A failing starter usually gives you a little bit of warning before that morning when you slide behind the wheel, turn the key and … nothing happens. Learning how to recognize the signs that your starter is on its way out can save you significant hassle — and help prevent you from being stranded at the worst possible time.
Let’s take a quick look at four signs that your starter needs to be replaced.
1. A Long, Slow Crank
A modern vehicle starter should be able to turn the engine over quickly, and immediately, once the ignition has been activated. If your car starter, on the other hand, sounds like it’s laboring to spin the motor and takes a while before everything fires up, this is an indication that all is not right under your hood.
Don’t immediately leap to the conclusion that the starter is dying — after all, you might be dealing with a battery problem or another electrical issue that’s keeping it from getting enough power to do its job. But it’s definitely something you’ll need to have checked out by a mechanic you trust.
2. Dimming Lights
You turn the key, the starter spins, but at the same time, you notice your headlights or interior lights dim noticeably in the process. This is not normal — your starter is designed to only draw a certain level of current from the battery, and an overwhelmed electrical system could indicate a short-circuit that’s pulling more energy than required to get the starter spinning. If this happens on a regular basis, it could be a sign of a failing starter.
3. Spin, Spin, Spin
If you fire up the ignition and you can hear the starter spinning, but the engine doesn’t turn — then it’s likely you’ll have to repair or replace the unit. This indicates that the starter is getting power, but that it has disconnected from the flywheel and isn’t actually making contact with your motor so that it can move the internal rotating assembly.
4. Grinding On or After Start
If you hear a mechanical grinding sound as soon as the starter starts to turn, you may be dealing with a gear problem inside the starter that is keeping it from engaging properly with the motor. If that noise continues on after the engine is running, the starter may also be getting electrical power even after it’s been disconnected, indicating a potential problem with its solenoid that could burn out or damage the starter if it’s allowed to keep spinning.
If you notice any of these signs, you might be facing an issue with your starter. To avoid waking up to a car that won’t start or the inconvenience of a tow, have your starter examined by the experts at your local NAPA AutoCare Center.
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.