your rectangle remember us!

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