Starter not engaging– information, causes and fixes

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Starter problem can be quite stressing for a motorist. Imagine waking up in the morning trying to rush to the office only to discover your car won’t start. Starter not engaging can cause you to be stranded in the middle of nowhere.

When you turn on the ignition a set of electrical circuits come to life. Your car battery can only supply enough power to the starter to run the car. It works in conjunction with the alternator to keep the car moving.

Cranking the car requires a lot of power and if your starter is not receiving enough then you will find it stuttering. Before, we look at possible symptoms for starter not engaging we need to first understand how a starter works.

How a starter works

At the basic level the starter is just an electrical motor. It is connected to your car ignition, which in turn connects to the flywheel and to the crankshaft. The moment you turn on the ignition, electromagnetic waves are activated and this pushes the pinion gear and rod.

The flywheel will turn next and an electrical current will be spent to the sparkplugs hence igniting the fuel/air mixture. Once you engine starts running the starter will be disengaged by taking the pinion gear out. The pinion gear will also not be connected to the flywheel hence protecting the starter from destruction as the engine operates.

The problem is when you turn on the starter and it stutters or takes several turns for it to work. Here are some several causes for starter not engaging.

Causes for starter not engaging

Battery with low voltage

The first thing to check when your starter is not working is to check the battery voltage. If the battery is low on voltage the starter won’t engage or it may take several turns for it to start.

When your battery is running low you will also have other lights on the dashboard flickering. You can use a device called a voltmeter to check the battery voltage.

First, set your voltmeter to a setting of 20V. Properly connect the right test cables with the one for the battery. Positive to positive and negative to negative. Ensure you have switched the car’s headlights and air-con off.

A good battery should have a reading of 12.6V anything lower than 12.4V means you need to recharge your battery. A good battery should last you around 4 years. If you have an old car with an old battery then starter not engaging is a common problem that will only be solved once you buy a new battery.

Corrosion on the battery terminals

The other problem with your battery could be corroded terminals. This evidenced by a whitish/bluish substance on the terminals. Terminal corrosion will prevent efficient flow of electrical current to the starter.

Battery terminal corrosion often happens to lead acid batteries. To solve the problem you will need baking soda and some warm water. Mix a tablespoon of baking soda and 8 ounces of water into a container. Once you have disconnected the battery terminals, use a soft brush to remove the corrosion as you pour baking soda.

You may hear a fizzling sound as you clean out the battery terminals. This is normal. Once done rinse the terminals with clean water and wait to dry before reconnecting the terminals. If you do not have baking soda you can use a soda like coke.

Faulty starter solenoid

If the battery is working fine your next step is to inspect the starter solenoid. This maybe a bit complicated so you may want to have it checked by your mechanic. The starter solenoid is the cylinder on top of the starter.

You will notice also cables connected to the solenoid. To check whether it is working begin by a disconnection of the thick wire that goes to the starter from the distribution cap. Alternatively, remove the fuel pump fuse; the essence of all this is to prevent accidentally starting the car.

To check the functioning of the starter solenoid you will need help from a friend to switch on the engine so that you can hear the response of the solenoid.

If it makes loud clicking sounds then it is working fine however, if you notice a faint sound then your solenoid is having problems. The solution could be simply checking the wires for lose connection to having a faulty motor.

Faulty Solenoid motor

If the wire connections are working fine then you need to dismantle the solenoid to inspect the motor. Most of the starters are located behind the intake manifold so you may need to remove this component to locate it.

Another problem with the starter not engaging could be that the starter mounting bolts are loose. If they are it can prevent the starter pinion gears from engaging the flywheel. The pinion gear is a wheel that is at the front of the starter that connects to the flywheel and in turn to the crank.

Damaged pinion gears could be a cause for starter not engaging. Replace them if they are worn out. If the pinion gears are okay, you need to know whether they are moving correctly. The pinion gears move in one direction, however, if you try rotating them with a screwdriver and they do not move or move in both directions then it is time you purchased a new starter.

Faulty Flywheel

If the starter is working well that is , there not lose wires, and the pinion gear is moving in the right direction, you may want to fix your next attention to the flywheel. You cannot miss the flywheel as it is large and located in between the transmission and the engine.

The pinion gears move the flywheel from the starter. The biggest problem with a faulty flywheel is broken or damaged teeth. To check whether the flywheel is operating optimally, you will need to move the crankshaft with a ratchet and watch as a pulley belt moves the alternator and steering pump. If you have damaged teeth the only solution is replacing them immediately.

All this inspections may be beyond the scope of many motorists. Your best option would be to physically remove the starter component and take it to a mechanic to see whether it is working.

It is perfectly normal for starters to age and the brushes to become worn out. This is characterized by noisy sounds from the starter. Mechanics have several ways of passing current to your starter and observing how it behaves. The repair costs will vary as you may find yourself being forced to replace your starter and flywheel.

Conclusion

The starter plays an important role in starting your car. When it is not engaging you may find yourself stranded in the middle of the road the moment you switch on your car.

Let’s not forget how embarrassing it can be having a stalled car during an evening party with friends. The first culprit when the starter is not engaging is the battery. If the battery is low on voltage then you are going to have less current being sent to the starter.

You may also want to clean out the battery terminals for corrosion. This is a simple procedure that involves baking soda, a brush, and some water. You can also use soda instead of baking soda.

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Steven Reilly
Steven Reilly is a qualified mechanic and his passion for cars goes beyond just the technical aspects. He is also an amateur racer and all round car enthusiast. When he is not driving them, he can often be found in his garage under the hood of a rare model. Steven Reilly has lost track of the number of hours he has spent setting up his fine collection of rebuilt models. He believes that cars can provide a constructive and fun opportunity to teach the youth important life skills. In line with this, he is developing a community outreach program, potentially dubbed ‘Cars for change'.

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