How Do You Troubleshoot a Car That Won’t Start

August 17, 2021

Fancy this: you parked your car in the parking lot. It was all good. But on going back to it to drive away, your car won’t start when you turn the key. You try again and again. Nothing. It can be so frustrating.

If you are a beginner who recently learned driving, you are likely to call for a tow immediately to take your car to the nearest mechanic.

Sadly and unfortunately, you are likely to be ripped off by a scrupulous mechanic if you have no idea what could be wrong with your car. Letting the mechanic find the problem will cost you more; he might multiply the problems or suggest unnecessary replacements, even if the problem was just a dead battery that needed a jumpstart. That is why it helps to find out (troubleshoot) what the problem could be before handing the car over to a mechanic.

While some car problems require the attention of a professional, there are some you can easily repair if you have tools in your car trunk. Through troubleshooting, you might be surprised it was a minor problem you can fix yourself without involving a mechanic.

Troubleshooting helps you to narrow down the possible problems the car could be having, even if you do not have any tools in your trunk. Hence, do not confuse troubleshooting your car with repairing it.

So, how do you troubleshoot a car that won’t start to be able to find out what the problem is?

1. Turn on the Headlights

The simple act of turning on your headlights when the car won’t start can help lead you to the real problem. If the headlights can turn on, it means the battery is not the problem; headlights depend on the battery. A dead battery is a usual suspect whenever a car refuses to start, so it is best to start with it.

If the headlights are functional but the engine cannot work when you turn the key, the problem could be with the ignition switch. However, if the headlights won’t turn on, you better try jump starting your battery.

Wait: before you even jumpstart the battery, you should check the battery terminal cable connections to see if they are corroded. If they are, you can dislodge the corrosion using a screwdriver (ensure it has a wooden/insulated handle). You can then try to start the engine.

2. Check the Fuel Supply

Believe it or not, but you can waste much of your time wondering why the car won’t start when the problem is right before your eyes: it has run out of fuel. This is especially possible when the car cranks over but is never starting. Do not always assume the remaining gas supply is enough to get you to your next destination.

Again, there could be a disconnection between the gas tank and the engine; it may be a clog or something. You may not be able to fix it, but at least you will have known it is the problem when you troubleshoot.

If there is fuel in the tank, but it seems there is a problem with the fuel tank motor, kick the bottom of the fuel tank 2-4 times, then try starting the car again. It can also be that the fuel filter is so clogged that the fuel cannot get to the engine. You should be changing your fuel filters every 15000-20000 kilometers to avoid this kind of problem.

How Would You Tell The Problem Is In The Fuel Pump Relay System?

First, turn off the radio, then turn the key. Listen keenly. You may hear a brief buzzing sound. That should be the fuel pump priming the injection system. It means the fuel pump relay is not the problem.

However, if there is a sound, the pump or the fuel pump relay is bad.

How Do You Locate The Fuel Relay Pump In Your Car?

You should use your owner’s manual to locate the fuel relay pump in your car.

3. Check Your Carburetor

You should check your carburetor adjustment if your car engine starts then dies. It is that easy. But what could be the problem with the carburetor when your car engine starts then stops almost immediately? The carburetor blends air-fuel ratio. This blending is very sensitive and, at times, may lead to a failed start if the engine is cold or due to other issues.

However, the problem may not be there if the engine is warm when you start the car. Fortunately, some new car models no longer have carburetors, so this may not be a problem for you.

4. Check the Distributor Cap

You should also check inside the distributor cap because of the dampness in it. On rainy days, moisture getting in the distributor cap can be the trouble. If indeed there is moisture there, turn the distributor cap over and pour some solvent into it to evaporate the dampness.

After that, dry the cap and clean it with a dry, clean rag. Ensure the solvent you use is clean and pure; impurities can spoil the points. Do not use gasoline because only a spark is enough to ignite gasoline fumes, which can end up causing a fire or explosion.

Anyway, after drying the part, start your car again to see if it functions.

5. Try ‘Neutral’

At times your car may have problems with automatic transmissions. Consequently, it won’t start in “Park”. Instead, it starts in “Neutral”, thanks to a problem with a neutral safety switch. Hence, put your foot on the brake, push the shift lever to the ‘N’, and start the engine.

Should it fails to start, move the lever back to ‘P’ and retry. Turning the shift lever has sometimes corrected the electrical mishap in the neutral safety switch.

Wrapping It Up

As you can see, there are things you can do on your own without outside help to troubleshoot a car that won’t start. Actually, this doesn’t apply to cars alone. Before you call a repairer, you need to try troubleshooting other devices like your home generator, fridge, fan, etc. But take care; do not risk your safety in the name of troubleshooting.

Would you want to learn how to drive a car? You should join us at Pierre Paul Driving School. We have experienced, jovial, DMV-approved instructors to take you through the driving course as you prepare for the road test.