Automotive Advisers: Where to start when your car won’t
You turn your key in the ignition and … nothing happens. Despite your best efforts to coax and cajole it, your car refuses to start.
Like a sniffle or cough signaling you have a cold, the weird sounds your car is making may offer clues as to what’s wrong. Just as listening is the key to working through many problems in life, the same can be true with your car.
When your car doesn’t start, the usual suspects include the battery, starter and alternator.
The battery is the heart of your car, supplying a needed jolt of electricity to various components, including the headlights, the radio and the engine.
The starter takes that kick of energy from the battery and uses it to turn over the engine to, well, start the car.
Finally, the alternator is what keeps the battery charged so it can power your car. While the rubber meets the road, your car’s alternator works hard to recycle energy back to the battery, which makes it possible for you to drive anywhere and everywhere you need to go.
So, where do you start when your car won’t? The answer is to begin by listening. In most situations, your car has ways of “telling you” what’s going on—using a mix of “verbal” and “nonverbal” cues to communicate. To decode the sounds your car makes when some parts aren’t working, you have to understand what those parts do.
The battery is the most common culprit among the trio of suspects. When your battery dies, your engine may make a “Rrrr, Rrrr” sound, it may fail to crank or turn over, or it may just click.
Oftentimes though, your car is unusually silent when the battery is dead. To determine if the battery is truly the reason your car won’t start, try turning on the headlights. If they are dim or won’t come on at all, it means your car isn’t getting the electricity it needs.
Next, take a glance at the clock — if it has automatically reset to 12:00, there has likely been a battery-related power failure.
After performing these quick checks, take a peek under the hood.
If the battery appears corroded or has a white substance built up around the terminals, a new one is needed. At this point, though, you can still jump your car to get it running and drive it to your local auto repair shop where a technician can best assess the problem.
A bloated battery, however, can be caused by a shorted cell — which, if jump-started, can cause your battery to explode. Also, if the battery is jumped backwards, it can also explode or potentially damage your car’s electrical system.
That’s why it’s always best to use caution or, when you’re unsure of what to do, seek help from your auto club.
The good news is that replacing your battery tends to be an inexpensive fix.
That said, don’t assume that the problem is only related to the battery—sometimes a battery issue can be a clue to another problem.
Occasionally, a battery will die because the alternator has stopped charging it. This means that the signs of a failing alternator are similar to those of a failing battery: fading headlights and gauges, and warning lights that pulse really bright or dim.
Signs that the alternator could be the real problem include the smell of burnt rubber and grinding or whining noises. In such cases, you’ll want to pass along your car’s “messages” to your technician.
When an alternator is failing, the battery won’t be able to accumulate an ample charge—so jumping your car isn’t going to help.
But before the battery drains completely, your battery warning light will usually come on. (On some cars, the indicator on the dash could read “ALT” for alternator or “GEN” for generator.)
As with all gauges and lights, it’s important to address them immediately with a technician who can run tests and identify what’s going wrong.
Last but not least, there’s the starter. When the starter fails, you may not hear cranking or turnover, but you may hear a clicking or grinding sound. And if the starter is drawing too much power from the battery, there may be smoke or a burning smell.
All of these signs point to a damaged starter—or starter relay, if your car starts on an intermittent and inconsistent basis—and you’ll need to have your car serviced immediately. (In the case of smoke or a burning smell, getting a tow is recommended.)
If your battery, alternator and starter all test out fine, then there could be an electrical issue.
In western Shawnee, it isn’t uncommon to discover that a mouse has chewed through some wires. Just like people, mice like having warm places to live in the cold winter months, making your car a prime target.
No matter what, whenever your car fails to do what it usually does, don’t panic—instead, stop and take a listen.
By doing so, a fix might be easier and faster for you and your technician to find, putting you back in the driver’s seat and on the road in no time.
-Scott and Tammie Green own Christian Brothers Automotive, 22240 Midland Dr.