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10 Reasons Why Your Car Won’t Start

Some of the ideas might surprise you.

Published October 10, 2018

You drag yourself out of bed in the morning and manage to get that first cup of coffee down the hatch. After convincing yourself that you must go to work, you step out into the driveway semi-hopeful that the caffeine will start to kick in. As you hop behind the wheel of your car, you can’t get it to start. What should you do now? While there are numerous reasons your car won’t start, we’ve got the top 10 options for you to consider.

#1. Dead Battery

The number one reason that a car won’t start is related to a dead battery. Louise from WhoCanFixMyCar.com says, “Your battery will die if you leave your lights on overnight or if the alternator has broken in your car (This is the part which charges the battery from the engine). You can always try to jump-start your car but unless you have a secondary vehicle and know what you are doing, this may prove difficult.”

You know it’s a battery when the groaning, slow RRR-RRR sound comes from under the hood. As the voltage continues to drop, there will be no more sound coming out. Another telltale sign is when your instrument panel dims every time the key turns.

While you could try to use the best car battery charger to get you back on the road, you want to find the reason for it dying in the first place. Otherwise, you might have to deal with this again. One possible cause is the alternator, which we’ll deal with in a minute.

dead car batteryOther times it’s just because your battery is old and worn out. In fact, a spokesperson from Nationwide Cars told us, “When it’s cold, engine oil can often become thicker meaning it doesn’t flow around the engine as well as it would on a normal day. This inevitably can cause additional strain on the battery, particularly if the battery is already on low power. This is one of the common reasons why your car may not start in the morning, especially around the colder months such as November, December and January.”

Of course, if you’ve left your lights on overnight, that’s probably the reason your battery is drained. Make sure you give it a full charge and turn off the lights next time.

#2. Alternator

Your battery might die because your alternator is giving out. When the alternator doesn’t work properly, your battery won’t get the charge it needs. Even if you suspect the alternator, don’t neglect to look at the accessory drive belt. It might just be worn out or slipping.

battery light on dashboardNormally, when the belt breaks or your alternator fails, you receive a warning light. If the charging system is merely poor, it’s possible that there won’t be a light to alert you. A simple check would be to look at your instrument panel where the gauge is located. Typically, you want it to be around 14 volts.

Even if you have a perfectly good alternator, it’s possible that it won’t charge your car battery during a short trip. This is especially true if you have the wipers, heated seats, rear window defroster, radio, heater, and headlights all running at the same time.

While most people need to switch out the battery every five to seven years, it’s possible to never need a new alternator. According to Pep Boys, here are some signs that your alternator or accessory belt might be going bad:

  • Headlights begin pulsating
  • Quits working if charging an overloaded battery
  • Electrical burning smell
  • Alternator warning light comes on the dashboard
  • Car radio, or other electronic component, stops working intermittently
  • Squealing noise coming from the engine

#3. Starter

testing starter motorWhen your car won’t start, it’s possible that it’s also an issue with the starter. Your starter is basically a small motor that’s powered by your battery. Its sole purpose is to start your engine. Sometimes, a bad starter appears like there’s an issue with the battery. That’s because it makes a GRR noise, which sounds a lot like a dead battery would.

You might also hear a clicking noise when you attempt to turn the key. To fix this problem, there’s not much you can do other than replace the starter.

You might hear a nasty grinding sound that reminds you of shifting with a bad clutch. If this occurs, it’s actually damaged teeth in either the starter drive gear or your engine’s flywheel. On top of that, if the starter doesn’t turn at all, it might just be a solenoid or relay that’s causing the problem. It’s even possible that the ignition switch could be to blame.

#4. Fuel pump

Even if you see plenty of fuel in your tank, a weak fuel pump or failing pump might be the problem. When there’s trouble with your fuel pump, the gasoline has a harder time reaching the engine and creating power.

Often, you’ll be able to hear the in-tank pump running after you first turn the key “on.” Wait for a few seconds before cranking the starter and listen to it run.

This pump runs all the time your engine does, even if it’s only idling. That means it clocked more mileage than what your odometer shows because that only measures tire rotation.

test fuel pumpAs the output on a fuel pump diminishes, it won’t supply enough pressure and volume to keep your engine happy. Here are some signs it’s time to replace the fuel pump:

  • The engine begins to sputter at high speeds
  • Car stalls because the engine doesn’t receive enough fuel
  • Power loss while hauling cargo or heading uphill
  • Lowered gas mileage
  • Surging forward spontaneously
  • Car won’t start at all

#5. Frozen Fuel Line

This doesn’t happen as frequently since ethanol is blended into the fuel, but it’s still possible. To prevent any issue, you could also use a can of Iso-Heet in your fuel tank. It’s like a secret tonic to keep the lines running smoothly. During cold weather, you’ll want to also keep your tank half-full at the minimum to avoid getting any water inside.

Moisture in the air may condense in your fuel tank when the temperature changes. When this happens, liquid water settles to the bottom of your tank.

Some common symptoms include:

  • Engine turns but doesn’t start
  • Sputtering
  • Stalling or stopping after running

The best solution is to get the car into a garage and allow it to warm up for a little. If this isn’t possible, try draping a blanket over your engine and hang a drop light on the hood. Even if you can get the fuel line to thaw slightly, you’ll be in better shape.

#6. Ran out of Fuel

out of gasThis might seem like a no-brainer, but most people don’t consider the idea. Let’s say you were in a hurry to get to work and the fuel light was on. You figure you’ll just fill up after work and park on a hill. When you come out afterward, the car won’t start. You don’t immediately assume it’s a fuel issue, but you should.

The small amount of fuel you had probably drained away from your fuel pump, so it can’t be delivered to the engine. There are also times that the fuel gauges in the tank fail which leads to issues as well.

#7. Spark Plugs

Ignition problems aren’t as common as they once were, but it’s still possible for bad spark plugs to prevent the car from starting. Many people neglect their spark plugs, especially if they don’t need to be replaced more than every 100,000 miles.

Spark plugs transmit electrical signals from your car’s ignition coil at predetermined times. This sends a spark which ignited the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber. Each vehicle has their own set of spark plugs made from a particular material and with a designated gap. Good spark plugs burn the fuel efficiently while failing plugs might prevent your car from starting at all.

If you notice any of these symptoms, you might want to try replacing your spark plugs:

  • Slow acceleration
  • Poor fuel economy
  • Misfiring engine
  • Difficulty starting the car

#8. Keb Fob Battery is Dead

Keb Fob Battery is DeadIf your vehicle requires a key fob in your pocket to start, then you’re relying on that battery to transmit the signal to your car. If this battery dies, your vehicle isn’t going to recognize you and the car won’t start.

Here are some signs the key fob is dying:

  • Reduced signal strength
  • Multiple clicks required to unlock the doors
  • Doesn’t work consistently

If you think it might be the key fob, it won’t hurt to change the batteries and test it out again. Hopefully, this is all that’s wrong.

#9. Fuses

auto fuse boxIf you’ve been through many of the other issues, and everything checks out good, the trouble might lie in the fuses instead. Let’s say you’ve just put the battery in, but now you can’t seem to get the car to start, it’s possible that there’s only a blown fuse somewhere. This would prevent power from reaching the solenoid or starter relay.

To test this out, you want to check all your fuses to see which ones are blown. Then, check for power at the starter motor and relay as well. Replace any fuses if possible and see if that fixes the problem.

#10. Cold Weather Concerns

There’s nothing worse than being stuck in cold weather when your car won’t start. Aside from the obvious issues, there are some additional things to consider in colder weather. First, there could be moisture inside your distributor cap (on an older car) or other electrical connections.

Start by checking for any dampness. If you find the slightest bit of water inside, you’ll want to wipe out the connections and cap with a dry, clean cloth. You might even find that there are cracks that conceal the moisture in these situations. If that’s the case, you’ll need to replace a connector or distributor cap.

It’s also possible that your engine is overheating, which causes it to have trouble starting again. If you have a leaky radiator or cracked hose, this is something to consider. Check these things yourself if you know how to, but don’t touch the radiator after the car’s been running.

Steps to Take When Your Car Won’t Start

charging batteryBefore you begin panicking, consider taking a deep breath and walking through some troubleshooting steps to find out why the car won’t start. Start with your battery. You want to check that the connections are tight. In addition, if you only drive short distances, you might want to invest in a trickle charger as your battery probably doesn’t get the charging it needs to remain in tip-top shape.

Your next step would be to ensure you have enough fuel in the system. If you were running low when you parked the car, it’s very possible that you don’t have enough to get started again. This is especially true in cold weather because it requires more gasoline to get the engine running when it’s cold out.

Next, you’ll want to check the oil level of your car. If the oil levels are low, the engine might struggle to turn over. That’s why maintenance is essential to the life of your vehicle. By regularly changing and checking the fluids, you ensure things like this don’t happen as often.

If you think it might be the starter motor, you might be able to get it going. Simply put your vehicle in gear (keep the ignition off) and gently rock the car around to workaround the neutral safety switch. Then, try to start it up again.

If you aren’t comfortable jump-starting your car or working on it, then don’t. You can harm yourself and your vehicle more in the process if you aren’t educated. Instead, call for roadside assistance or have the local shop tow it for you. It’s too easy to cause damage when a car won’t start, and it’s simply not worth it.

Final Words

The bottom line is that are many reasons why a car won’t start and it’s hard to tell you what’s going on in an article. Once you’ve checked the obvious reasons like a battery, starter, or lack of fuel, you have to begin more advanced diagnostics. This includes testing fuses, listening for the fuel pump, and troubleshooting frozen fuel lines.

Many of these issues aren’t something that an everyday person feels comfortable doing and that’s okay. If you know someone mechanically inclined, you could always have them look at it and give you an opinion. When in doubt, get it to your auto repair shop and let the professionals handle it. The last thing you want to do when your car won’t start is to create more problems. What might have been a simple fix could easily turn into more if you attempt to “tinker” with your car.

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Brian Jones
About Brian Jones

I am an ASE Certified Master Tech, but spend more time with my awesome family now than I do on cars. In my spare time, you'll still find me playing with tools, cars and many other "manly" gadgets.

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