Basic no start checks
Before you throw in the towel and call AAA or your best friend that knows all about cars, take the time to do a few basic checks on your no start car. Who knows you may get it running, you will gain some insight on what's wrong at the very least. First we can break down the no start complaint into two categories. First is the engine that cranks normally and doesn’t start and then there is the turn the key and nothing happens no start. Lets start with the turn the key and nothing happens situation. When you turn the key and attempt to start the engine do all the dash lights come on for their normal bulb check? If not the battery may be completely dead or you have a bad connection at the battery. A good place to start looking is making sure there was nothing left on that would have drained the battery since you last used the car. Headlights left on, dome light on due to a door not closed all of the way, glove box light, anything obvious. Next give the battery cables a little twist to make sure they are tightly connected to the battery terminals. If they are loose tighten them up and give it another try. Still nothing? now it’s time to get an idea of what the battery voltage actually is. If you have a volt meter its time to break it out. A fully charged battery will have about 12.6 volts on a static no load test. If the voltage is low you may just want to charge the battery or jump start it at this point. No voltmeter available, try turning on the headlights and see if they illuminate at their normal brightness, if they do your battery probably has close to 12.6 volts. If they are dim its time to recharge or jump start. If your car starts now make sure the charging voltage is good. Once the jumper cables are removed or the battery charger is disconnected and the car is running you should have around 13.5-14 volts at idle. 12.6 or less would indicate your charging system is not functioning and the car is not going to stay running for long without it. The battery charge or jump still yielded a no start condition, you may have a starter or wiring problem. Don’t overlook the stupid things, like is the car in park or neutral, clutch pushed down all the way? Anything that will cause the neutral safety switch to prevent the engine from cranking. Don’t laugh, I have seen cars towed in for things like this on more than one occasion. Now lets take a look at the car that cranks normally, but will not fire up. All gas spark ignition engines need three basic things to run, fuel/air, ignition and compression. Start from the easiest position first, the driver’s seat. Turn the key to the on position and look and listen. You should hear the fuel pump prime for a few seconds and shut off. You should see the check engine light come on during the bulb check. Now crank the engine. Does the engine crank faster than normal? Your looking for clues to the problem here. If the engine cranks faster than normal you may have a compression problem. A broken timing belt will cause this. Can’t hear the fuel pump prime? could be an electrical problem to the pump or more commonly a failed pump. If you have a helper try banging on the bottom of the fuel tank as your helper cranks the engine. This will sometime bring a stuck electric fuel pump to life temporarily. Keep in mind this only works on in tank pumps. If it fires up, you need to replace the pump. If you don’t see the check engine light come on during cranking you may have a power problem to the computer. Now its time to get a little dirty if you want to keep going. If you can access a spark plug lead you can check for spark. Pull the lead off of a spark plug and hold the end of the lead to a good safe ground like the engine block. You want to have the metal part of the lead about a half inch from the ground. A good ignition system will jump this gap easily with a nice bright spark when your helper cranks the engine. Be careful that you are not a better ground than the one you chose or you will find out what 30 thousand volts feels like as it shoots through you, it wont kill you, but it will wake you up! If you have good spark and still no start you can add some fuel to the intake to see if it will fire on that. Again be careful here, you want to try and diagnose the problem, not burn the car and you to the ground. Pull off the duct going to the throttle. Spray a little carburetor cleaner in there, you may want to open the throttle a little so it gets into the intake. Give it a crank now, if it sputters to life you can be pretty sure it’s a fuel problem. Depending on the make and model of your car there can be many different causes of lost fuel or spark. I’m not trying to give the fix for the problem here, just some direction to narrow down the cause of your no start condition. Your mechanical ability and tools available will be the determining factor in how far you will take your diagnoses and when you will give AAA a call for the tow to the shop. Also never overlook the basics. Is there fuel in the tank? is there an alarm system installed that is killing the ignition? Sometimes a no start is a minor problem, give it a look before you send out that SOS, you may surprise yourself and get back on the road quickly and save a few bucks in the process.