Few things are more frustrating than trying to start your car in the morning and realizing that it's just not going to happen. You turn the key in the ignition and instead of getting the sound of your car roaring to life you get some clicking sounds or no sounds at all, and inexplicably the radio and lights turn on but nothing else. For a lot of drivers this can be a very confusing issue. You think that, if your lights and radio are working, that obviously your battery is fine so what else could be the problem?
As it happens there are a few different reasons that your car lights and radio may turn on but the car itself just won't get started. Let's take a look at each and then see what you might be able to do about it.
A Bad Starter
Before your engine gets started when you turn the key in the ignition, a starter motor is what's required to get your car working. The starter motor, sometimes called the starter solenoid although the solenoid is technically just one part of the starter, is an electronic motor that causes your engine to turn over or crank. You've likely heard those terms before, usually from a mechanic talking about how your engine works. You need your engine to crank or turn over to get it to start. The starter motor uses power from your battery to allow this to happen.
For the starter motor to work it needs a high electrical current from your battery. If your battery is fully charged, but when you try to start your vehicle you end up getting just a clicking sound or nothing at all happening that means that your starter motor isn't working properly. You might also hear a screeching sound as opposed to just a clicking.
It's worth remembering that the starter doesn't have to make a noise to let you know there's something wrong with it. Sometimes they'll just die and that will be the end of it.
Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Starter
If your starter is to blame for this problem, there are a few other signs that may serve as early warning before it gets to this point. If you experienced any of these before you got to the point where your car wouldn't start and just the lights and radio work, then you may want to begin with the starter as a place where you head for your repairs.
Clicking: Like we said, the starter typically makes some noise when it starts to go bad. It doesn't happen all the time, but if you had some days in the past where you noticed the sound as you got your car started in the morning, then it could indicate that your starter was dying and now it's officially dead on you.
Smoke: You never want to see smoke coming from your vehicle, but this is a sign of a potential problem with your starter. If you’ve been trying for a little while to get your car started unsuccessfully and then noticed some smoke coming from under the hood it could be a result of the starter overheating and causing some of the electrical components inside to burn. You definitely want to stop what you're doing at this point.
Oil Leak: You can do a visual inspection under the hood and check out where your starter motor is located. It should be on the driver side of the motor and usually just below the left side of the cylinders. If the starter is covered in oil from a leak, that could have damaged the starter and caused it to not work properly. This is typically a problem that will require the replacement of the starter as you definitely don't want a starter motor that is saturated with oil.
Cost of Replacing a Starter Motor
If your starter motor has failed and needs to be replaced completely it's not exactly the cheapest part in your vehicle to get replaced. Starter motors could end up costing you anywhere from $430 to $700 to get replaced. As always, this very much depends on the make, model, and year of your vehicle.
If you want to replace the starter yourself to save some money on labour costs you can find videos like this one on YouTube that walk you through the process in a very clear and precise way. Starter motors themselves can start as low as about $115 if you look for one on AutoZone. Just make sure you're getting the right part for your make and model of vehicle, and you could definitely save yourself a chunk of change doing this repair by yourself.
Another thing to take a look at if your battery is in good working order are the fuses and fusible links. You may need to check your owner's manual to find out where the fuse box is located in your vehicle and then pop it open. As long as your car isn't running you can inspect the fuse box to look for a metal wire. If you see a metal wire inside a plastic casing that's broken or damaged, then you likely have a blown fuse that's not allowing the starter to get power from the battery.
Fuse Replacement Costs
Getting a fuse replaced in your vehicle is not particularly expensive at all, regardless of the make and model of vehicle for the most part. Replacing a fuse in most vehicles is going to cost you less than $100. Probably between $75 and $100 including parts and labour. The part itself will actually cost under $10, often even under $5 depending on the kind that you need. If you want to do this yourself, you just need to make sure you have the exact right fuse for the job as there are many options to choose from out there.
The ignition switch in your vehicle is the electrical component that activates the electrical accessories in your vehicle as well as powering on the fuel ignition systems and cranking the engine. It's the part that you put your key in or the button that you press to get your vehicle started. At least that's the outside part that you'll see in your vehicle most often. There's obviously a lot more going on behind the switch than what you see when you simply put the key in it.
A problem with your ignition switch could allow power to travel to the lights and the other electrical components while not sending the correct signal that you're trying to start your vehicle. Remember, your ignition switch works in three different positions. The first position will turn on your accessories like the lights. The second position gets the fuel and ignition system working while it is the third position that actually cranks the engine. So if the switch is able to work in the first two positions but a problem is preventing it from hitting the third then you may be able to get the lights and radio working but not turn the car on.
Signs of a Bad Ignition Switch
If the problem you’re experiencing is with your ignition switch, there's going to be a few signs and symptoms that you could be on the lookout for to let you know this is the cause.
Stalling While Driving: If your vehicle stalls suddenly while you're driving that's a potential problem with your ignition switch. It’s because the ignition switch is cutting off power to the fuel and ignition systems even though you're in the middle of driving. That will cause your engine to stall out and could potentially be quite dangerous if it happens when you're on the road driving at high speed.
Start and Stall: Not as dangerous as stalling while driving but still frustrating is when you turn the car on, and it seems to work and then stalls out shortly thereafter. If this had happened previously and now, you're finding that your car won't start but just the accessories are on like your lights, then you may want to look at the ignition switch is the problem here.
Cost of Replacing an Ignition Switch
Ignition switches typically aren't very expensive, and you can find some cheap ones for as little as $20 or so. If you want a better quality ignition switch, and you probably do want to get an OEM ignition switch rather than a cheap after-market one, you can find those for closer to $50 to as much as $300 or so. After you factor in the cost of labor you could end up spending anywhere between $100 and $500 at a mechanic to get your ignition switch replaced for a new one. This great variation really depends on the make, model, and year of your vehicle. If you have you ever checked out the ignition system and some modern luxury cars you know they can be pretty complicated as opposed to the more simple ones from older vehicles, so if you need to get that replaced it's going to cost you.
Can a Battery Be Dead if the Lights Work?
Some drivers may dismiss the idea that a battery is responsible for this problem out of hand. After all, it seems like the opposite situation is occurring here. If the lights and radio turn on then clearly your battery is working, right? That's not always the case. When your battery is operating the way it's supposed to it should be putting out 12.6 volts worth of power. That's ideal. The longer you use your battery, the lower the output is going to be.
As your battery loses charge it will be unable to get your vehicle started at some point but it's possible that it could still power the accessories in your vehicle at the same time even with a low charge present. The headlights, the radio, and the other parts of your vehicle that run on battery power actually require quite a low amperage. Somewhere around 20 amps to 30 amps. The starter in your car however, which is necessary to get your engine to turn over, requires about three hundred amps to get going. A low charge battery can't handle 300 amps, but it could certainly pull 20 amps to 30 amps to get your lights turned on.
How to Test a Bad Battery
If you want to rule the battery out as the source of the problem then you're going to want to use a multimeter or a hydrometer to test your battery to see if it's actually holding a charge the way it should be. Remember, as we said, a battery should have about 12.6 volts showing up on a multimeter when you test it. Anywhere from 12.5 to 12.6 is usually good. If you're down around 12.3 your battery is seriously running low and everything below that your battery may actually need to be replaced.
A quick way to test whether or not the battery is the source of the problem with your vehicle is to get it jumped. If your vehicle is able to accept a charge from another battery and get started, then you know for sure that the battery was the source of the problem. However, if you get a jump from another car and your vehicle still isn't able to get started then we've ruled out the battery as the source of the problem and you may have to look at one of the other potential causes for the reason why your car isn’t getting started.
Cost of Replacing a Bad Battery
Car batteries typically cost somewhere between $50 and $150 if you want to buy one brand new. It will end up costing you more if you take it to a mechanic to actually get it replaced in your vehicle. However, swapping in an old battery for a new one is a very basic car maintenance job and shouldn't be a problem to get done on your own. If you've never done it before and aren’t one hundred percent sure how to get the job done, there are many videos like this one you can find on the internet that will walk you through the process pretty easily. That way you'll be saving yourself a few dollars on the battery which is never a bad idea.
The Bottom Line
There are a handful of reasons why your electrical components like lights and radio will work even though your car isn't turning over. Through the process of elimination, you can determine which one it is and getting it repaired becomes that much easier once you know exactly what caused the problem to begin with. Just remember that it's not always the most obvious thing that's happening, and sometimes even the least obvious thing, probably with the battery, could be the reason for this to happen.