It can happen to anyone. You put your key in the ignition, turn it, and nothing happens. Your vehicle’s engine won’t turn over. Interior lights still come on when a door’s ajar, so you know your battery is fully charged. It might be a problem with the alternator but chances are it’s the starter. Without a working starter, you won’t be able to fire-up your car.
Now you have to purchase a new starter and you’re wondering how much it’s going to cost. However, before you rush out to buy a starter there are a few things you should know about the component.
What is a Starter?
Without a starter, your vehicle’s engine won’t turn over. It’s an electric motor that is powerful enough to get the engine running. There are two parts to a starter, the electric motor, and solenoid. The solenoid is attached to the motor and uses power from the car’s battery, which is sent to the motor. The power from the solenoid is also used to move the starter gear so it meshes with the teeth on the engine flywheel.
It does require a lot of power to start an engine, even one with standard horsepower. One of the most common reasons a starter fails is due to low battery power. Over time starters do wear out but before you spend the money on a new one, along with checking battery power there are a few other things that can cause the component to fail.
Is it the Starter?
If the starter isn’t turning over the engine there are a few things you’ll want to check before calling for a tow to the local repair shop.
Low or dead battery
The first thing you want to check is the battery. If you left car lights on or even a device charging overnight, the battery could be drained. Battery connections could be loose interrupting power flow.
Corrosion on the terminals can also disrupt power. If charging the battery, tightening connections, and cleaning battery terminals still doesn’t get the starter working it is probably time for a new one.
Have to jiggle the key in the ignition to start the engine
Sometimes the vehicle won’t start until you jiggle the key in the ignition. Even when the ignition is in the “on” position the engine doesn’t start. When this happens it doesn’t always mean your starter is bad. Commonly, it’s caused by worn out contact points in the ignition switch.
While replacing an ignition switch will cost in parts and possibly labor, it’s usually less expensive than replacing the starter.
Vehicle only starts in “neutral”
You might just be happy that your car starts and not be too concerned about what gear it’s in. However, if you always have to place the vehicle in neutral to get the engine to start there is a problem that will only get worse.
It’s not the starter that’s starting to fail, instead, it’s a problem with the “neutral safety switch”. This safety switch prevents the vehicle from starting in gears other than “park and neutral”. When the “park” position fails it indicates that the switch is going bad and needs to be replaced.
Lights dim when the engine turns over
Do the lights dim when the engine is started? If so it can indicate a low battery. If the battery is fully charged, the next step is to look at the control circuit on the starter. From there, check the wires and relay on the starter. The problem could also be with the neutral safety or ignition switch.
How to Know if the Starter is Bad
Before the vehicle’s starter system fails there are often some warning signs. If you know what to look for, you can replace the starter before you can’t turn over your vehicle’s engine.
- Hear strange sounds
An odd ‘clicking’ noise when you turn the engine over is one of the most common indicators your starter is beginning to fail. It can also make grinding or whirring noises that are almost impossible to ignore.
- Lights turn on but not the engine
If you have lights when the ignition is on but the engine isn’t running, your battery is fine. However, your starter needs to be replaced.
- Even a jump start won’t turn the engine over
When jumpstarts – or in the case of standard transmissions, a rolling start – won’t get the engine running there’s only one thing to do. You’ll need to get a tow to the closest auto repair shop. Only a new starter will get the vehicle running again.
- Smoke is coming from the engine
It’s never a good sign if smoke starts billowing out from underneath the hood. The starter can have blown fuses and circuits that have shorted out. When this happens the starter often overheats resulting in smoke. Anytime you have smoke from an engine it’s best to let a certified mechanic look under the hood.
- Oil leaked onto the starter
The starter is typically on the driver’s side of the engine and oil can leak on it. When this happens it can ruin the starter system, but it can also indicate another problem. If oil is leaking from the engine it should be checked when the starter is replaced.
How Much Does a Starter Cost?
If you’ve ruled out everything but the starter as the reason your vehicle’s engine isn’t turning over, it’s time to start looking for a new one. Prices will vary, and it’s always advisable to shop around, unless you already have a trusted mechanic.
The cost to replace a starter will also depend on whether you’re having it installed at the shop or are planning on making it a DIY home garage project. It will be less expensive if you only pay for the parts but if you’re not an experienced mechanic you’ll want to add labor to the bill.
Starters do go bad over time and other issues can cause them to fail. However, before you presume it’s a bad starter you’ll want to check a few other things.
If you do need to replace the vehicle’s starter system you will want to go to a reputable and certified mechanic.