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You know those days when you wake up in a rush. Everything is just going wrong. You burn the toast, put your shirt on the wrong way, and pick up the wrong bag as you rush out the house. It’s guaranteed that this day will also be the day that you put your key in the ignition and nothing happens.
We have put this article together to address that problem and give you the peace of mind of knowing you’ve tried everything you could.
How Many Possible Reasons Are There?
It’s perhaps best not to dwell on this fact too much, but there are so many possible reasons for your car not starting. If we were to include all of them, this article would be so long it might break the internet.
We’ll go through a few of the most common possibilities that you should look into. If the problem turns out to not be any of these, we recommend calling out a mechanic to get your car looked at by a professional.
This is the simplest – and arguably most easy to fix – possible source of the problem that you might run into. To check if your battery is dead, turn on your headlights, then go to the front of the car to see if they are on. If they aren’t, the battery is dead.
If you want to be sure, then you can get yourself a battery testing kit. Most of these are also set up to test your alternator’s efficiency (what charges your battery while driving) and whether or not there is a problem with your starter motor.
If your battery is dead (or “discharged,” if we’re talking technically), you can quickly fix it with a jumpstart. For this, you will need a jumpstarting power pack, or jumper cables and someone else’s car (which needs to have a fully functioning battery).
Just a note before we begin – jumpstarting can be dangerous if done incorrectly. Be extremely careful to do everything safely if you’re going to jumpstart your car by yourself.
If the battery or jump leads look damaged, don’t use them. Instead, you should immediately order a new battery replacement and get some new jump leads.
For your safety, remove metal jewelry and long dangling items of clothing, such as scarves or baggy jackets.
Make sure both engines and ignitions are off. Remove the keys from the keyholes to be certain about this. Attach the red cable (positive, +) to the positive terminal on both batteries. It’s absolutely essential to connect the red one first. You should then attach the black cable (negative, -) to the negative terminal of the charged battery, and connect the other end to a ground on your car.
A “ground” is just an exposed part of metal – this is what it’s there for. Check your owner’s manual if you aren’t sure. You shouldn’t ever attach it to the discharged battery’s negative terminal – this risks creating a dangerous short.
Making sure that the jump leads don’t touch anything other than what they’re supposed to. Then, start the engine of the car with the charged battery and wait a few minutes. After a few minutes have passed, start the engine of the car with the dead battery. If it starts, wonderful.
You should then turn off both engines before removing the jump leads in the reverse order you put them on. That means removing the black one from its earth first, then from the negative terminal on the other car. Then remove the red cables. If you remove the jump leads while either car is running, it could cause serious electrical problems. Remove the jump leads and try to start your car again. Hopefully, it starts, and you’ll be good to drive.
If it doesn’t start, try these steps a couple more times. If it still doesn’t work, there might be a more serious, in-depth electrical problem, and you should call out a professional to help.
Follow these same steps if you’re using a booster pack too.
There could be any number of problems with your ignition. A good way to see if there’s a problem is to check what warning lights are on the car’s dashboard.
There may also be a problem with the “ON” position. This is the position that the key is in when your car is running normally. It may start normally but then stall almost as soon as you let go of the key. If this is the case, there may be a problem here.
The starter motor engages with the flywheel, causing it to turn. When the flywheel is spinning, it makes the pistons in the engine begin to go up and down. This helps to start the engine.
Usually, when you put the key in the ignition, you’ll find a circuit that goes from the ignition switch to the starter motor, along with another one from the battery. This causes the starter motor to engage its pinion and begin to spin.
If there is no problem with either your battery or your ignition, the problem could be a faulty starter motor. These are possible to change by yourself and are often relatively simple to do – if a little fiddly.
To make sure that the starter motor is the problem, you may want to get a testing kit, as mentioned in the “Dead Battery” section.
Make sure your battery is disconnected and that the key isn’t in the ignition before doing this – you don’t want to get shocked. Locate the starter motor and disconnect the nuts and bolts holding the wires in place and the motor itself. You should then be able to take it out and replace it with a new one.
Attach the motor and the wires in the same way as you took them off, making sure not to make it short by having any part of the metal wire touching a piece of metal it shouldn’t. You’ll know if there’s a short because when you connect the battery, it’ll spark slightly with the terminal and feel like it’s “sticking.” Be very careful when this has happened – immediately get the terminals away from the wires and fix the short as safely and as quickly as you can.
Starter motors should be available for most cars from most parts stores. Make sure you get the right one for your car.
If there’s something wrong with your starter, you’ll probably hear a bad grinding noise when the engine is running. Turn off the engine immediately, because there is a risk of your flywheel being damaged – this risk increases the longer the engine is on. You might also not hear anything at all happen when you turn the key.
A Problem Somewhere in the Fuel System
Fuel – gasoline in most cars – is required for all internal combustion engines. If no fuel (or only a tiny amount) is getting into the engine, it will neither start nor run.
This problem could be due to:
- A faulty fuel pump – if this is the case, it will need to be changed.
- A faulty, cut, or blocked fuel line – this will need to be inspected by a professional. Fuel lines transport the fuel from the fuel tank to the engine, so it shouldn’t be unnecessarily fiddled with.
- A clogged-up fuel filter – the fuel filter should be changed relatively often, although not as often as an oil filter. It keeps particulates in the fuel from entering your engine and, like all filters that do a good job, over time, will eventually become clogged.
- Faulty fuel injectors – the fuel injectors are responsible for pumping the fuel into their respective cylinder at the correct time during your engine’s 4-stroke cycle. If they aren’t working, no fuel will be getting into your engine, so it won’t start. If none of the fuel injectors are working, this is far more likely to be an electrical issue in the wiring than a mechanical one.
- An empty fuel tank – forgive us for putting this one on the list, but it happens to the best of us. Forgetting to fill up with fuel will mean that your car won’t start. If this may have happened, get a small jerry can of fuel and pour it into your tank to see if that will help it to start.
If the problem is somewhere in the fuel system, you’ll probably hear the engine trying to turn over, but not quite start. Don’t force it. You might also get the engine to start, just – but it will either run on very low revs or stall immediately. The car would be dangerous to drive in this situation. These symptoms are similar to if there are problems with the air intake system.
The ignition coils cause your spark plugs to, well, spark. They carry the charge from the distributor (or timing wheels, or another method, depending on the age of your car) to the spark plugs at the correct time.
If these aren’t working, there could be something wrong in this field – it’s more likely than not to be an electrical problem.
Some cars have what looks like all the ignition coils joined together in one pack. Some cars have individual “pencil” ignition coils.
Key is No Longer Recognised By the Car’s ECU
All modern keys come with batteries in them. The key emits a signal that your car’s ECU (Electronic Control Unit) recognizes. When your car recognizes this signal, it starts.
If it can’t detect it, an immobilizer will prevent your car from starting. The purpose of this system is to make sure that someone can’t make a hard copy of your key and use that to steal your car.
If, when you put the key in the ignition, a light showing a key comes up on your dashboard, this is the source of your problem.
You will need to get the key reprogrammed to match your car’s ECU. Some car mechanics will be able to do this, but you are more likely to need to take it to a key specialist to get this fixed.
Air Intake System
As well as fuel, your car requires oxygen. It sucks this in from the front of the car (usually). From here, the air is filtered (through what is nicely titled an “air filter”) and injected into the engine. Oxygen is required for the combustion reactions which occur in the engine and give it its power.
If no air is getting into the engine, it may struggle to start.
Potential causes of this could be:
- A clogged-up air filter – air filters are generally reasonably simple to remove and inspect, and if necessary, replace. They should also be reasonably cheap. Look into your owner’s manual to find where the air filter is kept in your engine bay. From here, you should be able to inspect it. If it’s clogged up (or has been put in wrongly), you should get a new one from a parts store.
- A big cut in an intake pipe – it would have to be quite a serious one to cause the engine not to start, but it’s always possible. Check all the air intake pipes to see if they have any serious cuts in them. If you find any, tape them up (for now) and try starting the car. You will have to get some new pipes as soon as possible in this situation.
- A faulty throttle body – when you press the gas pedal, the throttle body opens a little flap to allow more or less air in, depending on how much you press the pedal. If the car starts but is revving at a much lower rate than usual, you should look into this. Often, simply cleaning it can fix the problem. Sometimes, you might need a new one, or to get the electrical cables leading to it looked at more closely by a professional.
Your car will produce similar symptoms in this situation to problems with the fuel system. These include struggling to start, not starting at all (but turning over when the key is in the “START” position), and stalling when the engine is idling.
Unfortunately, if jumpstarting or topping up with gas doesn’t work, most of these problems aren’t going to be fixed in 10 minutes. You’ll need to call a mechanic out or get the car looked soon. If you’re in a rush, it’s best to get a lift with someone else or catch some kind of transport for now.
If your car doesn’t start, the problem could lie almost anywhere in your car. We have gone through some of the most common things that could be wrong, but if you’re stuck, it’s definitely worth calling out a car mechanic, who will be able to diagnose what’s wrong more efficiently. If you’re really stuck, it might be necessary to get the car towed to a garage to be worked on.
When trying to work on some of these repairs by yourself, take extra care. This especially applies to work with electrical systems. Make sure not to shock yourself. The charges sent around a car’s system can be extremely high, and you can risk doing yourself some serious damage. Always make sure that the battery system is completely isolated.
We hope you’ve found this article interesting and useful – and we hope you don’t find yourself in this situation any time soon!