Normally, when one desires to operate ones’ vehicle, he or she inserts a key into
the ignition switch (the keyhole) and rotates the key forward into the starting position.
The engine then turns over. An old car, you would step on the accelerator. A new
car, you don’t. When the engine starts, you release the key, letting it spring back
into the run position. The car is now able to be operated. Some cars now days you
just get in the car with the remote in your pocket and press the ‘start’ button.
This has changed though in the vehicles of the late 20th and 21st century. With
the advent of fuel injection, car alarms, computers, and security keys. The more
gadgets you have, the more that can go wrong. And things do go wrong.
First thing’s first. If you have a fuel injected engine (all cars from 1986 and
newer), do not step on the accelerator when starting the engine. The computer needs
to sense the amount of ambient oxygen in the air and the air temperature to inject
the optimum amount of fuel to start the engine. When you step on the throttle, you
disrupt this process and the car may not start, or worse, flood. If your car is
‘fly by wire’, stepping on the gas pedal won’t do anything, the computer has complete
control of the starting process.
A vehicle with electronic fuel injection should not flood under normal circumstances,
but it does happen. A flooded engine has too much fuel vapor in the fuel/air mixture
to be ignited by the spark plugs. A flooded engine will spit and sputter when you
turn it over, but not start. To cure this, push the gas pedal to the floor and hold
it while turning over the engine. The engine will spit and sputter, but it will
spit and sputter faster and faster until the excess fuel is cleared and the engine
fires. It may take a little time. Do not turn the starter for more than 15 seconds
at a time, it may overheat. Sometimes you may need to let the vehicle sit for a
little time for the fuel vapors to dissipate between tries. If the engine does not
start, or it turns over without spitting and sputtering, it may be other than just
flooded. When a flooded engine does finally start, a cloud of unburned fuel will
blow out the tail pipe. You may need to leave the car alone for a little while to
let the raw fuel condense or clear out.
In my experience, the only thing, besides human interference, that makes fuel injected
cars flood is extreme weather changes between uses. Changes in barometric pressure,
humidity, and temperature all effect how a vehicle starts and runs. Sometimes if
you start a cold engine then shut it off right away, it may be flooded when you try
to restart it soon after.
If you happen to have a car with a carburetor, it is an ancient, gas sucking, smog
puking, classic. And you are either a ‘collector’, just an ‘enthusiast’, or a little
old lady from Pasadena who only drives to the grocery store and church on Sundays
(these people do exist). You might be the old hippie, barely scratching by, but
your old VW Bug still starts every morning. All you people already know how to start
your car, because they all start differently. They are all relatively similar. But,
some take one squirt of gas, some take three, some take just a flick of the key.
If you have a vehicle with a diesel engine, you may have to warm the glow plugs
before starting. Modern diesel engines may not have glow plugs. Turn the ignition
to ‘on’, not all the way to start. Wait until the glow plug light (the little curly
cue) goes out, then start the engine. I have never encountered a flooded diesel,
but it may be possible.
We’ve discussed starting cars. We’ve talked about flooded engines. Now what about
a dead car? I mean no noise, no nothing.
OK. So you’ve inserted and turned the key. But nothing happens. The dash lights
up, the starter makes a clicking or grinding noise. The car may make no sounds at
all. You may have a dead battery. You may not. There are many things that keep
an engine from starting. When in this situation, start with the simple things first.
And so we start simple. . .
Step out of the car and close all doors. If you have a remote (fob) to unlock your
vehicle, press the lock button. Wait a moment, then press unlock. If the car doesn’t
respond to the remote, use your key to lock and unlock the drivers door. If your
battery is OK, the engine should start. If you have a remote to unlock your door,
you have a security system. If you have a modern vehicle equipped with power locks,
you probably have a security system. If you have a little red light on your dash,
you have a security system. If you let your battery go dead, your security system
will give you problems. Many people who’s cars I have serviced didn’t know they
had a security system, but were surprised when it showed up after the battery went
dead. I also find a lot of vehicles with two separate alarms on them that the owner
never knew about, or someone had lost the original fob.
If you own a BMW and (God help you) the battery is dead, you may not be able to unlock
the car with the remote or the key. HA, HA, HA, HA! . . . sorry. Go to the front
passenger door and insert the key in the lock. Turn the key to the locking position
(counter clockwise), then to the unlock position (clockwise). When the key stops
turning, lift the handle half way, and crank on the key like its going to snap off.
It will move. When it does, lift the handle, and open the door. You’re in, but
you still can’t open the hood. HA, HA, HA, HA! You’re fucked! Call a tow truck.
I have seen people unable to exit their Big Metal Weenie because of a dead battery,
so be careful.
If you own a BMW, consult your owners’ manual before doing anything. If you don’t
jump start your Bimmer correctly, you very likely will destroy your computer. And
computers cost a lot of money. Also, do not jump start other cars with your Big
Metal Weenie for the same reason.
So let’s open our hood and jumpstart our car. You have successfully opened the
hood. As you stare at the lump of metal and rubber in utter amazement, attempt to
locate the battery. The battery is the black, plastic rectangle with the lead poles
and big wires coming off it. Diesels may have two batteries, and thus, need twice
the power. The terminals are the lead posts on top of the battery. If you are the
unfortunate owner of a GM vehicle, your terminals may be on the side of the battery
and you may be just plain fucked (for reasons why, see engineering disasters). If
you cannot locate an obvious battery, it may be under a cover or buried under the
coolant or windshield washer bottle (seriously!). There may be a ‘jump post’ where
you may place your positive jumper cable when you need. This is a good alternative
to bad battery placement or piss poor battery design. The jump post is normally
covered by a red or black plastic cover with a plus (+). Some autos’ come with terminals
that look the same, so look for the plus or minus on the battery. It may be obvious,
but not always. Sometimes it is hidden in the fuse box.
All right . . . You still can’t find the battery? Oh, jees . . . Now we gotta’
go look in the trunk. The battery is normally on the right, tucked under a cover
of some kind. Lift the cover off to expose the battery.
It’s not in the trunk either? Right now, you should be asking yourself, “why?”
Look under the rear seat. The lower part of the seat is generally easy to remove.
Some may have a hard to find lever on one or both sides to release the seat.
If you have an electric or hybrid auto, do not attempt to access the main drive
batteries. You cannot do anything with these batteries to get the car started. There
is a reason these batteries are hard to get to. You may damage the car or yourself
if you mess with these batteries. On a Honda, the starting battery is under the
hood and is obvious. On a Prius, the starting battery is in the trunk, but a jump-post
is inside the fuse-box under a red cover.
If the battery is completely dead in your Prius, it may be difficult to start. If,
when jump-starting, the dash lights up, but the engine doesn’t start, push park,
toggle the shift lever through all the gears, push park, turn the start button off,
If you haven’t found the battery, I cannot help you. For all the rest, let’s get
your car started.
Before we jumpstart our battery, let’s inspect it. Look at the battery, that’s the
big black box with all the wires attached to it. Is it clean? Are all wires that
appear to originate at the battery properly attached? Are the caps properly fastened?
Does it appear ‘puffy’? Does it smell?
If you smell sulfur or rotten eggs, this is hydrogen sulfide gas. There will be
Hydrogen gas present also. HYDROGEN IS EXTREMELY EXPLOSIVE! DO NOT START YOUR CAR!
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO JUMP START YOUR CAR! And just because you don’t smell anything,
don’t get complacent, the battery still gives off hydrogen and oxygen on a normal
basis when charging.If you have the desire to be deaf, coated with sulfuric acid,
maybe seriously injured or dead, then go right ahead. It’s a lesson you only learn
once. Call a professional, preferably a tow truck. The tow truck driver should
know what to do. Always be careful when working around your battery. Hydrogen Sulfide
is also extremely toxic, and will turn into sulfuric acid when inhaled into your
moist lungs, potentially damaging them.
Your battery contains many toxic substances. Lead, sulfuric acid, and arsenic are
just some of the nasty stuff that makes your battery work. When servicing your battery,
I recommend wearing protective glasses and rubber gloves. A little common sense
goes a long way.
On the top or side of the battery are the terminals. The positive (+) and negative
(-) on opposing sides. The positive should have a cover, usually red or black.
Are they clean or are they green? Is there a disgusting white paste or blue, powdery
substance on the terminals? And most important, are the terminals tight? Do they
wiggle at all? Grab the terminal firmly and give it a twist. Beware! GM side post
terminals tend to break off and will spill sulfuric acid. Baking soda will neutralize
any spilled acid. Then rinse with water. This also works for any acid spilled on
you. Rinse any affected areas (you’ll know by the severe burning sensation) with
copious amounts of water. For severe burns, seek medical assistance immediately.
If your battery terminal breaks off, call a tow truck. You are dead in the water.
This is a normal occurrence with GM vehicles.
Battery terminals need maintenance, as well do batteries. Both are easy to maintain.
We’ll start with the green, blue, or white stuff on the terminals. This stuff are
all compounds formed when sulfuric acid from your battery bleeds out the minute cracks
in your battery and onto the terminals. The different colors are from the different
metals used in the terminals. Scrape that crap off with a screwdriver. Now comes
another miracle from our friend, baking soda. Take a cup. Put in a couple spoonfuls
of baking soda and mix with water to form a thin slurry. Pour the slurry onto the
corroded terminal. It will boil and bubble and change colors. Let that sit for
a minute, then, hose it off. Repeat until all corrosion is gone. Some scrubbing
may be necessary. Most terminals will shine after a few applications.
Now look at the terminals. Are they still tight now? Are they in one piece? Make
sure all nuts and bolts that may hold wires are tight. Check the wires for corrosion.
If the terminals cannot be tightened any more and are not broken, tap the top of
the post (they are lead) with a hammer to maul it. Do this gently. It can damage
the battery inside. A short nail between the post and terminal may be sufficient.
Bent pennies crammed in between the post and terminal work well too. These are
all temporary solutions until you are able to replace the terminal.
GM side-post terminals must be absolutely spotless and as tight as tight can be.
There are no quick fix solutions for these terminals. If they are even slightly
corroded, they will not conduct electricity. You can’t even replace these terminals.
They don’t give you enough cable to cut the old one off and replace it with a new
one. They may appear perfect, but are corroded under the cover. Do not connect
any accessories (stereos, alarms) directly to GM™ terminals. There should be a place
at the main fuse box that you can connect accessories to. A battery with both top
and side posts may not work in your GM car. The top posts may touch the hood and
short out (sparks, smoke, fire), so make sure you buy the correct size battery for
This is what your battery Should look like
Not like this
Your battery should appear the same as the one in the picture above. Clean, well
kempt, fully charged, and, of course, new. This is ideal of course, but most batteries
are subject to extreme conditions. Wind, rain, road grime, heat, cold, etc. These
extremes beat up a battery. If the battery is in the trunk or rear seat, it will
look good even if it is completely dead. Under the hood, a battery will usually
look like it feels. The grime on the outside can effect the life of the battery.
Dirt can conduct electricity. It may be just a little trickle, but over time, that
tiny bit adds up. Especially if the vehicle sits for long periods of time.
Let’s look inside. If your battery has caps, it will be serviceable. Some caps
pry off, some unscrew. Some batteries say they are ‘maintenance free’, but they
may have screw caps under the label (they will be obvious). Take a screwdriver and
unscrew or pry the caps off (remember the acid). Some caps may not pry off, don’t
force anything. A large coin may work better than a screwdriver. Wipe or wash off
any excess grime that may fall into the battery before opening the caps. Look into
the holes. There should be enough electrolyte (the liquid) to almost fill each of
the cells (one hole for each cell). If the electrolyte is low, you may add distilled
or de-ionized water only. Do not use tap water. Do not use soft water, it contains
salt, and may form chlorine gas. If the liquid is below the level of the lead plates,
it is dead. It needs to be replaced. If you see white flaky looking crap floating
around or resting on the lead, the battery is getting old and needs to be replaced
soon. Any cracks, leaks, broken posts, or other serious damage means the battery
needs replacing. If the sides are bulging, replace it, and maybe have your electrical
system checked. This is a sign of an overheating battery. A hot battery is a dangerous
battery! Your charging system may be overcharging your battery.
Batteries occasionally explode for seemingly no reason. I don’t mean pop, I mean
BOOM! It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Please be careful when working
Well, the battery is clean, the terminals are tight, and it’s finally time to jump
start the car. If you can only locate a jump post (look in you owners manual), that
is just fine. Pull the other car within reach of the jumper cables, but not touching
the dead car. Leave the car that you are using to jump the dead one running.
Connect the jumper cables to the dead battery first.
The jumper cables have one black and one colored clamp on each end. Black is always
negative, also known as ground. Take the colored clamp and clamp it onto the positive
(+) terminal and the black clamp onto a piece of exposed metal (do not use any tubing).
Connecting to the negative (-) terminal can be hazardous (BOOM!), but can be done.
Turn around and grasp the other end of the jumper cables in your hands. Connect
to the assisting vehicles terminals. Colored clamp on positive (+), black clamp
on the negative (-) terminal or any piece of bare metal. You may see sparks. This
is normal and means you have a good connection. Big, gnarly sparks mean you have
connected it backwards. Disconnect the cables immediately and hope you have not
If you have an alarm, it may sound. Reset your alarm as explained previously (unlock
Now it is time to turn the key to start the car. DO NOT stand next to either battery
or in front of the vehicle when starting. The car should turn over and start. The
jumper cables may spark.
If the vehicle doesn’t turn over, check the negative connection and wiggle the positive
connection to get better contact. Be careful. Try starting again.
Once the vehicle starts, wait about ten seconds before removing the jumper cables.
If you have a GM or Dodge vehicle, wait about two minutes before removing the jumper
cables. This will give the battery some time to get a little charge and be able
to power the computers. These vehicles will not run with a dead battery.
Before removing the jumper cables, turn on the head lights and the high beams. This
will aid in suppressing any electrical surges that may damage sensitive electrical
components. You can also observe any changes in the brightness of the lights. If
the headlights dim when the jumper cables are removed, you may have a bad alternator.
If the lights flicker, you may have a bad voltage regulator (this may be very subtle).
Either of these conditions will require towing.
Remove the negative jumper cable from the vehicle being jumped first. Then just
remove all the other clamps as you wish.
If the vehicle dies, you may have a bad alternator or just a completely dead battery.
Try jumping the car again to make sure, some vehicles are just finicky. Reset the
alarm each time. GM, Chrysler, and a handful of other cars will not run with a dead
battery, so leave the cables on for a couple of minutes to help get a charge started
in the battery.
Do not turn the car off for about a half hour. The vehicle needs to be driven during
this time to charge the battery, assuming the battery will accept a charge. Minis™
and Porsches™ may not charge at all and I recommend you drive these cars (if you
can) strait to the dealer or your mechanic to have the battery charged.
If you have done all this and the car doesn’t turn over, it may not be your battery.
If you have an automatic transmission, try this. Make sure your parking brake is
set, and your foot is on the brake. Wiggle the shifter, and make sure it is in park
(P). Try to start it. If not, put the transmission in neutral (N) and try to start
it. If it starts, the neutral safety switch is bad or the shift linkage needs adjusting.
If this is the problem, the starter will not make any noise when in park. Do not
do this without a good parking brake if you must get out of the car after starting
it, the transmission may not be in neutral (N) or park (P), it may be in gear and
will take off.
If your car has a manual transmission, make sure the clutch pedal goes all the way
to the floor. Floor mats frequently get bunched up beneath the clutch pedal, and
prevent the pedal from being completely depressed into the starting position.
If, when you have connected the jumper cables and turned the key, the car still has
no power and the dash board doesn’t light up, you may have blown a fusible link or
main fuse. Call a tow truck. This is a quick fix, but may result in a fire if you
don’t know what you are doing.
When you turn the key, the car seems to start, but dies immediately when you release
the key, you may have a worn out or broken ignition. Release the key slowly, it
may stay running. There may be a position you can hold the key where the engine
runs, the starter is off, and you can move the car. This can be difficult.
If no click is heard when the key is turned and you’ve tried all of the above, call
a tow truck. If it clicks, but doesn’t turn over, flick the key in and out of the
start position making the starter click rapidly. You must listen for the starter
to engage and be quick to keep the key in the start position. If this works, and
the engine starts, this means you have a bad starter but you can drive the car. If
this doesn’t work, it means you have a bad starter, and you need a tow truck.
Sometimes tapping on the starter will knock loose crud on the contacts inside and
it will restore normal operation temporarily and the car will start. If you can
find the starter, tap it gently with a hammer a few times. It’s usually where the
transmission joins the engine.
If the key won’t turn at all, rock the steering wheel back and fourth while attempting
to turn the key. If the key turns, you just had pressure on the steering lock. If
it doesn’t turn, your ignition may be broken. Try wiggling the key or pulling it
out a little bit. Tri-Flow or other lubricant may help, but can damage electric
Well, if nothing has worked so far, you may need professional help. But… If you
are driving a car with a manual transmission, and have a little power left in your
battery, you may be in luck. Especially if you just happen to be on a hill or have
Bump starting a car is easy. It works best with a warm engine and facing down hill.
Push starting the engine isn’t hard, but works best (and safer) with two people.
Make sure the key is in the ‘on’ position (dash lights on). Foot on the clutch,
transmission in second gear, get the car rolling forward and release the clutch.
The car will jerk and shudder. When you hear the engine fire, depress the clutch
and give it some gas. You are now able to drive your car to the mechanic. This
works on any incline that gets you moving enough to turn the motor. It even works
in reverse (don’t use 2nd gear, use reverse). If your battery is completely dead,
this may not work unless you have a long hill. Roll the car down the hill with the
clutch engaged and the engine turning over. The alternator will spin enough to put
a little power through the electrical system. This takes a very long hill. If you
have an old car with a generator (as opposed to an alternator), like a Bug, you don’t
even need a battery.
If your car has a manual transmission, there is an easy way to check if your battery
is going to charge up. After about five minutes of driving, while moving, depress
the clutch, turn the key off (do this on a straight road), then turn the key to the
starting position and restart the engine. If it starts, your battery is charging.
If not, take your foot off the clutch and the engine will bump start.
Ok. I’ve covered all of my tricks (well, not all), so if you aren’t driving your
car by now, call a tow truck.