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Start With Starter Problems

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On: Mon, Sep 12, 2011 at 9:05AM | By: Peter C Sessler


Start With Starter Problems

No matter what plans you have when you get in your car, you can put them aside if all you hear is a series of clicks or even nothing at all when you try to start her up. You may be lucky enough to hear the starter engage and turn the engine over a couple of times, but to no avail when the process ends in a long, dying whine. Such circumstances all point to starter problems.

First, let’s get an understanding of how starters work. A starter is basically a large, electric motor that turns the engine over enough times and fast enough so the natural forces of combustion take over. Because you can’t have the starter running all the time, there is a switching system built into the system to engage the starter motor only when it’s needed. This switching is done by the starter solenoid.

A starter solenoid contains two wire coils which, when energized by the battery’s voltage, are forced to move because a magnetic field is created. The bigger of the two coils creates a magnetic field that moves a plunger to complete a circuit allowing electrical energy to make the starter motor run. With some starters, this plunger also engages the starter’s drive gear. Once the plunger is in position, the smaller coil takes over. If there isn’t enough voltage, the plunger won’t stay in position and springs back—that’s the click(s) you hear. Some manufacturers (Ford and Chrysler) use a relay, which can also create clicks.

No matter if the solenoid or relay produces the clicks, the first step is to check the battery—it all starts there. If your battery has an "eye," the color green usually indicates a full charge. If it’s black, have the battery recharged, and if it’s yellow, that means the electrolyte level is low. On some batteries, you can pry open the caps to see how low the level is. If the electrolyte level is at the top of or below the metal cells, try adding some distilled water, and then charge the battery. It has worked for me, although at this point most would tell you to get a new battery.

The next simplest step is to get a jump-start. If that works and the car starts, the terminals are probably corroded, causing the problem. Get your trusty battery brush out, remove the battery cables one by one and brush the battery and cable ends clean. Reinstall them and see if the engine starts. If it does, then the starter is fine.

If that doesn’t do the trick, inspect all the cables—those going to the starter and the ground cable. If you see corrosion—a whitish-greenish powder residue and a split cable covering—it could be a bad cable. If you have a voltmeter, you can perform a series of tests to see if it’s bad. If you don’t, make a slight cut into the cable wiring just behind the corrosion; if you see more corrosion, then in all likelihood the cable is done, so just replace it.

If the wiring is clean, remove the residue and wrap the area with electrical tape. If there is enough slack in the cable, just cut the offending piece off and install a new connector. Check both cable ends in the same manner. Don’t forget to clean around the connection points too. Also check for corrosion at the starter connection point. The cable is typically attached to a stud located on the starter with a nut. If the corrosion has eaten the stud to the point where cleaning it doesn’t leave enough threads, you’ll have to replace or repair the stud.

You may also find that a poor ground connection can be the cause of your starter problems. Follow the ground cable to where it is attached. Clean the connector and make sure it is nice and tight.

Now that the cables are clean and tight, but the car still won’t start, try jump-starting once again. If that doesn’t work, see if bypassing the relay (on cars so equipped) works. The relay may not be working properly. You can bypass the relay by connecting the two cable ends with a jumper cable. If the starter cranks, then the relay is bad.

If not, then the starter solenoid is probably the culprit. On some starters you can just replace the solenoid, but that usually means removing the starter. This can be difficult to do on some cars, so some recommend replacing the starter as well, since you have it out already.

Starters are fairly rugged and reliable—by just making sure the cable and connection points are clean on a regular basis, you can prevent most starting problems.




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