Starter Spinning But Not Engaging (What Should You Do)

The starter motor in your car is easy to forget about when it works as intended. However, it doesn’t always work as it should which can lead to expensive and confusing problems. So, what does it mean when your starter is spinning but not engaging?

It is a sign that your flywheel is damaged or your starter solenoid is dirty if your starter is spinning but not engaging. This can also indicate that your battery is corroded or underpowered and you will need to replace it. A faulty bendix and loose terminal connections will also make it impossible for your starter to engage.

Test your battery and starter motor with a voltmeter if it won’t engage but is still spinning. Take your key out of the ignition if your starter won’t engage so that you don’t kill your battery. Follow along as we explore what you should do when your starter is spinning but not engaging.

How Does a Starter Work?

The starter motor is the component that turns over your engine. An engine relies on a starter motor to suck in air which is necessary for your car to run. Engines need an appropriate mixture of air and fuel or else they won’t be able to run properly.

Each component of a starter motor is important or else it won’t engage. The brushes, armature, and commutator are all crucial for a starter motor to engage and spin. Solenoids are another key component because they connect the battery to the starter. 

The solenoid pushes forward so that it will catch the flywheel. This will trigger other components such as the spark plugs to help ignite the fuel in your engine. You cannot start a car without a working starter motor.

Do Starters Just Stop Working?

Starters eventually stop working over time depending on how long you’ve had yours and how well you take care of them. They can stop working after as little as 30,000 miles and as long as 150,000 miles or more.

Regularly clean your starter motor’s terminals so that the part can last as long as possible. A dirty starter motor won’t last nearly as long.

How Do You Know If Your Starter Is Bad?

You can tell that your starter is bad if your engine won’t turn on or if you hear unusual noises. Other signs include smoke coming from the hood and consistent problems starting your car. Let’s explore how you can tell that your starter is bad.

The Engine Won’t Turn Over

The easiest way to know that your starter is bad is that the engine won’t turn over. Turning over refers to the engine turning on, and that won’t happen if your starter is bad. This happens when there is a problem with the electrical connections or starter relay.

Will a Jump Help a Bad Starter?

It doesn’t help a bad starter if you jump your car. Your car may turn on, but your starter still won’t likely engage, and you won’t be able to drive. However, it is worth a try so that you will know if the problem is your battery or the starter.

Unusual Noises, Such As Clinking, Grinding, and Whirring

Noises are normal when you start your car, but not if you hear grinding and clinking. You will sometimes hear these noises if your starter motor is close to dying. However, you will almost certainly hear unsettling sounds when you try to start your car with a bad starter motor.

Intermittent Problems Starting The Car

It is a sign that your starter is bad if it takes several tries to start your car. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s completely dead, but it indicates that it won’t last much longer.

Don’t push your engine and battery if you have trouble starting your car or else the starter won’t be your only problem because you will put too much stress on them.

Smoke Coming From Under The Hood

Smoke is a serious and clear sign that your starter is bad. You will see smoke coming from under the hood if your starter overheats. This can happen if a fuse blows, there is a short circuit, or the ignition switch is damaged.

Common Causes Of Your Starter Spinning But Not Engaging

Everything from a weak battery and damaged flywheel to a sticky solenoid can stop your starter from engaging. It’s important to check several key components under the hood of your car because many of them can affect your starter. Let’s take a look at the most common causes of your starter spinning but not engaging.

A Weak Battery (Low Battery Voltage)

If your battery is old, weak, corroded, and underpowered, your starter motor won’t engage. Batteries need to exceed 12 volts or else they won’t be able to power your car. Your battery will slowly weaken over time from heavy usage, temperature changes, corrosion, and contamination.

Each battery is different and has a unique output meant to power cars of different sizes. Used car owners sometimes experience starter motor problems if the car doesn’t contain the original battery. You should always consult the manual for your car to check the power output that is necessary for the vehicle.

Otherwise, you may wind up with a battery that isn’t equipped to power your car. You can check your car battery’s health with a voltmeter to see if it still works. If it doesn’t, you will need to replace it or else your starter motor won’t engage.

Starter Solenoid Not Working

Your starter can spin but won’t engage if the solenoid is shot. Ideally, you should be able to start your car up to 80,000 times before you need to replace your starter solenoid. You can tell that it’s time to replace your starter solenoid if the engine cranks slowly or doesn’t start.

Oftentimes, a starter solenoid will last for the lifespan of your car. However, they can go bad before then due to oil contamination, extreme temperature changes, and corrosion. It costs between $150 and $250 to replace a starter solenoid if it is broken.

Starter Solenoid Contacts Sticking

Each component of your car is vulnerable to contaminants, and that includes the starter solenoid. When fuel combusts, it creates byproducts that can coat your starter solenoid and even your spark plugs. These contaminants can make your starter solenoid sticky which will stop your starter from engaging.

Your starter solenoid relies on a clean electrical connection, and that’s impossible when the part is sticky. Luckily, you can clean a starter solenoid as long as it isn’t corroded or severely damaged. However, you need to make sure that you use an official automotive cleaner and lubricant.

You will need to replace your starter solenoid if it is too damaged. It costs up to $250 to replace a starter solenoid and clean the contacts.

How Do You Manually Engage a Starter?

Attach the connection from your starter motor to the solenoid to manually engage it. Keep your hand away from the motor when you do this because it should start to spin. You can also do this if you adjust the pinion gear so that it will engage the flywheel.

Where To Hit a Starter To Make It Work?

Hit the solenoid on your starter to make it work. That is the only safe spot to hit your starter motor when it is spinning but not engaging. Make sure that you hit it softly with a simple tool such as a hammer. Make sure to turn off your car before you do this as a bad solenoid can lead to other problems like your car not accelerating.

Faulty Starter Motor Bendix

The bendix is a component that is connected to the starter motor. When this component fails, your starter won’t be able to engage. A bendix can fail if the pinion in the bendix doesn’t engage and disengage as it’s supposed to.

Sometimes, the bendix will fail if there is a voltage problem with your car’s battery. This is often accompanied by strange sounds that you wouldn’t usually hear when you start your car. Sometimes, you will still be able to start your car when the bendix is bad, but it will take several tries.

However, you won’t be able to start your car if the bendix is shot. You may need to replace your bendix every 2 years if you drive frequently.

Car starter drive, bendix

Flywheel Damages

If your flywheel is damaged, your starter motor won’t be able to catch it. A starter won’t engage if it doesn’t catch the flywheel and you won’t be able to start your car. This happens if your flywheel is corroded, caked with debris, or covered in oil.

Your solenoid needs to engage the flex plate and flywheel. This will trigger your engine to turn over, but that’s impossible if neither component makes contact. Unfortunately, this is a difficult problem to fix on your own, and you will likely need to hire professional help.

It can cost over $1,000 to replace the flywheel if your starter doesn’t catch it. This problem will only get worse over time, so it’s worth the cost to replace your flywheel as soon as possible.

What Should You Do Then If The Starter Isn’t Engaging?

Test your starter motor and battery connections if it isn’t engaging. You can also use a code scanner to check for error codes that would explain why your starter won’t engage. Let’s take a look at what you should do if your starter is spinning but not engaging.

Inspect Electrical Connections On The Starter Motor

Even one loose electrical connection can stop your starter motor from working. Turn your car off and let it cool down so that you can inspect the starter motor. Check each terminal and tighten the connection to ensure your starter motor has power.

You can use a tool such as a voltmeter to test your starter motor’s connection. Connect the voltmeter to the negative lead on your starter motor. This will tell you whether or not there is an electrical connection.

Remove The Starter Motor For Inspection

While it’s best done by professionals, you can remove and inspect your starter motor if it isn’t engaging. First, you need to turn off your car, let it cool down, and disconnect the battery. Now, use a socket wrench to remove the bolts from the engine housing block.

Carefully jostle the starter and pull it away from the engine block and inspect it. Pay close attention to the flywheel and bendix for clear signs of damage. Check the starter itself for corrosion that could explain why it won’t engage.

What Does It Mean When Your Starter Just Spins?

It is a sign that your starter motor’s bendix isn’t catching the flywheel if it just spins. This can also happen if the solenoid is sticky or if your car battery is corroded and underpowered. You will either need to replace the battery or rebuild and replace your starter motor.

Battery Voltage and Connections

An underpowered or poor battery connection can also stop your starter from engaging. A battery’s voltage can drop over time due to poor connections and corrosion. Ideally, your car battery should stay at 12V or higher for it to work properly.

Inspect the terminals on your battery to make sure that the wires are connected well. If the connections are loose, all that you need to do is tighten them so that your starter will engage. Otherwise, you will need to replace your battery if it is corroded which costs an average of $145.

Engine Error Codes

Use a code scanner to check for engine error codes if your starter isn’t engaging. Code scanners can identify the problem that the error code represents. This can help you know where you need to start to reach a solution.

It is also useful if you plan to bring your car to an auto shop. You can save time if you scan for error codes so that you can tell the professionals what the problem is. Error codes can fail to appear sometimes, however, so it’s worth getting a second opinion.

Verify Power Delivery With Jump Test

You can test your car’s starter with something as simple as jumper cables. Put your car in park and turn off the ignition to get started. Let your car cool down and pop the hood to expose your battery.

Attach the positive cable to the positive terminal on your car battery and the other end of the cable to your starter motor.

If you hear your starter crank the engine, then it is a sign that your starter motor is fine, and you simply need to tighten the connections. Otherwise, it is a sign that your starter is shot, and you need to replace it.

How Do You Tell If It’s Your Starter Or Your Battery?

You can tell that your starter is the problem if you hear a single click when you turn your key in the ignition.

If the problem is your battery, then your car will start when you jump it but it won’t continue to work after you turn it back on. Your headlights and dash lights likely won’t turn on or will turn on weakly if your starter motor is to blame.