What is my car trying to tell me?
September 8, 2009 2:36 PM   Subscribe

For the last year or two, my car occasionally made a short, electronic beep as I turned the key to start it up. For the past week, it's been doing it at least once a day, and the beep is longer, sometimes followed by a series of three or four shorter beeps. What does this mean?

This is a 2002 Ford Focus. Nothing is lit up on the dashboard, it's driving fine, and everything else seems to be working normally.

The beep is short and quiet (you don't notice it if the radio is on), not as loud or insistent as the "ding ding" of leaving the headlights on or starting the car before buckling the seatbelt.

It was winter when it started happening, and I thought it had something to do with the temperature being low, but since then it's happened all year round. Sometimes it would happen a couple times a week, and then it would go weeks before happening again.

For the past week, it's been happening when I drive my car for the first time each day, and then if I don't drive for a while (e.g. while I'm at work) it'll do it again when I drive hours later. If I'm just out running errands, and get back to the car within an hour, it doesn't beep.

I don't think it's anything major, or else wouldn't some dashboard light be coming on? I just don't know what it's trying to tell me!
posted by LolaGeek to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
I had a car that used to do this if the outside temperature was below 3 deg C. A soft, gentle reminder-type bleep?

If your car has this, is your external temperature sender reading incorrectly. Clutching at straws department, mind you.
posted by Brockles at 2:57 PM on September 8, 2009

Do you have automatic locks? If so, do you know where the sound is coming from?

I ask because I have a 2003 Ford Focus with a faulty auto-lock mechanism in the passenger door that makes an awful electronic beeping-type noise when the doors lock. The beep is different every time (sometimes it is very loud, sometimes there isn't one, sometimes there are several beeping sounds in succession). I wonder if your problem is not the same problem as mine, only less severe?
posted by k8lin at 3:06 PM on September 8, 2009

Yeah, I found that one too. It could be something the matter with the chime electronics. I think it's nothing to do with the engine or safety systems. If it's $100 worth of annoying, take it to the dealership. This one is too specific for us to get, I fear.
posted by luckypozzo at 4:08 PM on September 8, 2009

Possibly low battery for alarm...
posted by oldefortran at 4:40 PM on September 8, 2009

Thanks all :o)

Brockles: I thought it might be temperature-related at first, but my car is fairly bare-bones and I don't know if it's sophisticated enough to care about the temperature. (I know some cars give a warning ding if it's below freezing, for example - mine doesn't.)

k8lin: I do have automatic locks - they lock automatically once I'm going 5 MPH. It's so short and quiet I can't really tell for sure, but it seems like the sound is just coming from the center control console.

nikkorizz and luckypozzo: No food or drink allowed in my car...

oldefortran: I don't have any alarm besides the one that starts the horn honking if someone bangs into it (or if I hit the panic button). Is this what you mean, or are you referring to an add-on alarm?
posted by LolaGeek at 5:48 PM on September 8, 2009

Is it an actual beep or could it be a high pitched buzz instead? When it beeps multiple times, are the beeps a fixed duration and interval?
And there's absolutely no other symptom besides the faint sound, right? No intermittent electrical problem, no prolonged cranking?
If there are any other symptoms or the noise is in any way irregular, you could have a relay that's starting to go bad.

There are tons of relays behind the dashboard that come to life when you turn the key. A relay is basically a switch that's controlled by a little electromagnet. A relay in good condition will click solidly, but one in which the electromagnet trigger or switch mechanism is deteriorating can make a poor contact and, if conditions are just perfect, the electromagnet might be underpowered every so slightly and cause the switch to turn on and off so rapidly that it buzzes.
This is very similar to the door lock solenoids that k8lin is talking about. The door locks are bigger and not muffled behind the dashboard and can make a much more aggressive noise.

It'll only do it in the morning or in the cold because, once the relay is active, it has current flowing through it warming it up so it's less likely to be sticky later.

This is a TOTAL LONG SHOT, but its the only thing that I can think of that doesn't also have some accompaniment. If it were a warning beep, there'd be a light on to go with it. Seatbelt, low fuel, immobilizer, or whatever other myriad of warning lights your Focus might display.

What would be awesome is if you can get us a recording of the noise! Next time you think the car will make the noise, get all up under the dashboard and turn the key. You'll be in a better position to capture the sound, if it's a sticky relay like I think it could be.
Or, you could just put up with the noise until something stops working. Like, a few months from now, the car will neither start or make that beep. Then, your mechanic will replace the fuel pump relay or something and you'll never hear the sound again.
posted by Jon-o at 6:40 PM on September 8, 2009

It's definitely a little beep or blip, not a buzz or ding. I'll see if I can record it, but it's so sporadic. Just tonight:
- My husband and I get in the car, it's been off about 2 hours. I tell him to listen for the beeping noise before I start it up, but it doesn't make a noise.
- We drive <1> - We go to dinner, come back to the car about 90 minutes later. No beep.

So weird! As long as it's not an emergency or safety issue, I'll just wait until my next oil change or whatever and ask them to take a look then. Jon-o, if it's a relay like you're suggesting, is this something they could easily diagnose (by looking at it, or hooking it up to the computer)?
posted by LolaGeek at 6:48 PM on September 8, 2009

Oh hey, my less-than sign ate half my post. Here's what happened tonight:
- My husband and I get in the car, it's been off about 2 hours. I tell him to listen for the beeping noise before I start it up, but it doesn't make a noise.
- We drive less than 10 minutes to a gas station where we put air in the tires, because for some reason I think maybe that's what the car's trying to tell me (they were just a little low). Five minutes later, I start the car and it makes a beep - so I guess it didn't want air.
- We go to dinner, come back to the car about 90 minutes later. No beep.

Also, Jon-o, I don't know how to write this out, but it's either a "bip!" or if it's doing the multiple thing, it goes, "bip! b-b-bip!" So the multiple beeps are shorter, but otherwise it's always the same length sound. No other sounds, no problems starting the car or anything else. And doesn't just happen when it's cold or hasn't been driven for a while, apparently!
posted by LolaGeek at 6:55 PM on September 8, 2009

Well, there'd be no way to tell by looking at it. A relay is just a little box that plugs into an electrical panel with a bunch of other relays. They only thing I've ever been able to determine visually from a relay is if it's burned or melted from an electrical problem (NOT what's happening here).
The diagnostic computer will only be able to help if the faulty relay is a big enough problem that other stuff is starting to go wrong, too. And it'd have to be stuff that's controlled and monitored by one of the many on-board computers, be it engine control or body electrical control. If it's part of a simple non-computer controlled circuit, the diagnostic computer won't be of any help.

If it is a bad relay, the best way to find it is to wedge your head up under the dash or take the under-dash panel apart until the relays are exposed and turn the key under prime-noise-making conditions.
As far as it being any sort of safety or emergency, if it's just a sound, then it's just a sound. Any REAL warning in your car will correspond with a warning light on your dash. It won't just make a mystery beep and hope you notice. It'll go, "BEEP BEEP BEEP ABS LIGHT PAY ATTENTION FIX ME."

Can you make it happen if you turn the key really slowly?
posted by Jon-o at 7:05 PM on September 8, 2009

Exciting new developments!

1) I was finally able to record the "beep beep" noise as I started up the car. (For comparison, here is the usual "bong bong" noise the car makes if I leave my headlights on or don't buckle my seatbelt.) These files are .amr format, you can play them with QuickTime.

2) This morning I went out to start up my car and the engine didn't turn over for the first couple tries. The radio and lights and everything still turned on. The car eventually did start up and I drove straight to a garage, but the mechanic wasn't in. I was able to start it again and drove to a different garage, where a mechanic took a look and said it was currently working, and should be fine to drive around for the day (it was), but the engine wasn't turning over as quickly as it should (even though it doesn't seem like it's taking any longer to start up than usual). The battery is only a little over 3 years old, so he said the problem might be with the battery or the charging system. If so, is this what the "beep beep" was trying to tell me? Either way, I'm taking it to my regular garage either tomorrow or the next day for them to check the battery and/or charging system now.
posted by LolaGeek at 4:27 PM on October 11, 2009

Awesome job on capturing that noise. However, I'm totally stumped to identify it. It could be the chime malfunctioning or something like that. It's probably not any sort of legitimate warning chime, however. I don't think it's "telling you" anything as much as it's just happening.
Three years is the younger end of the spectrum for battery life span. Whatever's happening with this noise could be corresponding to some small piece of electronics that's shorted and it's drawing a small amount of power while the car is off. Like, if it's a shorted switch, relay, or motor, you could be completing the rest of its circuit when you start the car, causing an intermittent function and thereby cause the noise. That'd be really odd and it's kind of a long shot.
But when you take it to a garage, ask them to check for a parasitic draw. That is, something that's remaining on while the car should be off. We might find that your noise and your draw are one in the same.
posted by Jon-o at 6:17 AM on October 12, 2009

The garage confirmed that the battery is low, and they're going to replace it. I told them it was only a little over 3 years old and asked if there's anything that might be causing it to run down, and they said they'd check on that, but then asked how much I drive, whether it's mostly short trips or if I take it longer distances.

I drive 30 miles round-trip to work 4-5 days a week, and usually do some other local driving around the area most days, but rarely take my car on trips longer than an hour or so one-way. They suggested that I might not be driving long enough distances to fully charge the battery. Is ~20 miles/day really not enough to keep a battery charged?

Either way, I guess we'll see what happens when they put in the new battery. Hopefully, no more beeping!
posted by LolaGeek at 7:02 AM on October 13, 2009

Is ~20 miles/day really not enough to keep a battery charged?
It's more than plenty. If you were driving two miles a day, with every accessory in you car set on Stun, you'd be killing your battery. Twenty miles is a great battery charging distance and, given that figure, I suspect that there's an additional draw on your battery.
posted by Jon-o at 9:14 AM on October 13, 2009

My 2004 Focus SVT is doing the same thing. Just started in the last couple of months. I am also thinking it is related to the battery, since my battery is due to be replaced (I'm still on the original battery). Did replacing your battery stop it from beeping?

For those asking about the type of noise, it is a definite "beep" from the center console. I have been trying to find out if a different "light" is coming up on the dashboard, but I haven't seen one when I remember to look! It almost seems like it comes from the radio. So, I've tried starting the car with and without the radio on at different times. It seems to have started only since the weather turned cold. My husband works with batteries and he hasn't checked my battery yet, but he says it seems like its a battery life indicator by my description (now if I could only get him to check the battery!)

So, if your problem is solved by replacing the battery, or not, LolaGeek, I'd be interested in knowing.

posted by melonyc at 9:08 PM on December 14, 2009

Yes, after replacing the battery, the beeping did stop! (However, about a month later I ended up replacing the entire car, so I can't vouch for whether or not this was a long-term solution.)
posted by LolaGeek at 9:36 AM on December 15, 2009

Thanks LolaGeek. I appreciate your response!

posted by melonyc at 11:29 AM on December 19, 2009

« Older In need of Finglish (Farsi) translation.   |   UnderArmour alternatives? Yes, no, maybe so? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.