Every car owner dreads the day that their supposedly reliable car stops working abruptly. In fact, problems can occur as you leave your car for a short grocery trip, where you come back to a car that refuses to even crank. You’re left stranded with a car that won’t start. In some cases though, the car might make an odd clicking noise.
The fact is that in most cases, a no-start failure often comes along with symptoms. However, not everyone is a car enthusiast that can pick up fluctuations in a car’s performance and behaviour. Even when a warning message is indicated, those who are less observant might not even notice it until something is obviously wrong with their car.
Sometimes though, problems just come suddenly. A no-crank is essentially guaranteed if you’re coming back to your car months after. Regardless, there are many types of clicking noise that a car can make in the case of a no-start.
What Is That Clicking Noise?
It’s important to note that different types of clicking noise from your car can indicate different issues. Being able to describe your type of clicking can also provide valuable insight to the workshop that’s diagnosing your issue.
One click noise, barely audible
What you’re hearing here is the sound of a relay operating. When you turn your key to the cranking position, what you’re actually doing is sending a signal to the starter relay. The starter relay’s coil energises and thus closes the contact of the relay.
This allows current to flow from the battery to the starter. A relay is necessary for a starter because the starter draws too much current for a simple ignition switch to handle. It’s important that you pay attention to this click whenever you’re cranking your car.
One conspicuous click noise
The second type of clicking noise you might hear from your car is a loud click. It’s important to note that this click should be very obvious and not mistaken for the small clicks that a relay makes when closing the contact. In some cars, this sound might be accompanied by a palpable clunking from your engine bay.
This is actually the sound of the starter solenoid operating. In a starter, there’s the starter body itself and a starter solenoid beside the starter. The starter body is the one that’s revolving and turning your flywheel over to start your car. However, the starter must be able to retract and engage the flywheel when needed.
That’s the job of the solenoid, think of it as a mechanical switch for the starter. Basically, electric current first enters the starter solenoid and energises the windings within the solenoid. This pulls up a plunger, which in turn pushes the starter gear to the flywheel.
At the same time, the plunger operates a contact plate located above it. When the energised windings attract the plunger, the plunger activates the contact plate and allows current to flow from the battery terminal of a starter to the motor terminal.
This current is used to power the carbon brushes inside the starter. Finally, the starter armature turns at an impressive speed to crank the engine. The loud click indicates that the starter solenoid is engaging the starter, but the starter itself isn’t turning.
Rapid clicking noise
Perhaps the most worrying type of clicking noise your car can make is a rapid clicking sound that’s also loud and audible. It’s a very mechanical noise that can’t be mistaken for anything else. It may even be perceivable through the vehicle’s body.
In this case, the clicking that you’re feeling and hearing originate from the starter solenoid again. It’s the rapid action of the solenoid pulling and releasing the plunger. Intriguingly, this happens due to the increase in amperage draw from the starter.
During the first few moments the starter solenoid is energised, power actually grounds towards the starter body itself. The action of pulling up a plunger is more difficult than keeping it in one place. After the contact plate closes the circuit from the battery to the motor terminal, the carbon ring is powered.
When the starter draws battery current directly from the positive terminal, the massive surge of electrical load can overwhelm the battery. The solenoid then releases the plunger because the battery can’t cope with the sudden demand.
Then, as you can imagine, after releasing the solenoid the battery can gradually build up charge again. It will then power the solenoid once again albeit to no avail. At the same time, you might notice all your cabin and instrument lights dimming severely.
What does the clicking noise mean
As you can imagine, the variety of clicking noises that your car makes also provides insight into what’s wrong with your car. In most cases, it’ll be a problem with the electrical system of your car. However, being able to describe the clicking and your symptoms will speed up the diagnosis process dramatically.
One click, barely audible – Starter Relay
If all you’re hearing is the starter relay operating, then it can be a bit ambiguous. Odds are that your starter is faulty. You can rule out the battery if you confirm that your battery is charged (~12.2 volts engine off). You might even notice a small drop in voltage once you turn the key to crank the vehicle.
In this case, what’s going on is that the starter solenoid is attempting to draw current but it’s unable to operate the plunger to close the contact plates. This can happen due to damage in the solenoid windings. It’s also possible that the solenoid only clicks sometimes when attempting to crank your car.
Of course, in this case, there will be a drop in voltage across the battery terminals due to the current draw. If your battery voltage isn’t dropping at all, this means that something might’ve gone wrong in the wiring of the starter. Grounding isn’t an issue typically since the starter body is the ground itself.
However, if when you crank the vehicle all your cabin lights go out, then it points toward a very weak battery. The battery simply isn’t capable of supplying the charge necessary to operate the plunger. It can also happen due to too excessively low charge levels, so ensure your battery is fully charged first.
One conspicuous click – Starter Solenoid
If you only hear the starter solenoid operating, you can safely assume that there’s an issue with the starter itself. Because it indicates that your battery is sufficiently powering the starter and that your alternator is charging the battery.
For some reason or another, the current is making it to the solenoid and thus the starter armature itself. Despite that, the starter itself is not turning. It’ll save your technician a lot of diagnosis time given the symptom.
Rapid clicking – Low Battery
If your car clicks repeatedly when you turn the key it becomes slightly more complicated. This means that your car is not providing enough current for the starter to function normally. The starter is likely to be fine, as the solenoid is operating normally and the starting is drawing current.
It’s to be expected if you’re coming back to your car a month or two later with a connected battery. Typically batteries won’t maintain enough charge to start a car as even when idle a car draws some current.
However, if your car refuses to start when you park it for a short trip, then it could mean that your alternator is not charging the car. An alternator failure is normally accompanied by a whole host of other issues, such as lack of power, warning messages, and dimming lights.
On the other hand, if your car faces this issue when parked overnight, this can point towards a poor battery or excessive parasitic drain. The only way to tell for sure is to get your battery charged and perform a parasitic drain test.
What should you do if your car won’t start and clicks
Your best bet would be to get a tow ride to a nearby workshop. Hastily attempting to crank your car over and over again can overcomplicate the issue and develop into a bigger problem. Therefore, it’s best that you leave your car to someone more competent.
If you’re in a rush and you’re certain that it’s a problem with the battery itself, then you can attempt a jump start. In general, it’s best to avoid jump-starting your battery often though, as it puts an immense load on the alternator once started. The alternator has to toil at maximum regulated voltage to replenish the depleted battery.
However, if you can identify the matter as a failed starter, then you can attempt a push start with your car. You do need some assistance from passersby though. However, this only works with a manual transmission vehicle. Otherwise, you’re basically stuck with getting a tow.
The same applies if you’re facing a malfunctioning alternator. The best option would be to get a tow ride before you damage your battery attempting to drive a car with a flawed charging system. Even if you do get your car jump-started, it won’t last long before needing another jump start.
Symptoms of Car Won’t Start Clicking Noise
The fact is that before anything fails, there’s usually an overt sign that something is going wrong. By acknowledging the symptoms and understanding what it means there’s a good chance that you can avoid being left stranded and having to get your car towed.
The signs of a failing battery are obvious. As of late, you can even get a replacement battery delivered to you within short notice to replace your own battery if needed. It’s also quite affordable to replace your battery with one from a reputable make.
Initial signs of a weak battery begin from a slower cranking speed. If you leave your car for a week or two and come back to a car that barely manages to cough into life, you might have a weak battery.
A definite way to determine your battery condition is to perform a voltage drop test or load test. You only need a cheap multimeter that can be bought from the local hardware store. Basically, you have to measure the amount of voltage your battery sustains during cranking.
With a multimeter, measure the voltage across the positive and negative terminal of your battery. If you have a min-max function built-into your multimeter, you can use it to capture the moment you crank your engine over.
Disconnect the fuel pump by unplugging the fuel pump relay or fuse, or you can disconnect the ignition coil(s) entirely. Don’t just leave HT leads unplugged without properly grounding them. If you unplug the fuel pump, your car might still start briefly before stalling.
Once your car stops starting, you can perform the test. Ensure your battery is fully charged prior to conducting the test, this means approximately 12.4 volts. Measure the battery terminal voltage and crank your car with the min-max function on your alternator active.
Turn the key over for around 20 seconds. Then, go to your multimeter and bring up the minimum voltage reading. A strong battery should be able to maintain 9.6 volts over the 20 second cranking period. Your battery should be replaced if it drops below 5 volts.
Is it actually a bad battery?
But is it actually a bad battery causing your woes? The typical lifetime of an automotive battery is less than 3 years. If you really take care of your battery though, it might last over 5 years. It’s important that you avoid low-quality batteries if possible. Those might only last a year with heavy use.
The latter statement is especially applicable for modern cars. Contemporary cars with eco start-stop function severely strain the battery, and any battery unfit to the task won’t last long. In general, modern luxury cars also necessitates a beefy battery that can endure the greater electrical demands.
Otherwise, if your battery can’t maintain a charge even if it’s in good condition, you might be dealing with excessive parasitic drain. You can tell this by measuring the battery’s current draw when the car is completely off.
You have to connect a multimeter inline with your negative terminal to measure the current draw. Ensure your car is in a rest state by locking it and leaving it alone for a while. It’s also possible to make this measurement using an amp clamp, which is non-disruptive and simpler to setup but also imprecise. The specification you’re looking for is below 50 mA of current draw at rest.
If you don’t have a multimeter that can measure current or an amp clamp, there’s also a method to tell whether if your car has a parasitic drain. Grab your everyday 12V car bulb and connect it inline to your negative terminal. Ensure you connect the bulb in the correct polarity. If the bulb lights up, it means you have a rather severe current draw going on.
It’s also possible to conduct the test with a 12v LED diode, which should only glow dimly when connected. If you want to know which specific component is causing the parasitic drain, look for the fuse boxes. Disconnect the fuses one by one to narrow down the culprit. Typically, parasitic drains are caused by accessories connected to the cigarette lighter or by an aftermarket stereo system.
Signs of a poor alternator has already been covered extensively in a previous article. The most obvious sign of alternator failure is the obvious battery warning light in the instrument cluster. This indicates that your alternator is not charging the battery at all. Make sure to visit a local workshop as soon as possible if this warning appears.
Modern cars make it so that even when the alternator fails the car can be driven for as long as possible. You’ll notice that your amenities are going out slowly though. Typically the climate control functions get deactivated first. You might also notice the car steadily losing power and behaving oddly. Immediately visit a local workshop if these symptoms occur.
The appropriate way to determine an alternator’s condition is through charging voltage measurements. This can be done with a cheap multimeter too. Connect a multimeter to your battery terminals and measure voltage values. A good alternator should be able to maintain a charging voltage of 13.5 to 14.5 volts.
Measurements of charging voltage should be taken with and without engine load. Turn on all the major current consumers such as the blower, headlamps, and infotainment system to measure the loaded charging voltage. It should be higher than the unloaded test.
Either way, the charging voltage must be at an intermediate. This means that it shouldn’t be below 13 volts, as it wouldn’t be charging the battery. It’s also malfunctioning if it’s charging at over 15 volts, as it’ll overwork and cook itself and possibly even damage the various onboard electronics.
Starters are some of the most durable electrical components in a vehicle. They have simple construction which means that little can go wrong with a starter. Typically, a starter only starts to go wrong after a decade or two. Normally, there are signs before a starter begins to fail though.
The initial sign of a failing starter is a reduced cranking speed. This happens because the carbon brushes might not fully contact the commutator surface anymore. Carbon also starts to build up within the starter itself which might increase resistance faced by the carbon brushes.
It may also occur due to worn starter solenoid windings. The solenoid might be incapable of holding the plunger at the top and causes poor current flow from the battery to the starter motor. When this happens the cranking speed will be reduced. It’s also possible that the starter solenoid will release the plunger prematurely while cranking.
When you notice these signs, it’s best that you schedule a workshop visit. Starters tend to fail completely soon after they show signs of wear. Once the carbon brushes run out it will stop cranking altogether. A quick workaround is to give your starter a few good knocks, as the carbon brushes could be stuck in a bad spot on the commutator with poor contact.
A common mistake that some might make is trying to force the starter to crank even when it’s not cranking properly. The engine might be turning over too slowly to start. Overworking the starter is a quick way to cook it and making things worse. This is why it’s recommended you to release the starter after 20 seconds to allow the starter to cool.
Repeatedly cranking the starter will also put unnecessary wear on the battery. A strong battery might be fine for repeated cranking cycles, but a worn battery will be out of charge after a few cycles. I might even be the cause of your slow cranking starter, so ensure that your battery is fully charged and in good condition before attempting multiple cranks.
Car Won’t Start Clicking Noise – DIY Repair
Depending on your vehicle model, troubleshooting a no start clicking noise issue and rectifying it is entirely possible to do at home with only basic maintenance tools. To pinpoint the trouble quickly, all you really need is a multimeter which you should already have at home. A multimeter tells you the whole story, and will also allow you to check for parasitic drain yourself.
It’s pretty straightforward to replace the car’s battery yourself. Most manufacturers make it an easy job to perform if you need to swap the battery on a whim. Typically, you’ll find the battery beneath the bonnet, in the boot, or even under the car seats. Afterward, all you need are some basic tools to disconnect and remove the battery.
Alternator replacement can be a tad more complex. This depends on what type of car you have. Some put the alternator right on top of the engine bay. If you have a newer car you need a tensioner tool to release the belt. In transverse-oriented engines, some manufacturers put the alternator way below, close to the wheel well. In this case, you might need to jack up your car and work from there.
Starter replacements can be pretty simple too. DIY-friendly cars might put it somewhere easy to access from the engine bay. Longitudinally mounted engines will generally require you to work from below the vehicle. In some cars, removing the transmission mounting and allowing it to droop might even be necessary.
Either way, before you perform a starter or alternator replacement, always be sure to disconnect the negative terminal at your battery. Otherwise, you risk touching the large positive cable on the starter or alternator to the body and shorting it out.