She done died and left me...
June 13, 2010 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Fix-my-car-filter! I have a '92 Honda Accord LE that's showing starting problems; it acts like the battery is dead... but it can't be, can it?

When I hop into my car and try to start her up, she does a weird thing: I'll get to accessories, all the dash lights will come on like normal, and then, when I go a step further to fire her up, she dies, all the lights go off on the dash, and she won't even turn over.

We've cleaned the battery terminals, then replaced the battery and the alternator. Sometimes, if we go slowly enough, we can get the key to the accessories position, where we can make the windows go up and down, but this trick seems like it only works for a while and then the dash lights won't even come on. Regardless of how we wiggle the key, she won't ever start. There's no clicking or any real resistance when I turn the key to start her, it just doesn't do anything.

Upon replacing the battery, she worked fine for a few hours and then died. We could jump her to get her to start, but she would die mid-trip. This led us to the alternator. When we replaced the alternator, she worked fine for four days and now she's doing it again. (And before anyone comes up with the obvious answer, the main relay was replaced two summers ago.)
posted by WidgetAlley to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could have a faulty ignition switch or, if your car is equipped with an automatic transmission, you could also have a faulty Park/Neutral switch (also known as a Neutral Safety Switch).

Try putting the car in neutral when you start the car and get back to us. Jiggling the gear selector in park and neutral can some times highlight a faulty park/neutral switch.
posted by Jon-o at 2:22 PM on June 13, 2010

But a bad park/neutral switch won't cause the car to die while it's running. You say there's no resistance in the ignition when you turn the key. If the switch is bad, vibrations could cause the contacts to open while the car is running and shut the car down.
posted by Jon-o at 2:25 PM on June 13, 2010

no clicking or any real resistance when I turn the key to start her

You're saying that when you turn the key to the 'Start' position, which is normally spring loaded, you don't feel any spring resistance? And that turning the key slowly makes any appreciable difference in anything? In that case you need a new ignition switch and/or lock cylinder, because neither of those things are supposed to happen.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:25 PM on June 13, 2010

Does it make a loud click at the time that it stops working?
posted by jefeweiss at 2:28 PM on June 13, 2010

Yes, she is an automatic-- I tried throwing her in neutral, but it didn't make a difference. Of course, the battery is probably dead by now, so I'll have to wait for the boy to come home so I can jump her, and see if neutral makes a difference then.

You're saying that when you turn the key to the 'Start' position, which is normally spring loaded, you don't feel any spring resistance?

No, I definitely feel the spring resistance-- I just wanted to let everyone know that the key-turning felt normal, so it probably wasn't that part of the ignition lock that controls the key mechanism, if that makes sense.

And that turning the key slowly makes any appreciable difference in anything?

It does seem that way, but only until a certain point. A few turns later, the dash lights won't even come on-- as if the battery had given us its last gasp. If it's the ignition switch, though, would replacing the battery and alternator make any difference? It ran perfectly for three days.

Does it make a loud click at the time that it stops working?

I'm sorry to be so unhelpful, but I'm really not sure. She only died while her wheels were moving twice, but I don't think I heard a click. I couldn't swear to it, though.

Thank you all, you've all been helpful already!
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:39 PM on June 13, 2010

Now your description sounds like a failing starter with a side of mystery stalling. The jump start makes a difference because it supplies some extra power to overcome the binding starter. The next time it fails to start, have someone whack the starter with a hammer while you turn the key.

Did the car ever stall after you replaced the alternator?
posted by Jon-o at 2:49 PM on June 13, 2010

Of course, the battery is probably dead by now

Wait, wait, why would the battery be dead if you just replaced both it and the alternator? Because it worked for a while after that and now it doesn't? I suspect that these events aren't related and that you simply have an ignition switch that works intermittently, and you're trying to draw a causation between them that doesn't exist. When a battery is really dying it is not a sudden thing, it will gradually tail off -- you'll hear the starter turning over slower and slower each time you start the engine, until eventually there will only be enough charge to run the interior lights but not turn the starter, but even then you'd expect to see the interior lights gradually dim. When everything suddenly turns off as you're just fiddling with they key that is not a battery dying.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:59 PM on June 13, 2010

did the voltage regulator get replaced with the alternator? (might be built-in)

some good troubleshooting on a similar issue here
posted by kimyo at 3:04 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a 92 Accord for a long time. At some point it started having issues starting. Not exactly the same as what you describe (mine would start and then after driving for a bit wouldn't start) but in any case, my dad's mechanic finally figured it out. Apparently there is some relay switch that commonly went out in 92 Accords. It took about 5 mechanics and more than a year of dealing with the sometimes starting car to figure it out. I don't know much more than that, but if you want to talk to the mechanic who fixed it, let me know.
posted by sulaine at 3:14 PM on June 13, 2010

I've had several elderly Hondas, and a worn-out ignition switch - or even a worn-out key - is a definite possibility.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 3:36 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's quite possibly a couple of different things. I'm betting ignition switch.

Theory: ignition switch failed in a weird way, causing the car to sometimes start, but not turning the alternator on. The ignition switch has a number of different circuits in it that it turns on or off depending on where the key is. Some can go out (the one that runs the engine, for example), while the others stay on.

(The ignition switch is probably not the thing you stick the key in. The actual switch is inside the steering column somewhere, that is mechanically connected to that thing. Which is probably called the ignition lock.)

Question: when you turn the key to "on", but the engine is not running, does the alternator/battery light go on? It should. (It should also go out when the car is running.) If it isn't on, something is broken. Either: alternator installed incorrectly, field wire is broken, or the light is burnt out. In older cars, presumably yours, the alternator/battery light is part of the circuit that turns the alternator on. If the light is burnt out, or the wires feeding it*, the alternator will not charge.

(* One of the wires that feeds it probably goes through the ignition switch.)
posted by gjc at 3:59 PM on June 13, 2010

I just had a similar car problem. We also replaced the battery and alternator, but when the car stalled yet again while driving we gave up and had it towed to a mechanic. It turned out that the distributor was cracked and needed replacing. The mechanic's other theories prior to successfully diagnosing the problem were faulty spark plug or fuel pump. Good luck!
posted by gatorae at 4:19 PM on June 13, 2010

Come on now, don't go suggesting random things because your problem was superficially similar. The OP has a car that won't crank. A cracked distributor won't stop a car from cranking -- starting yes, but you can remove the whole distributor cap and the entire ignition system for that matter and it will still crank all day long when you turn the key.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:55 PM on June 13, 2010

I came in here to say either bad earth (engine/chassis side rather than battery) or faulty ignition switch. My bet is on the switch.
posted by Brockles at 5:26 PM on June 13, 2010

Come on now, don't go suggesting random things because your problem was superficially similar

Welcome to the world of 'helpful' answers in Askme based on anecdotal evidence alone. Fair drives me crazy, it does...
posted by Brockles at 5:29 PM on June 13, 2010

replace the ground wire 1st.
posted by patnok at 5:56 PM on June 13, 2010

Also, a faulty PGM-FI (Main relay) will cause a crank-no-start condition. Additionally, faulty fuel delivery and ignition systems will allow the car to crank but not start. So, all of that can be ruled out. Even immobilizer and security systems allow the car to crank.
Quick question: does your keychain have about five pounds of junk hanging off of it? If the answer is yes, then the liklihood of a faulty ignition switch has jumped to the number one most plausible explaination.
posted by Jon-o at 6:01 PM on June 13, 2010

WidgetAlley, you can check the ignitor unit/module by pulling a spark plug and while it's plugged in to the cable/wire hold the firing end near a grounded piece of metal in in the engine compartment while turning the engine over. Don't start the engine, just see if it sparks. If it sparks, then I would go with Brockles suggestion that the problem is with the ignition switch.

If you don't get any spark, then it's the ignitor unit. It lives in/under the distributor and is a very cheap fix that your boy can do.

Good luck!

(I'm no Honda pro, but had the same problem with my wife's '93 civic.)
posted by snsranch at 6:09 PM on June 13, 2010

If you have something else (not quite a short circuit) running-down your battery between starts, you might have enough juice to light up the dash panel, but not enough to turn the starter.

How often do you use the car?

Ask around for a clamp ammeter or a digital multimeter (DMM) with a clamp ammeter accessory. Clip it around the positive (red) battery cable when the car is supposedly switched "off." If you read more than, say, 1 mA (one milliamp; I'm really taking a flier on this number), you may have a short somewhere in the electrical system, or a failed glovebox or trunk light switch.

Alternatively, put a full charge on the battery then remove the positive battery cable until you're ready to start the car again.

BTW, I too have a '92 Accord. I've never had this particular problem, but I'm very interested to see what it turns out to be.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:30 PM on June 13, 2010

Sounds like a bad starter. If the solenoid is bad, it can drain the battery, and/or ruin an alternator and/or the voltage regulator (which I believe, for that year and model, is located inside of the alternator). In other words, a short. Once you get the starter replaced, you'll need the alternator tested. As the battery is new, it should hold a charge once the started is replaced. FWIW I am mechanic, and it could be something else, my money is that the starter/and or solenoid is bad and the new alternator may also be blown (or possibly just the voltage regulator)....

Good luck
posted by peewinkle at 8:54 PM on June 13, 2010

After preview, it may also be the above mentioned ignition problem. Check for spark first.
posted by peewinkle at 8:55 PM on June 13, 2010

> I'll get to accessories, all the dash lights will come on like normal, and then, when I go a step further to fire her up, she dies, all the lights go off on the dash, and she won't even turn over.

This suggests a flat or dead battery (especially if you hear the click of the starter relay when you go the step further. - the drain of the starter motor takes the remaining power from the battery)

The first step would have been to recharge the battery, and/or use a battery tester on it (any shop that will sell you a battery will have a battery tester on hand to confirm whether the battery is dead, or just discharged - it's tested both when disconnected and when under load)

So you replaced the battery...

> she worked fine for a few hours and then died. We could jump her to get her to start, but she would die mid-trip

This suggests the alternator, the battery charging circuit, or the wiring between the alternator/charging cct and the battery: the battery is not being charged, so while driving it is being drained (for running all the car's electrics) until eventually it runs out of juice.

> we replaced the alternator, she worked fine for four days and now she's doing it again.

So this sounds like there was a problem with the alternator... but now something else has gone wrong: Charging circuit - if separate from the alternator - may have been damaged; Bad connection between alternator/regulator/charging cct/battery, or bad earth.

Note that you may also have killed the new battery by running it flat, so recharge it and get it tested...

If you have a voltmeter, check the battery voltage while the engine is running... It should be about 13.5-14.5volts. Much more than that suggests that the charging cct is overcharging your battery (which will kill it). Much less than that suggests that the battery is not being charged at all - check connections and regulator.

Another quick low-tech test you can do: loosen the earth/negative battery connector.. Start the car, and while it is running, turn the headlights on then, carefully disconnect the battery (there may be some small sparks). If it keeps running, and the headlights stay as bright then the alternator is providing enough current to run the car, but you might have another dead battery. If the car suddenly dies, then you know you still have a problem with the regulator/charging cct/alternator.
posted by nielm at 12:58 AM on June 14, 2010

I have a similar problem with my car. Sometimes I get no response when I turn the key, sometimes I get a little response but not enough juice to start, sometimes it tries to die while it's running. Replacing the battery helped for a while. Replacing the ends of the cables leading to the battery helped for a while. We haven't replaced the alternator.

We did figure it out. The bolts holding the leads onto the battery come loose, though the leads, battery, and bolts are all new in the last year. The connection can be iffy. So it sometimes doesn't recharge the battery correctly and the battery is drained; sometimes the battery is completely out of the circuit and doesn't respond at all. I'm not sure why this would make the car die while running, but fixing the connection eliminates that behavior too.

Every time I have a problem, now, I tighten the bolts and it's fine. I also tighten them once a month or every couple of weeks just to be on the safe side.
posted by galadriel at 7:03 AM on June 14, 2010

When this happened to my dad, it turned out that the battery and alternator were both fine, but the connection to the battery was at fault. Specifically, the red insulative boot that protects the positive terminal had gotten folded under the lug when it was connected, so there was only a tenuous bit of metal-to-metal contact happening alongside lots of smushed rubber.

It's also common for the battery cables themselves to fail -- the wire just outside the lug will either corrode or fatigue, and it'll have much more resistance than it should. Try holding the wire while someone else tries to crank the engine. If it gets warm, it's in dire need of replacement. Or just visually inspect it.

Keep in mind that if you only drive very short trips, less than five minutes average, the battery doesn't have time to fully recharge after each start. Starting an engine requires an immense outpouring of energy from the battery, and even a properly-functioning alternator needs several minutes to put it back.
posted by Myself at 9:07 AM on June 14, 2010

Okay, everybody, here's an update with some more information that may be crucial:

On Saturday, I drove it, when it was working fine, for 4+ hrs on the interstate without any problems. We stopped twice and both times she fired up just fine.

Prior to this (before we replaced the alternator), she would run (even idle) for a few minutes and then die as if her battery were dead. We replaced the battery and she did the same with the new one; then we replaced the alternator and she was fine for four days, including the aforementioned long trip. This leads me to believe that the alternator is working, because she hasn't died while running again-- she just won't start. This means, as far as I can tell, that we may have two separate problems, although I'm by no means an expert and may be wrong on that count.

Most importantly of all, I drove her today and conducted an experiment. I jumped her off, got to the place where I was going, and immediately disconnected the battery terminals from the battery, thinking if it were an electrical drain while she's parked that would solve it. This didn't seem to matter; the exact same problem (lights on, turn key to start, won't start, then the lights won't even come on) happened again.

I hope that's helpful as far as narrowing it down. At this point I'm thinking ignition switch but I may be wrong.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:08 PM on June 14, 2010

Terribly sorry, one more piece of info: today when I was coming home after starting her and I had to reverse, the lights got noticeably dimmer when I went from drive to reverse (on my automatic). It may be that this happens all the time and I am only now noticing it, since I'm looking for symptoms, but I would hate to leave the info out if it's significant, so, uh, there you go!
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:16 PM on June 14, 2010

I killed a car battery in an '93 Accord with a persistent brake light. The plastic pedal stopper had shattered to pieces, so the brake light remained on when the car turned off. Taped a penny to the pedal where it pressed the brake-light switch until the replacement part came in.
posted by liquoredonlife at 12:49 PM on June 18, 2010

Hi everyone! I'm glad to report that my car has officially been fixed! Hoooray! For those of you keeping up with the saga, it turned out to be a combination of several things: the alternator and battery did need replacing (which fortunately were the first two things we did), but the battery cables were also so damn frayed (seriously... they were probably making less than half the contact they should have been) that the car wasn't pulling enough juice to actually switch on. She's running fine now and I sincerely hope she stays that way!
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:48 AM on June 21, 2010

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