Car starters are powerful electric motors that crank your engine when you switch the key to the on position to start your car. This system features the motor with an attached solenoid. The solenoid's job is to take the battery's power and make sure it gets to the starter motor. Additionally, it pushes the starter gear forward, and this makes the gear mesh with the flywheel's gear teeth in the engine.
Starters do wear out or fail over time. However, they usually have several warning signs that they're on the way out, and mechanics may ask you about them if you take your vehicle into an auto repair shop. Your answers will help them diagnose the problem. We're going to explain the biggest red flags that your starter is going bad below.
Nine Signs of a Failing Starter
Usually, there are a few warning signs that your starter is going to fail before it actually does. The better understanding you have of these problems, the easier it'll be to outline them to your mechanics when they ask you about the car's history. The biggest signs are:
Your Vehicle Labors to Crank or Cranks Slowly
Labored or slow cranking when you start your vehicle is usually the first sign that you have something going on with your starter. These symptoms could point toward a starter motor problem, or it could mean something else in your system. If you have a mechanic check it right away, you can negate the amount of damage.
Your Vehicle Refuses to Start
You push the start button or turn the key, and your engine refuses to crank. You could hear a clanking or clicking noise each time you turn the key, or you could hear nothing at all. If this happens, you most likely have a problem with the key part of your starter system. Your problem could be in the electrical system, solenoid, or the starter motor itself. You'll want to fix this as soon as possible, but it may require a tow to your local auto repair shop.
Your Car Starts Intermittently
Having a starter problem that only happens intermittently can be a frustrating and anxiety-inducing event. This also makes it trickier to fix. Dirty or loose wiring could be behind your problem. An electrical component like a damaged relay could cause it to fail and work under different conditions. Even if this only rarely happens, it's a good idea to take it in as soon as you can secure an appointment. It'll get worse eventually, and you don't want to end up stranded somewhere.
The Interior Lights Dim When You Attempt to Start Your Car
If your interior lights or the lights on your dashboard dim when you try to start your vehicle, a common cause is a short circuit somewhere in the internal wiring. When this short happens, your starter motor tries to draw extra power. In turn, this drains the other systems like your lights. Along with the dimming lights, you may notice a chugging sound. This can be a sign of bearing failure in the motor, and your vehicle needs attention right away.
You Hear a Grinding Noise When the Car Runs or Starts
Hearing a grinding sound when you turn the key is a good indication of a mechanical problem over an electrical problem. The gears that connect to your starter motor are usually the culprits. These gears may not engage like they're supposed to, or the gears wear down. The starter motor may have come loose from the mountings or have a problem internally. This problem can lead to more severe mechanical damage if you don't have someone look at it right away.
The Engine Whines or Whirs Without Cranking
When your engine won't crank, and you hear a whining or whirring sound, this is commonly known as freewheeling. The starter motor isn't engaging your vehicle's flywheel, and the flywheel is spinning by itself. This happens when there is an issue with the mechanism that disengages and engages your starter.
The Starter Keeps Running After You Start the Engine
When your engine fires up, you remove your finger from the start button or release your key from the start position. The motor should switch off when you do this. If it keeps going, it'll sound like it's still trying to start your car. This problem usually indicates that you have a major problem somewhere in your system's electrical circuitry, and it can lead to significant damage to other areas if you don't fix it.
You Smell Something Burning or See Smoke
Your starter system has mechanical and electrical components. Because of this makeup, any problems usually involve the electrical system combined with the overheated metal components. These components typically have layers of grease on them. When this happens, you may see smoke and smell the electrical system or oil burning off.
Starter System Gets Covered in Oil
You can find your starter system near the bottom of your engine. This portion of your vehicle is very hot, and it's not uncommon for engine oil to leak down onto your starter system. If this keeps happening, it can drastically shorten the life of your starter.
What Happens if You Don't Repair A Failing Starter?
There are several things that could happen if you don't take the time to have someone repair or replace your failing starter. The biggest possibilities include but are not limited to:
- Electrical system damage
- Dim lighting
- Damage to your transmission or engine
- Battery drainage
- Vehicle refuses to start
Along with damaging your other systems and leading to more expensive repairs, starter failure can leave you stranded. The last thing you want is to end up in the middle of nowhere with a car that won't turn over and no way to get it to a garage. Therefore it's essential you take steps early on to correct the problem and have professional help.
What to do With Starter Issues
The first thing you want to do is get your car to a mechanic for them to diagnose it and rule out charging systems or battery causes. If your battery has a low charge, it can mimic a lot of these symptoms. If your mechanic notices an oil leak from your engine, they'll have to correct this first before moving onto other repairs.
The root cause of your problems will most likely be your starter motor, starter relay, or solenoid. Each of these systems has relatively straightforward repairs, and your vehicle should run find once they replace or repair any defective components.
Your mechanics could recommend repairing a single component or part of your starter, or they could recommend a whole new system. The cost will depend on the parts and how difficult it is to get to your starter to switch it out. Your auto repair shop should be able to give you an estimate before they begin the repairs.
Whatever you do, don't wait for it to fail. Get your vehicle in as soon as possible to minimize the damage and get your car running in peak performance once again.