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-
If the battery is completely dead in your Prius, it may be difficult to start. If,
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
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.
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
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 around batteries.
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 (-
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 (-
If you have an alarm, it may sound. Reset your alarm as explained previously (unlock the door).
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-
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 passengers.
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.