How to know if Car Starter is bad

How to know if Car Starter is bad

Getting ready in the morning for work and starting your car engine only to learn it doesn’t ignite is the worst experience ever.

As a driver, at some point, you have experienced this challenge, and by calling the mechanic to have a look at the engine, you learned your car starter is bad. Thus, how to know if car starter is bad is a necessary skill.

A car starter is a small electric motor located under the engine near its back. This powerful motor cranks your car engine when you ignite.

This essential motor is made of two main components: the primary motor and the solenoid.

How to know if Car Starter is bad

A solenoid is a part that receives power, and through electromagnetic force, it attracts the nearby iron rod from the motor when you turn on the ignition switch.

Due to the attraction, the electric circuit becomes complete, and the motor turns a starter pinion gear. Afterward, the solenoid pushes this pinion gear to mesh with the engine flywheel making the engine crank.

However, this motor doesn’t work alone to start a car. There are various components in the starting system that work with the starter to accomplish its role;

  • The car battery
  • Connecting wiring
  • Ignition switch

They all work together to start the engine. For this reason, if you have a failing starter, they might as well be contributing factors.

How to know if Car Starter is bad

Although these signs may result from other malfunctioning components of the car engine, they may also reveal if your starter is going bad.

  • Car engine fails to start
  • Engine crank slowly
  • Grinding or clicking noise
  • Engine intermittent failure to start
  • Starter keeps running after releasing the ignition key
  • You smell something burning or see a smoke

1. Car Engine Fails to Start

When you turn on the ignition key and the starter remains silent, just observe the dash lights. If the lights are on, there is a possibility your car has a bad starter.


  • The solenoid or the motor is not working.
  • Connection wiring may be loose.

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2. Engine Crank Slowly

In another case, you may turn the ignition key and notice the engine cranks slowly. And once you release the key, you notice it hasn’t ignited. The main components of your starter may have a problem.

However, this problem can arise due to other issues like;

  • Internal engine problem
  • Low car battery

 3. Grinding or Clicking Noise

Once you turn the key, you may hear a clicking or grinding sound. This noise is similar to the one you hear when you unknowingly turn on the ignition switch when the engine is already running.

The starter gear teeth may not be fully engaged with the engine flywheel if you hear this noise. This may be caused by;

  • Worn out starter gear teeth or the engine flywheel
  • Loose starter mounting

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4. Engine Intermittent Failure to Start

In this case, you may try to start the engine and, at some point, fails. However, after some time, you try again, and it cranks. This may be a sign of;

  • Loose wiring
  • Dying starter solenoid.

5. Starter Continues Running Even After Releasing the Ignition Key

If you release the ignition key and notice the starter is still running, it’s a sign that you have a failing car starter. In this case, you may find the starter solenoid and the motor are welded between the connecting iron bar.

However, this problem may be caused by a failing ignition switch or the entire electric circuit.

6. You Smell Something Burning Or See a Smoke

It’s important to learn the car starter is made of electrical and mechanical components. Further, the starter’s role is to crank the engine in a few seconds and leave it to run independently.

For this reason, if you continuously turn the ignition switch trying to start a failing engine, the components may overhead end emits smoke.

However, smoke and burning smell may occur due to other causes like;

  • Blown fuse
  • Shorted electric circuit

Additionally, you may notice the dash lights dim as you start the engine. This is a sign of shorted electrical circuit.

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Troubleshooting a Car Starting System

Once you learn your car starting system has a problem, it’s important to troubleshoot before calling a specialist for repair. There are key areas you look at;

a) Test the Car Battery

You may first clean the battery terminals using sodium bicarbonate if you find them corroded. Secondly, you can test if your battery is low using a Digital Multimeter (DMM)

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Step 1: Wear your protective glasses and gloves.

Step 2: Set your DMM to 20 volts direct current (DC)

Step 3: Touch the negative meter probe to the negative battery terminal (-) and the positive probe to the positive battery terminal (+) and observe the readings.

For a fully charged battery, the meter will read 12 volts. If the readings are lower than 12 volts, you will have to jumpstart your car.

b) Test if Current is Flowing to the Starter

To test if power flows to the starter, you’ll first locate the starter under the engine.


Step 1: Wear your protective gloves and glasses

Step 2: Set your DMM to 20 volts direct current (DC)

Step 3: Touch the DMM’s black probe on the negative power wire supplying the starter and the positive probe to the metallic solenoid surface.

Step 4: Have a helper ignite the car and observe the DMM readings.

If the voltage reads, you can know your starting system wiring is in good condition.

c) Hit the Starter With a Rubber Mallet

At some point, the solenoid may fail to return to its position after connecting to the mortar. You may need to slowly hit the starter with a rubber mallet for the iron rod to return to its position.

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What Causes a Starter to Go Bad?

The starter may go bad due to;

  • Normal wear and tear.

For instance, the starter works more in modern cars with auto start and stop functions. For this reason, it’s prone to overheating or the pinion gear teeth wearing out fast.

  • Poor ignition timing may cause engine kickback which destroys the starter.
  • Loose starter installation may lead to wearing pinion gear teeth as they grip the flywheel in the wrong position.

Which Way Do You Jumpstart a Car?

If you find your car battery is low, you can carry out this procedure;

Step 1: Have a second car with a functioning battery.

Step 2: Take your pair of jumpers and connect the negative terminal of both batteries with the black wire clippers and the positive terminals with red wire clippers.

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Step 3: Double-check if you connected well.  Later, ignite the functioning car.

Step 4: Give it a few minutes for your low battery to borrow energy and then start your car.

Read: Electric car battery lifespan

What Causes Corrosion in Car Starting System Electrical Components?

When moisture gets into the electrical system, it causes corrosion. The best solution is to ensure your wires are well insulated.

Secondly, hydrochloric acid in car batteries emits hydrogen gas which chemically reacts with the battery terminals leading to corrosion.

With that information, you learned it’s vital to carry out routine maintenance on your car to keep enjoying your ride. However, if you learn any of the signs of a failed starter, troubleshoot keenly to confirm whether your car starter is bad. 

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