As automotive technology evolves, engine components transformed from barely mechanical to fully electronic devices. However, this statement is not true for all of them. One well-known automotive part stayed pretty much the same throughout all those years — the starter. Its design and working principle haven’t really changed, mostly because it’s already quite simple, cheap, and relatively efficient. Unfortunately, being “relatively efficient” doesn’t mean it never breaks. Every once in a while, you’ll try to start your car in the morning and nothing will happen. In that case, you might think it’s the starter’s fault right away but be warned: multiple other problems may cause the starter to stop working. To help you quickly figure out what’s wrong with your engine, we’ve created this article covering how to start a car with a bad starter as well as some of the most common causes of starter failures and what you can do to fix it. Furthermore, since starters always seem to fail at the worst possible moment, we’ll also add a couple of tips and tricks to help you start your engine when you really can’t afford to wait for a tow truck.
What is a Starter and How Does It Work?
The starter is part of the starting system in all cars and trucks except hybrids or electrics. Electric motors simply don’t need a starter.
The starting system includes the battery, ignition switch, starter solenoid, and starter. Since this article is not meant to be an in-depth article about how starters work, we won’t discuss its inner working in detail (we’ll cover that in another post instead). To put it simply, when the driver turns the ignition switch to RUN, power is sent to the starter solenoid, closing the circuit and allowing current to flow to the starter. The starter then engages with the ring gear, making it spin and consequently starting the engine.
Procedure to Diagnose a Bad Starter
When a starter is about to go bad, drivers are usually able to notice some warning signs in the days prior to the failure. The most prominent indication of a starter that is gradually failing is a slow cranking engine. While this condition may also point out to a weak car battery, a failing starter will require more power than normal to crank. When it happens, the starter will either crank slowly or might jerk when engaged.
On the other hand, if the electrical circuit inside the starter is open or a short to ground occurs, the starter might just stop working without any warning.
Luckily, the procedure to troubleshoot a starter problem is always the same, no matter the symptom.
Reasons the Starter Doesn’t Work
Starters require three things to function:
- A power source;
- A ground;
- A functioning solenoid acting as a switch.
Any problem related to these 3 things can cause the starter to stop working. Furthermore, any problem related to the inner circuit will also cause the same result. It’s common for water infiltrating the starter to cause the wires and contacts to rust.
Fortunately, there are some tricks a savvy DIYer can try to get a car to start even with a failing starter. But before you do that, here are some of the things you can start inspecting first.
Checking the Connections
Taking into account that the battery is fine, the most common reason a starter won’t start is a result of bad electrical connections. The first connection to check is the positive and negative battery terminals. Make sure both positive and negative terminals are tight. If one of them is loose, you can always insert a screw between the terminal and the connector.
One of the tricks to preventing starting problems is to keep terminals clean. A solution of baking soda and water will neutralize battery acid and corrosion. Corrosion often looks like blueish-green crud on the terminals. This corrosion prevents electricity from efficiently transferring from the battery to the wire. Just pour a baking soda/water solution onto the terminals and use a stiff wire brush to clean the terminals. Inexpensive terminal cleaning tools are also available for cheap at most auto parts stores.
The next connection to check is at the starter solenoid. Be careful not to touch both sides of the starter solenoid accidentally. The connections should be tight. Check both connections. One will connect the battery, while the other transmits electricity to the starter.
The connection to the starter should also be tight. This nut can be difficult to get to, particularly in front-wheel-drive cars. One of the tricks to keeping a starting system in proper condition is to periodically remove and clean the connections. Coating the terminals with dielectric grease will make sure of a good connection and keep the rust away for a long time.
Checking the Ground
Unlike most electrical components in a car, the starter does not have a ground wire. Instead, the starter is grounded directly onto the transmission. However, the transmission and engine both have ground straps. These braided steel cables attach the drivetrain to the chassis and create a path going back to the battery. If the engine and tranny ground connectors are rusty or damaged, the starter won’t be receiving a good enough ground to do its job.
If you want to test the starter’s ground, you can use a test light. Simply connect the test light terminal to the positive side of the battery and touch the starter with the needle end. If it lights up bright, the ground is probably good enough. Otherwise, remove the engine and transmission ground connectors and clean the terminals and the body surface in contact with the terminals using a wire brush. If it still doesn’t work, try removing the starter and cleaning the surface in contact with the transmission.
You can also make sure the ground is fine using a multimeter and testing for continuity between the starter casing and the car’s body.
Starter Solenoid Problems
The starter solenoid the part acting as a switch and making the starter come forward to engage with the ring gear. If you were to power the starter without activating the solenoid, the starter would spin freely without making the ring gear spin.
The solenoid is one of the most frequent causes of a car that doesn’t start. When it happens, two things can occur: the starter may not budge at all or it might spin freely as explained above.
Tricks to Bypass the Solenoid
This trick is not for everyone, and some cars simply can’t be started this way. It can be a bit dangerous so don’t try it unless you know what you are doing. If the starter solenoid is accessible, connecting the main terminals with a long screwdriver or jumper cable can make the starter turn. The ignition key should be in the RUN position for this trick to start the car. Unfortunately, on most recent vehicles, the starter is hidden somewhere between other components and simply can’t be accessed easily. In that case, there’s no much that can be done here.
Tricks for Starting a Car with a Bad Starter
The Hammer Trick
Another common failure a starter experience is when a dead spot occurs in the armature windings. An old-school trick to getting a starter past a dead spot, and probably the most well-known of them all, is by striking it with a hammer. The goal is to tap the starter hard enough to move the starter just a little so it goes over the dead spot.
The starter can also become clogged with debris, which keeps the gear from properly moving. Tapping it with a hammer may dislodge debris and allow the starter to move freely. Sometimes, particularly on transverse engines, it can be easier to use a long extension or a piece of pipe to strike the starter from above.
The Jumper Cable Trick
Inspect the wires running from the battery to the starter. Splits in the insulation can lead to shorts in the wiring. If the battery cables are damaged, a jumper cable can be used to temporarily bypass bad wiring. Simply connect the red wire to the positive terminal of the battery and the other end directly to the big bolt used as a terminal on the starter.
The Rocking Trick
Sometimes, when the starter seems to be spinning fine but can’t engage, rocking the car forward and backward while in gear can rotate the engine and transmission. This trick works especially well when the cause of the problem is a bad ring gear. The teeth on the ring gear can chip or wear off. When the starter gear tries to crank the engine and hits this spot, it will only spin without engaging. Rocking the car can move the ring gear off of the worn-out spot.
The Cost of Replacing a Starter
Depending on the car you drive, starters can be quite expensive components to replace. A repair shop may charge as much as $500 in parts and labor to replace a bad starter. The parts can cost as much as $300 on newer cars. If you are on a really tight budget, you can always look to buy one at your nearest junkyard. Especially if you drive a somewhat recent car, you can sometimes find starters in good working condition from smashed vehicles for a fraction of the price of a new one.
Replacing a starter is difficult more as a result of the weight and frequent awkward placement than the skills needed. Replacing the starter on most front-engine, rear-drive cars and trucks is easier than transverse front-wheel drive vehicles since the starter is located under the car and not inside the engine bay under 10,000 other stuff.
If you plan on replacing the starter on your vehicle, make sure to get your hands on a quality repair manual first. Doing so will make sure you replace it as quickly as possible without breaking anything. Also, repair manuals often provide troubleshooting charts and procedures so you can test your starter and confirm it’s really the problem before buying a new one.
There are tricks the average car owner can use to get out of a jam when their starter fails. Obviously, these tricks will not work every time with every car and they surely won’t work forever. Even if you succeed to start your vehicle using one of those tricks, you’ll still need to replace the starter at some point. Unfortunately, starters can be quite pricey. Luckily, you can always replace it yourself and save some money while you’re at it. In all cases, and especially if you’re still a newbie regarding auto mechanics, make sure to use your car’s repair manual and follow the manufacturer’s recommended procedure.
Trust me, you’ll thank me later! 😉