Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Nick LaPrell from Familyautoguide.com who is doing a series of posts for Godly Gentleman on the basics of vehicle maintenance.
Here is a scenario that has played out in virtually all men’s lives: You’re running late for work, you get into the car, turn the key… And nothing happens. Or even worse, you get out of a movie with your date, ready to go for coffee, you turn the key and. ErrrRRrrrRrrrRrrrrrr. You can’t just call AAA, you have to at least pop the hood and move a few things around. But it is all so foreign (figuratively AND literally). Maybe tighten a wire? There are so many. Perhaps you can check the oil, get a little grease on your hands, and convince your girl that you tried all of the reasonable options before breaking down and calling a tow truck.
Sometimes hiring a mechanic is going to be unavoidable. Other times, hiring a mechanic means paying for a tow, diagnostic, labor, and overpriced parts for a job that might have taken as little as 5 minutes. Knowing how to assess the problem yourself might not keep your car out of the shop, but it will keep you from being taken advantage of or over paying for simple work.
One of the more common car problems is a failure for the engine to start. There are probably near a hundred reasons a vehicle won’t start, but only a handful are common, so we’ll focus on those. As with any car trouble, see if there is an engine code first. If the check engine light is on, rent an ODBII diagnostic device from your local parts store and run a Google search on the make and model of your vehicle along with any codes it throws. This can save a great deal of time troubleshooting the issue and bring up some good articles on the Internet about how to proceed. If you are a techno geek, you can get a cheap blue tooth adapter that connects to your OBDII port and lets your Android or iPhone device read and clear trouble codes (yes, this is on my shopping list).
If there is no code, or you are unable to check for it, there are several other things you can check manually. Be sure to pick up a repair manual for your vehicle from the local shop. They run about $25 and are well worth it. This will come in handy for specific test procedures and component locations. All cars have three key systems to get the engine going. Each system should be tested in order:
The starting circuitry of your car may be advanced, but thankfully, it is a rare occasion that faulty wires keep your car from starting. A failure of the starting system typically manifests as nothing happening when you turn the key, or often a clicking sound. First most common cause is a dead battery. Did you leave your lights on? Is the battery more than three years old (two years out here in the Arizona heat)?
The first thing to try in this scenario is to jump start the car. Always keep a set of jumper cables with you for a quick resolution, or use a jump start kit if you have 20 – 30 minutes to wait. Follow the instructions included with either and try to start your car.
If this fails, the fix will not be quick, but may still be easy. Disconnect the battery and bring it in to an automotive shop for testing. If it is dead, but still holds a charge after re-charging, your alternator may be bad. If the car starts again with the new charged battery, drive the vehicle into the automotive store and have them test the charging system (this is usually free). If the car still does not start, the most likely cause is the starter or starter solenoid (they usually come together as a single unit). This can be removed and also tested for free before you commit to buying a new one.
The next think the engine needs to run is a spark to ignite the fuel vapors. The quickest way to test this is by removing the closest spark plug, plug it into the wire, touch the plug to the engine block, and have someone try to start the car. If you see a nice bright blue spark, the system is fine. If not, remove the spark plug from the wire, hold the wire about ｼ inch from the engine block and try to start it. If you now see a spark, the spark plugs are worn or dirty and need to be cleaned or replaced.
If you still get no spark, you will need to work your way down the system. Open up the distributor cap (usually just a couple of screws or clamps) right where all of the spark plug wires connect. If there is any moisture, dry it out (and buy a new distributor cap). If all looks well, the next suspect is the ignition coil. This can be tested with a cheap ohmmeter as indicated in your repair manual and is easier than it sounds.
Fuel The final component to make the engine go is fuel. Relieve any fuel pressure as instructed in your repair manual and connect a fuel pressure gage (about $30 at the parts store) where the fuel line goes into the engine. This will usually be a thick line that comes from under the car and not the lighter weight hose that comes out of engine at the fuel rail and into other parts (this is the fuel vapor line). When you turn the key into the accessory position, the fuel should pressurize and register on the gage. Attempt to start the engine. The gage should register anywhere between 30 and 50 psi. If not, fuel is not making it into the engine. An alternative method is to pull the fuel hose and place it in a jar while someone attempts to start the car for about 1 second. This is risky as the fuel should come out pretty fast. Use caution and eye protection and be sure to have a proper fire extinguisher handy if you try it.
At this point, you want to hope it is a much cheaper electrical problem. Open up the fuse/relay box (usually near the battery). The relays should be labeled. You are most interested in the one marked as the fuel pump relay and the ASD (automatic Shut Down). If either of these are bad, you will get no fuel pressure. You can test them with an ohmmeter as instructed in your manual. If you have other relays with the same serial number on them, try swapping them out. (For example, if you know the horn is working and it has the same number, switch it with the ADS and/or fuel pump relay and see if the car starts).
If fuel is still not making it to the engine, either the fuel filter is clogged, or the fuel pump is not working right. The fuel filter is MUCH cheaper than the pump, but both are equally difficult to reach in most new vehicles, requiring the gas tank to be lowered or removed. If you feel up to it, try the fuel filter first (about $10 – $30) and the fuel pump next (around $250). Always replace the fuel filter when replacing the fuel pump. For my 99 Dodge minivan, it took about 3 hours on my own. Getting the gas tank back is a lot easier if you have help. You should also drain the tank first with a siphon from an automotive shop (for the purposes of this article, a tube and your mouth are NOT considered a siphon).
Hopefully your diagnosis was done several paragraphs back, but if not, now is the time to call in a mechanic. There are several other less common problems that can cause the engine not to start, and a mechanic will be better able to figure it out quickly. If you need to have your vehicle towed, check your local shops for discounts that you may get for having them do the repair work. If you don’t have a mechanic, ask for referrals from friends.
Remember that your time is valuable too. Some repairs become cost ineffective when you factor in the amount of time you are spending doing the diagnosis and work. You can save a great deal of money doing your own work, but some jobs are best left to the professionals.