The starter motor is a wearing part and can break down over time. Then the car starts poorly or not at all. Here you can find out how to identify bad starter symptoms, what are the replacement costs. Also, how to change the starter yourself and how to get the car running again without repair.
How does a starter motor work?
A starter motor is an electric motor that converts electrical energy into mechanical energy. It has a solenoid coil and electrical connections that are connected to the starter battery. The starter motor is located directly on the flywheel (also called the flywheel), close to the engine.
In many older car models, it is easy to reach, but in newer vehicles, it must first be exposed, which increases the cost of replacement at a specialist workshop. If you can do the work yourself, you can easily save several hundred dollars when replacing the starter.
The starter motor works are quite simple: when the starter is started, it briefly actuates the flywheel by means of a gear, which in turn sets the crankshaft and thus also the pistons in motion. This starts the combustion process, and the car starts.
How do you identify bad starter symptoms?
In the worst case, the car will no longer start. However, an aging starter motor does not break down from one day to the next. A wear-related defect usually announces itself. The service life of the starter depends, for example, on how often the car is driven, or more precisely, how often it is started. There are clear symptoms that show you that your starter motor has problems.
Symptom 1: The starter motor is spinning
If you turn the ignition key in the lock or press the start button and the starter motor spins, but nothing happens to the engine, this indicates that the starter motor is defective. The causes can be many: The engagement armature, the pinion, or even the flywheel ring gear can be worn or too dirty.
It can also damage the relay, the solenoid switch, the electric motor, or the starter freewheel. The first thing you should check is that the battery is not simply flat. An (almost) empty battery can be recognized by the fact that the cockpit’s signal lights light dimly or not at all when starting.
In this case, you can simply charge the battery or get a jump start. If nothing works at all, you have to buy a new battery.
Symptom 2: The starter motor clicks
If it clicks when you try to start the engine, the problem may be with the solenoid switch. If the solenoid switch hangs, you can check it yourself with a bit of technical expertise. One person tries to start the car, and the other hits the starter housing with a hammer and a wooden handle or rod.
If only the solenoid switch is defective, you can start the car this way with a bit of luck. However, this method may only work once, and the starter may need to be replaced after all.
Symptom 3: The starter does nothing at all
If the starter motor neither spins nor clicks, you should check the electrical leads: A corroded ground cable is a typical defect, and you can use a multimeter to check whether the connection still carries the complete on-board voltage. Important: Incorrect handling of the multimeter and the connections can lead to damage to the vehicle and people.
Specialists should therefore carry out the test. The electronic components of the starter also include the ignition starter switch. If it is broken, it can be bridged via terminals 30 (continuous positive) and 50 (switched positive) on the starter itself.
Of course, it is possible to disassemble a starter motor and check it down to the last detail to get to the bottom of the problem, but nowadays, a complete starter replacement is usually carried out straight away.
How to check the bad starter symptoms
There may only be a minor problem, so the starter doesn’t need to be replaced. If there is a clicking noise when you try to start the engine, the problem may be with the solenoid switch. You can check a hanging solenoid switch yourself: One person tries to start the car, and the other hits the starter housing a few times with a hammer or a rod.
It does not even have to be removed for this. If only the solenoid switch is defective, you can start the vehicle in this way with a bit of luck (but possibly only once)
If the fault is possibly in the electrical supply lines, you can use a multimeter to check whether the starter motor is still supplied with sufficient current. But be careful: The test should only be carried out by experts. Incorrect handling of the multimeter and the connections can lead to damage to the vehicle and people.
Replacing the defective or bad starter
What does the repair of a bad starter cost?
As always, the cost of the replacement part and installation depends on the model: How easy is it to reach the starter, how long does it take to remove and install, do you still have the starter intensively tested, or do you replace it right away?
As a pure replacement part, starters cost around $70 to $180. The far higher costs come from the amount of work involved: a specialist workshop will charge $100 to $400 for the replacement, depending on how easy it is to reach the starter.
So, you can significantly reduce the total cost if you have sufficient expertise and suitable tools. However, in some vehicles, it can only access the starter motor with the help of a lifting platform.
Changing the starter: step-by-step instructions
Usually, broken starters are not repaired but replaced. For amateurs who take their vehicle to the workshop anyway, replacement is usually the better alternative because it is cheaper. In addition, the workshop checks whether the fault lies with the starter itself or the solenoid switch.
However, specialists can also repair the starter. To do this, the starter motor is removed, disassembled, and the damaged part is replaced, after which the repaired starter motor is reinstalled.
If you want to change the starter yourself, you should have a good level of expertise because there is a high risk that other parts, such as the starter gear or the housing, will be damaged during the repair.
- Difficulty: easy to medium (depending on installation location)
- Special tools required: no
- Lifting platform or pit required: possibly, depending on the car model
- Disconnect the negative pole of the car battery and insulate it with a rag. Tip: Photograph or write down radio stations beforehand to make it easier to set them later. Also, open doors or windows; otherwise, they could lock.
- Disconnect the two connecting cables on the starter motor. Remember which one goes where!
- Loosen the retaining screws of the starter.
- Carefully remove the starter from its holder and clean it.
- Check the old starter. If the pinion or its tooth flanks are damaged, you must also check the flywheel in the gearbox. If the pinion is OK, proceed.
- Insert the new starter and tighten the retaining screws according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
- Reconnect the connecting cables.
- Check adjacent components for function and fit and reinsert.
- Reconnect negative terminal to battery.
Important: The starter motor does not belong in the scrap metal but must be returned to the seller in exchange for a new part (with a deposit!).
Starting a car with a defective starter motor
Which cars can be started?
The hammer-and-stick method described above is not a permanent solution, but it can help to start the car in an emergency. Alternatively, push-starting can also help. First of all, the bad news: Pushing on is only suitable for cars that do not have a catalytic converter or an automatic transmission. For diesel cars, it depends on the temperature of the engine: If it is still warm, push-starting can work. If it is cold, it is unlikely to work.
In vehicles with automatic transmissions, pushing does not work because the torque converter can only establish an active connection between the engine and the wheels when the engine is running – and getting the engine running is precisely the problem.
With gasoline-powered vehicles, push-starting is easiest in principle, but it is possible that unburned gasoline may cause damage to vehicles with catalytic converters.
Instruction: Starting the vehicle
The idea of pushing is that the movement while rolling replaces the task of the starter motor, and the engine can start. You will need another person to help you. A small incline where the car can pick up some momentum as it rolls will make pushing easier.
- Depress the clutch and engage second gear.
- Turn the ignition key to ignition.
- Push the car.
- Let the clutch come quickly while slightly accelerating.
- Now the engine should start, and you can begin your journey.
Attention: If the car does not start despite pushing, the brake booster will not work either. You may have to stop the car with the handbrake. Unfortunately, the push-start method is not a permanent solution either. As soon as the car is running again, you should replace the defective starter or have it replaced in a workshop.
FAQ – Bad starter symptoms
What does a new starter with installation cost?
The prices for starters range between $70 and $180. If you can do the removal and installation yourself, you can save several hundred euros. In the workshop, you have to reckon with $100 to $400 for the labor alone, depending on how easy or difficult it is to get to the starter.
Can I repair the starter myself?
Yes, with the necessary know-how you can change the starter yourself. For some car models, you need a lifting platform, which you can use at a rental garage.
Financially, it can be worthwhile to do it yourself because the largest part of the costs comes not from the replacement part but from the labor. You can also read our another article, Identify bad drive shaft Symptoms and the Causes.
What are the symptoms of a defective starter motor?
Typical symptoms of a defective starter are:
- The car does not start
- The starter motor spins
- The starter clatters
- The starter does nothing
What noise does a defective starter motor make?
If the starter motor is defective, you can often hear a clicking sound when trying to start the car. In this case, the magnetic switch is probably stuck.
If, on the other hand, the electrical supply lines are defective, the starter motor makes nothing at all, not even a noise.
What to do if the starter does not work?
If the starter motor clicks, there could be a fault with the solenoid switch. This can be checked by one person trying to start the car and the other hitting the starter housing with a hammer or a rod. This method is not a permanent solution, but it can help to start the car so that you can drive it to the nearest garage.
If the starter does nothing at all, a ground wire may be defective, which can be checked with a multimeter (a matter for professionals only!). If the ignition starter switch is broken, you can bypass it on the starter itself.
How to start a car with broken or bad starter?
You can use the hammer-and-stick method to get a stuck solenoid switch going again, at least for a short time, and if you’re lucky, you can start the car. Also, you can try to push the car to start the engine this way.
Can you drive with a defective or bad starter?
It depends. If you can get the car running, you can drive gasoline vehicles with manual transmissions and without catalytic converters with a faulty starter. However, you should take the car to the nearest garage. Otherwise, you run the risk of breaking down on the next trip.
Diesel vehicles can be started by pushing the starter button when the engine is still warm, or the battery is still supplying enough current to power the glow plugs. If this has worked, you can drive to the nearest workshop with the defective starter.
The risk of gasoline damaging the catalytic converter for vehicles with catalytic converters is too great, and cars with automatic transmissions cannot even be started and therefore driven without a functioning starter.
How can I test a starter motor?
If the car does not start, it is not necessarily due to the starter motor. Before testing the starter, you should check if maybe simply the car battery is dead. In this case, the signal lights in the cockpit would only light dimly or not when starting.
To test the starter motor, you need two people: One person starts the car, and the other person holds a wooden stick or similar on the magnetic switch and hits it with a hammer. If the car starts, the starter motor is defective. Additionally, you can do a visual inspection to see if any cables on the starter are loose or corroded.
How do you know if the battery or starter motor is defective?
If the battery is defective, the signal lights do not light up or light up dimly when you try to start. Also, the lighting system lights up only weakly or not at all.
Is a starter motor a wearing part?
Yes, the starter motor is needed for every starting process and wears out through regular use of the vehicle. A defect usually does not occur suddenly but announces itself because the car starts more often only with difficulty. A change is due approximately every 120,000 to 250,000 km.
Where is the starter located in the car?
The starter motor is located directly on the flywheel. In many older car models, it is easy to reach, but in newer vehicles, it must first be exposed, which increases the cost of replacement at a specialist workshop. If you can do the work yourself, you can easily save several hundred euros.
How do you test a magnetic switch?
To test the magnetic switch, you need two people: One person starts the car, and the other holds a wooden stick or similar on the magnetic switch of the starter and hits it with a hammer. If the car starts, then the solenoid switch is okay, but the starter motor is defective. If the car does not start, the magnetic switch is defective.
Is it possible to repair the solenoid switch?
You can repair the solenoid switch as long as the solenoid coil is still in order. To do this, you need to open the magnetic switch, remove the bolts and contacts, and clean the contacts with sandpaper.
How does a magnetic switch work?
The solenoid switch has three tasks:
- Make the gear connection between starter and engine.
- Turn on the starter current.
- Disconnect gear connection after engine start.
As soon as the ignition starter switch is actuated, the pull-in and holding windings receive current via terminal 50, creating magnetic induction that moves an iron core in the axial direction. The iron core now pulls the small pinion towards the flywheel via a lever. The high starter current is switched on as soon as the gear connection is made.
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