How to Troubleshoot a Car That Won’t Start

Hardly anything is worst than a car that won’t start. Your morning can be going well, with the stars seemingly aligned in your favor up until you go to start your car and find that it just won’t go. Sometimes the engine just won’t turn over, and other times it just clicks.

The question is, what’s its problem? Dead cars are frustrating enough, but when they don’t start at all, there are three parts that could be the culprit: the battery, the starter, or the alternator. All three parts work to power your vehicle, but how can you tell which one has failed? Luckily, there are some signs you can check for, so at the very least, you’ll have a ballpark estimate of what your trip to the mechanic will cost.

It Could Be the Battery

The battery is the best thing to check first. Normally, a battery will last 3-5 years, but it’s also the part most likely to have failed. Thankfully, it’s easy and cheap to replace, and you may not even need a mechanic to do it.

Symptom 1: Cranking but Never Turning Over

It might sound like the engine is trying to start. It might make a whining sound that never morphs into its familiar rumbling noise. Usually, this means the battery is too lower on power to fully start the car but isn’t dead completely. Sometimes the lights will even come on.

Symptom 2: Your Car Seems Totally Dead

No cranking? No lights? The battery is probably completely dead at this point. It may come back with a jump-start, but there are no guarantees that it won’t die again soon. If the car has been sitting in very cold weather, however, it may have sapped the battery, and recharging it is all you need to do.

Symptom 3: The Battery is On

There’s a warning light on the dash shaped like a battery that will come on if there’s a problem with the battery. It can also indicate a problem with the alternator, though, so only assume it’s definitely the battery if you’re experiencing other battery-related symptoms.

Symptom 4: Needing Frequent Jumps or Experiencing Frequent Starting Problems

If it seems like you’re having to jump your car on a regular basis or just having difficulty starting it, the culprit is likely the battery again. However, don’t just assume that the battery is dying. You should first check your connections (GPS or any external devices) to make sure they aren’t creating a parasitic drain on the battery. Sometimes the problem has a very simple solution.

It Could Be the Alternator

The second most likely thing to keep your car from starting would be the alternator, a key component of your car’s charging system. Basically, the alternator charges the battery when the engine is running, also powering the electrical system. They typically last 8-12 years, but if it fails, your battery won’t be able to keep a charge. Sometimes, a dead battery is a sign that you have a problem with the alternator. Unfortunately, most people aren’t able to repair or replace an alternator on their own.

Symptom 1: Dim Lights

Whether they be your vehicle’s headlights or the lights in the vehicle itself, including the dash, dim lights indicate that the alternator is going bad. As the alternator is responsible for powering the auto’s electrical system, dim lights are a tell-tale sign of trouble.

Symptom 2: Burning Smells

The alternator uses belts, and a malfunctioning or worn belt can lead to extra friction. The resulting heat creates the smell of burning rubber. If you smell burning rubber at all, there’s a good chance a belt is to blame.

Symptom 3: The Battery Light Is On

The same as the symptom of a failing battery, the battery-shaped warning light will also illuminate if there’s a problem with the alternator. As before, assess all symptoms before jumping to conclusions.

Symptom 4: Engine Dies Even After a Jumpstart

If your car’s engine starts at first after receiving a jump, then stops, it’s very likely the alternator is to blame. A battery can’t maintain a charge without the alternator, as this component is required for charging the battery while it runs.

Symptom 5: Grinding Noises

In order for the alternator to generate power, it spins. If something grows worn or outright breaks, it can create a grinding or even whining sound.

It Could Be the Starter

The last thing it could be is the starter, which is what’s responsible for starting the engine when you turn the key. The starter draws its power from the car’s battery, using the energy to turn over the engine.

Symptom 1: Lights Come On, Car Won’t Start

Unlike when a mostly dead battery brings on the lights but fails to turn over the engine, the dashboard of your car may still illuminate while the car doesn’t even try to start. This is a good indicator that the starter is not working.

Symptom 2: The Engine Won’t Start Even After a Jump-start

While a symptom of a bad alternator is a vehicle that loses power quickly after a jump-start, if the starter is the culprit, the jump won’t even produce an initial glimmer of hope. You’ll be effectively stuck in park.

Symptom 3: A Clicking Sound

The telltale sign of a bad starter is a clicking sound when you turn the key. If a battery is very low on power, it can mimic this symptom, but usually, a clicking noise points straight at the starter.

What Can You Do?

If the battery is the culprit, you should first make sure the battery itself is dead and not being drained by something else. Regardless, the fix is often something you can perform yourself.

However, a bad alternator or starter isn’t something most people feel comfortable taking on. Your mechanic can make a diagnosis and implement the proper repairs.

Photo by narvikk from getty images Signature via Canva Pro

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