You go out to start your car but it’s not cooperating. Is it the battery or the starter; if the starter is the problem can you still start a car with a bad starter? I can’t count on both hands how many times I’ve dealt with a dead battery or bad starter.
Jumping a car only increases battery power, it does nothing to the starter. When you have starter problems, you can push start a manual transmission car, but you can’t do so with an automatic. Lightly tapping the starter, or checking to make sure the starter cables are tight may let you start the car.
While there may be ways to still start a car when the starter is going bad, you’ll still need to get it fixed soon. These tips may get you a few starts, but once a starter begins to go bad, it’s best to get it replaced soon. Keep reading as we go over how to tell when your starter is bad and how to start it even if the part is going out.
How to Tell if Your Starter is Bad
Anytime your car makes odd, or unusual noises when you’re trying to start it, it’s not good. But how can you tell bad starter noises from other sounds? If you hear a single click, a series of clicks, or even a grinding noise then it’s most likely a bad starter.
The starter spins very rapidly and turns the flywheel when you turn the key. The flywheel then turns the engine to start the combustion cycle and viola, your car starts and runs. Though this doesn’t happen when you have a bad starter.
Let’s look closer at these sounds.
Single Click Sound
Is It The Starter Or Battery?
When you turn the key, or you hit the start button you only hear a single click, it could be your starter or the starter solenoid. It could also be the battery or alternator as well.
To test which one is the problem for sure check your battery and the cables. If you see corrosion on the terminals, or you can wiggle the cables, it’s a battery issue. You’ll need to clean the corrosion, tighten the terminals, and jump-start the battery or charge it.
Turn on lights, your stereo, or some other electrical component. If they turn on and don’t look dim, then you’ve got a strong battery, and the problem lies with your starter.
Jammed Starter Motor
A manual transmission car can be rocked back and forth while in gear, this may free the starter motor. Automatic cars require a large socket and a heavy-duty ratchet. You’ll have to seat the socket on the flywheel and crank the engine to loosen the starter if it’s jammed.
When a cylinder fills with fluid, the piston can’t compress the liquid and your car won’t be able to crank. To test this, remove the spark plugs and try cranking the engine. This will get rid of the water, but if you have water in your cylinder, you need to get to the mechanic immediately.
Dropped valves, a seized engine, a broken timing chain/belt, or other obstruction in the engine will prevent the car from starting. Hopefully, your vehicle is not experiencing this as you’ll be in for an engine overhaul.
Continuous clicking means something completely different. Let’s go into more detail on this sound.
Repeated Clicking Sounds
Check The Battery
Repeated clicking sounds tend to signal an electrical issue. Since the battery supplies power to the starter, let’s check it first. There are two tests that can be completed to check the battery.
The first test is the voltage test, and the second is a crank test. Get out that dusty multimeter, because today we are going to put it to the test.
Here you’ll need a voltmeter or multimeter set on voltage. Simply take the two ends and touch them to the terminals of the battery. A good, fully charged battery will read 12.7 to 13.2 volts.
If you’re getting a reading of 12.4 volts or lower, it means your battery needs to be charged and may not be producing enough electricity to start the car. A batter that is reading 11 volts or lower is considered a dead battery.
At this point, the battery may need to be replaced. If it charges up, then you may just need to give the battery some maintenance, but if it will not hold a charge, you’ve got a battery with dead cells and it needs to be replaced.
Another way to test the battery is to do the crank test. While the multimeter is positioned on the battery terminals, have someone turn the key or press the start button. Any reading below 9 volts means you have a bad battery.
Loose Battery Terminals
The reason you’re hearing the repeated clicks is the battery is not producing enough power to crank the starter. This could be a result of loose battery terminals, or a build-up of corrosion.
Check these areas and clean off any corrosion with a wire brush, or corrosion cleaner. Tighten the terminals back on so they can’t be wiggled by hand, and then jump the car. It should start if the battery was weak.
Ground straps are cables that connect the battery’s negative terminals to the chassis. If these get rusty, corroded, or loose they can cause starting issues. Examine the ground straps, then clean and tighten them if they need it.
We’ve checked clicking sounds and what causes them, but what if there is no sound at all? We’re covering that right now.
Assuming you’ve checked the battery and it’s working fine, the next reason your car is making no noise when you try to start it is a bad solenoid. It pushes a pinion out and completes the circuit so the starter spins.
When it doesn’t engage, you’ll hear nothing because there’s no electricity going to the starter. You may be able to tap the solenoid with a rubber or wood mallet and get the car started.
While this can get you moving once again, you’ll need to get the solenoid replaced soon because eventually, it won’t work at all.
Check the Ignition Switch
When both the battery and solenoid are working, the next part to check is the ignition switch. Using your trusty multimeter, check the battery terminals while someone is turning the key. You should see a surge in voltage.
If there is no change when the key is turned or the switch is pressed, then there’s probably an issue with the ignition switch. It’s not sending a signal to the battery to transfer power to the starter, so you’re not going anywhere like that.
If the battery is working, the starter and solenoid are in good condition, and the ignition switch isn’t faulty, then you need to check a few more things.
Check Wiring and Fuses
Start by checking out the fuses and wires. You can pull them out and give them a visual inspection. There is a small metal filament between the prongs, and you’ll see if they have been burned out.
You can also check them each with the multimeter. When you don’t get a reading between the terminals, you’ll know it’s a blown fuse that needs to be replaced. A blown fuse may mean another underlying issue that will need to be addressed.
Any loose, burned, or broken wires will need to be replaced, and then you need to look for what caused that problem.
Next, let’s see how to start a car, even if it has a bad starter.
Ways to Start Your Car With a Bad Starter
Examining The Connections
Before you try to start your car you’ll need to make sure all the connections are tight. Start at the battery and check all the cables and wires. Make sure there isn’t any play in the connections.
Follow the wires to the starter, to the chassis, and everywhere else the cables go. If they are loose or dirty, clean them and tighten them down. Often these cables come loose because of vibrations and normal driving.
Often these loose cables are the main culprit when you’re not able to start your car. So, making sure everything is tight may solve your problem before you go any further.
Examine The Solenoid
To find the solenoid on your car, follow the positive battery cable down into the engine compartment. Often it’s the thick red cable, and it will run down to the starter, and more specifically, the solenoid.
You can’t tell if a solenoid is good or bad by looking at it so you’ll have to use a test light or a multimeter. To check the solenoid with a test light you need to connect the red wire of the light to the input terminal on the solenoid.
Ground the black wire to the frame, a bare metal area, or the negative terminal on the battery. The light should come on, which signals that the solenoid is getting electricity from the battery.
Now shift the red test light wire to the output solenoid terminal, but keep the black ground wire attached. Have someone turn on the ignition. If the light does not come on, then the solenoid is bad and needs to be replaced.
If the light comes on but you don’t hear a click, and the car doesn’t turn, then you know it’s the starter that’s the problem.
To check the solenoid with a multimeter, set it to 15 or 20 volts on the DC voltage scale. If you already checked the voltage drop on the battery, you can see if you get the same drop from the solenoid.
Place the positive lead on the output solenoid terminal and the negative needs to go on the input solenoid terminal. Have someone start the car and check the voltage drop. On a good solenoid, the drop should be the same as what was observed on the battery.
If everything checks out from the solenoid and the starter, try jumping the car, as this should get your car started.
Push The Car To Start
This was a common pastime between me and my best friend back in the day. If you have a manual transmission you can attempt this, but if you own an automatic car, you’re out of luck.
You’ll need a few people to help you push the car, and you’ll need to find a safe place to attempt this start. If you’ve never done this before, it may take a few tries to get it right.
Turn the car’s ignition on, shift it into second gear, and release the brake while holding the clutch in. Now get your friends to push the car as hard as they can. You want to get up to about 10 miles an hour.
When you get a good speed, quickly “pop” the clutch and press it all the way back in. The car will jump hard, but it may be enough to start the car. You may need to give it some gas to get it going, and you may need to attempt this “jump start” a few times to get it right.
Examine The Flywheel Of The Engine
If you try to start the car, but the starter spins rapidly without starting the car, you may have a bald spot on the flywheel. If you see this, you’ll need to turn the flywheel a little so the teeth on the starter can catch.
Attach a large ratchet or breaker bar and socket on the center bolt of the flywheel and spin it to an area that isn’t missing any teeth. Now you can try starting the car again. If the starter has ground off the teeth though, you won’t be able to start the car this way without replacing the starter.
When you see damage to the flywheel, it needs to be replaced as well. It could end up in the same bad spot and you’ll be trying to get it started all over again. You may even end up breaking off more teeth, so get the car into the shop whenever you can to get this issue cleared up.
Softly Thump The Starter With A Hammer
When everything but the starter works you might be able to give it a sharp tap to get it moving once again. This method is best if you have someone with you, but it can be done if you are on your own.
Using a soft mallet or something similar, give the starter a little tap while your helper is turning the ignition. The little tap is often the “jump start” your starter needs to get it spinning again. You don’t want to hit it too hard as you could crack the housing, or dent it, and prevent it from spinning at all.
If you’re alone, it’s a little more difficult because you have to crawl under the car or truck, tap the starter, then crawl back out and try to start it. If it doesn’t start, you’ll have to try it again until it starts.
Once you get the vehicle started, you should get the starter replaced as soon as possible, because it will only continue to get worse. You may get one or two more starts using this method before it fails completely.
For those starters that are positioned where you simply don’t have space enough to tap them, look for something long and thin that you can use to reach the starter. A long screwdriver, a ratchet extension, or even a jack handle.
Just be careful when using something metal near the battery or starter. If you accidentally tap the battery terminal or the positive end of the starter, you could short out these parts, or give yourself a nasty shock.
Average Cost to Fix a Car With a Bad Starter
A starter usually isn’t a very expensive part, they range from $50 to $300. Having a mechanic install the starter for you will cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 to over $1,000 depending on make and model.
Those of you who are mechanically inclined may be able to replace the starter yourself if you want to attempt it. Replacing a starter on most cars and trucks isn’t terribly difficult. Usually, the most difficult issue is accessing the starter.
If you don’t know what you are doing though, you should leave these repairs to a qualified mechanic. Especially since you will be dealing with part of the car’s electrical system. If you were to accidentally hook up the wrong wires, you could burn out the starter before you’re able to use it or do more damage.
Can a Completely Dead Battery be Jumped?
A dead battery can be jumped as long as the battery isn’t physically damaged, or it has a bad cell. A bad battery cell no longer holds a charge, so no matter how you try to charge it or jump it, it may not have enough juice to start the car.
A battery that has a dead cell can’t be fixed, it needs to be replaced. When your battery starts draining under normal driving conditions though, there’s usually an underlying condition that needs to be fixed. Batteries don’t often just drain on their own.
Ask a Professional if You Don’t Know the Problem
We hope this article has enlightened you and helped you solve your starter issue. If you have gone through each tip here and you still can’t get your car started you should consult a professional mechanic. Diagnosing a car problem isn’t an exact science, it’s more trial and error with a bit of experience mixed in.
Alternatively, if you are unsure or uncomfortable getting under the hood of your car, go ahead and consult a mechanic. There’s nothing wrong with getting help.
While you can’t jump a car if the starter is bad, you may still be able to get it started. Tapping the starter may get you a few more starts before it permanently freezes up. If you have a manual transmission, and a few friends or family members you can push start the car.
Though if you have to attempt these tricks, you still need to get to the mechanic soon so they can fix the problem before you’re left stranded again. Making sure your cables are tight, and clean may help prevent this problem as well.