My car won't start, what should I do?
With today's computer controlled cars, the possibility of a vehicle not starting when you turn the key is less likely then ever before. But it does happen, and when it does, it would help if you knew some basic tests and procedures that could allow you to determine the cause and often fix the problem yourself instead of relying on your local repair shop to bail you out.
The first step is to narrow down the cause of the no-start.
Let's go over the process of starting the car, so you have a better understanding of what is going on when you turn the key:
Here is what happens on a properly running car:
A number of things can go wrong during the starting process. The following should help you distinguish exactly where the problem is occurring in order to determine what needs to be done to resolve the situation and get on your way.
Key will not turn:
Engine does not crank:
If the interior light is bright when you turn it on and doesn't change when you turn the key to start, the battery is probably ok. This condition can be caused by the following: (this list is sorted from most likely to least likely)
Engine cranks normally, but it does not fire:
There are a number of causes for this type of no-start condition, the most common being that you are simply out of gas. Assuming that you have fuel in the tank, you will need to go through a series of tests to determine what is causing the problem. The testing procedure requires that you use specialized equipment in order to determine the problem area. There are three main tests in order to get you pointed in the right direction. You will need to test for Spark, Fuel and Compression, in that order. As soon as you see a problem in one of those areas, that is where you will need to concentrate your efforts.
Engine runs, but car will not move when put in gear:
Automatic Transmission: If you place the selector in Drive or Reverse, but the engine just races when you step on the gas and the car does not move or moves very slowly, it means that there is a problem with the transmission or driveline. First thing to do is check the fluid level in the transmission. In most cars, you check the transmission fluid level with the engine running in Park. If the fluid level is very low, in short, you see no fluid on the dipstick, shut off the engine to avoid further damage to the transmission and call for a tow to a repair shop. In some cases, a leak can be repaired fairly easily without a large expense (assuming the transmission wasn't damaged by running with low fluid levels). If the fluid is full, there is a slight chance that the gearshift may have come disconnected, which means that you lucked out. Otherwise, you are most likely facing an expensive transmission rebuild.
Standard Shift Transmission: If you put the transmission in gear, but when you release the clutch, the car does not move or moves very slowly even though the engine is racing, it is probably time to replace the clutch. On some cars, you may be able to get by with a clutch adjustment, but if it has been slipping for a while, chances are that the friction surface of the clutch is burnt and will need to be replaced.
One of the most common no-start conditions is caused by a dead battery. This does not automatically mean that the battery is no good, it only means that the battery has lost its charge for one reason or another.
The reason for the battery in a car is to provide temporary power to start the car or to run some accessories (like lights or radio) when the car is turned off. Once the car is running, the charging system (which consists of the alternator and voltage regulator along with the interconnecting wiring) will recharge the battery and provide all necessary electrical power to the vehicle. The battery then only serves as a backup if the vehicle requires more electrical current than the charging system can provide. This can happen when there is a high demand for electrical power, for instance on a cold, rainy night when you are in a traffic jam. In this case, your lights and wipers are on, the heater fan is blowing on high, the brake lights are being activated and the alternator is not spinning fast enough to keep the power coming. You may notice the lights dimming slightly, then brighten as you step on the gas. In these cases, a battery in good condition is more than capable of taking up the slack to keep everything going.
There are a number of reasons for a battery to become discharged so that it no longer has the power to start the engine.
The more common reasons for a dead battery are:
First, some important safety information:
Sulfuric acid will eat through clothing, so it isadvisable to wear old clothing when handling batteries. It is also advisable to weargoggles and gloves while servicing the battery. When charging, the battery will emithydrogen gas; it is therefore extremely important to keep flames and sparks away from thebattery.
Because batteries emit hydrogen gas while charging, the battery case cannot becompletely sealed. Years ago there was a vent cap for each cell and we had to replenishthe cells with distilled water when the electrolyte evaporated. Today's batteries (maintenance free) have smallvents on the side of the battery; the gases emitted have to go through baffles to escape.During this process the liquid condenses and drops back to the bottom of the battery.There's no need to replenish or add water to this type of battery.
A car battery has two terminals either on top or on one site of the battery. On top terminal batteries, one post is slightly larger than the other post. The large terminal is the positive terminal and is marked with a prominent plus sign (+). The smaller terminal is the negative terminal and is marked with a minus sign (-). On a side terminal battery, the cables are screwed to the terminals. They are also clearly marked with a + and - and are also color coded, Red for positive and Black for negative.
The negative terminal is directly connected to the metal body of the car as well as the metal engine block. This is also called the Ground. The positive terminal is insulated and goes to all the components that require power. The positive terminal must never come into contact with the body or you will cause a dangerous short circuit.
What to do when your battery is dead:
If however, you touch the battery terminal with anything metal and allow the metal to come into contact with any metal on the car, you will get a severe spark that could cause injury and possibly ignite the hydrogen gas causing an explosion. So if you plan to do this yourself, you should feel confident in your abilities and follow all the safety precautions, otherwise seek the help of a professional automotive technician.
If you still plan to do this yourself, here are some procedures to follow:
Once you are protected, grab each terminal and feel if the connection is loose on the battery. Only use a small amount of pressure so you do not damage the battery post. If you notice that one of the terminals is loose, just by moving it, you may be able to establish a good enough connection to start the car.
If it still won't start, you will need to either get a jump start or have the battery recharged using an external battery charger.
Getting a jump start:
The other way is to use another car and connect its good battery to the dead battery using Jumper Cables. It is important to use good quality cables when trying to boost a car with a dead battery. Using thin, cheap cables may not allow sufficient amperage through. Furthermore, they can get very hot and fail, possibly causing serious burns or even fire.
When shopping for booster cables, look for heavy cable with insulated wire that is at least 6 gauge, with 4 gauge being better. (the lower the cable gauge, the thicker the wire). Make sure that the wire goes all the way through the clamp and is connected directly to the jaw. If the wire is connected only to the clamp grip, do not buy it. Good jumper cables will cost more than $20 with professional quality cables costing $30 or more. There are plenty of cables that cost as little as $5 to $10. Stay away from those.
Booster cables have one black clamp on each end of one of the wires and a colored clamp, usually red or yellow, on each end of the other cable. When connecting the cable clamps to a battery, it is imperative that you always clamp the positive clamp (Red) to the positive terminal (+) and the negative clamp (Black) to the negative terminal (-)
Batteries on newer cars are not always easily accessible, but when this is the case, they will have a battery tap somewhere in the engine compartment. The positive side will usually be clearly marked under a red plastic protective cover. The negative side may or may not be there, but you can always connect to the engine block or metal brackets that are directly attached to the engine.
Using another car for the jump start:
Important: Check the owner's manual for both cars. On some vehicles, the manufacturer does not recommend jump starting under any circumstances. Other vehicles have specific steps that must be taken before jump starting, such as removing a certain fuse before proceeding. Failure to follow these manufacturer's instructions can cause expensive damage to the vehicle electronics. If the jump start procedure in either owner's manual is different from the instructions listed below, you should follow the instructions in the owner's manual instead.
When using another car with a good battery, follow these steps:
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