'89 7.3L IDI diesel won't crank
May 24, 2012 3:27 PM   Subscribe

1989 7.3L IDI diesel won't turn over in my E350

Hey guys, I am still really a novice on my truck.

It is an '89 E-350 former uhaul truck. 7.3L diesel.

It was down for a few months of non use. Turned over but wouldn't start when i tried to start recently. Kept trying. Batteries ran down. Charged batteries. Tried again, after some work, it started up. Ran it for an hour or so. Shut down. Next day, ran it again, shut it down. Out of town for a long weekend. Came back Sunday. Tried to start truck again, turned over strong. Wouldn't start, kept trying. It turns over but doesn't start. I turn the key to try again, but this time when I turn the the key to start, I get nothing. Red light on dash turns on, I hear the click click click of what I think are the glow plugs. That all is normal. But nothing, no cranking, no nothing. Only thing I see, and I can't remember if this happened when it would crank, but when I turn the ignition to start it up, a red light on the dash that says "BRAKE" comes on while I'm turning the key to start it. Same as if e-brake is no, but ebrake is not on.

I'm a dunce on these things, still pretty new to them. Can do some basic stuff to an engine with instruction from a manual.

Batteries are charged...

What the heck do I do now? I need to trouble shoot so I can get it running...
posted by Salvatorparadise to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total)
When odd dash lights (i.e. the brake light) start coming on like that, it can often be a sign that your alternator is shot. This would also explain why the battery is having the life sucked out of it. Get your charging system checked.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:42 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

How new is the battery? An old battery can read fully charged on a charger/tester but not be actually charged (this is called a surface charge). So if you got the battery with the truck my guess would be the battery is bad. If the battery is new, take it out of the truck and take it somewhere (like sears) that can put a load test on it to see if the battery is actually good. I see no reason at this point to think your alternator is bad. The truck isn't running very much (just idling for an hour is NOT going to charge up your battery)and just sitting their hooked up to the ruck is pretty hard on an old battery. It takes LOTS and LOTS of power to start a diesel engine(in the sense of it physically turning over) due to the design, lots more than a gas engine and they are harder to start (in the since of getting the engine to start when cold)than a gas because of the fuel. And then through in a (probably)high mileage engine with a weak battery and old fuel (the light volatiles in fuel tend to evaporate off quickly and that makes starting a cold engine much harder).

So I would get a new good battery and install that and try to get some new fuel in it and see if will then start. I would try that first. Diesels are a little easier to diagnose since you don't have ignition system and timing to worry about. If it won't start after this it is not getting any fuel or the fuel is bad. To test this on a diesel you need a fuel pressure tester and if you aren't that familiar with engines it is best left to professional at that point.

BTW a bad alternator will not keep a vehicle from starting and running for a long time and with a deisel, once it is started I don't think it needs any electrical power except for the fuel pump (if electrical and not mechanical). If the alternator is bad once it is running the lights should all be off, if they aren't you have a problem (as you probably already know).

second BTW all the trouble lights on the dash (called the christmas tree) should turn on with the key in the switch and turned to on but not running. If they aren't you have a problem. The brake light is probably a bad switch on the brake light sender unit on the brake lever under the dash or the emergency brake handle-the plastic these are made out of gets old and brittle and breaks. It is unlikely to be the problem you are asking about here.
posted by bartonlong at 4:14 PM on May 24, 2012

Batteries are charged...

You say that, but it sounds like you may have shitty batteries. They aren't holding enough charge in a short period and certainly don't have enough charge to start the truck. It may look 'charged' when the charger is on, but likely the charge will decay very quickly and it just can't flow current. I'd get your battery tested, or just change it if it is more than 4 years old. Get the biggest one that will fit in the hole.

I hear the click click click of what I think are the glow plugs

Glow plugs don't click. That's the starter solenoid. There is electric charge enough to push the starter into the ring gear to crank the engine, then not enough juice left to actually turn the lump. I'm pretty sure your battery is pooched.

All the lights and other 'symptoms' should be completely ignored until the battery is replaced or tested as good. All kinds of weird shit will show up with a low voltage system.
posted by Brockles at 4:51 PM on May 24, 2012

I don't think the glow plugs are clicking - they're just resistance heaters, like the element in a toaster. Clicking is not something they should do, though the relay that turns them on might make some noise.

A single click would indicate a bad starter solenoid. But I don't think that would produce multiple clicks - at least not in my experience. Does the "click click click" occur when the key is in the "on" or the "start" position? I've had very electronic cars multi-click with key at "on" when the battery was really low, so perhaps it's just a symptom of low battery voltage.

So... it sounds like you have insufficient battery voltage to turn the starter (due to a bad alternator, perhaps, or a cabin light being left on, or....?) Or, possibly but not as likely, you have a bad starter solenoid, or a corroded connector somewhere in the starting circuit. That is, a connection between (battery and starter) or between (starter and ground) or between (battery and ground) is effectively mimicking the low battery scenario or preventing the alternator from charging the battery.

I would pursue the following course of action:
  • Charge the battery and try again. If it starts but fails to start again soon after some use, or if it almost-but-not-quite starts when fully charged, you probably have a bad battery. If you have a bad battery, it is possible that it was killed by a bad alternator, but batteries die of natural causes too.
  • If you can't get it to turn over with a fully charged, known-good battery, remove, clean and replace the main electrical connections at the starter, and also the battery terminal clamps.
  • If that doesn't work, try tapping the starter solenoid (small cylinder piggybacked on the larger cylinder that is the starter) with something like a hammer and see if it turns over after that. If so, you need your starter worked on or replaced.
On preview: dammit, Brockles!
posted by richyoung at 4:56 PM on May 24, 2012

Response by poster: i think I know what I may have done. Upon reading the instructions on my "battery charger," I see now that it is a maintainer. And yes, it says not to use it to recharge large, depleted batteries. I only used it on one. But I bet I may have killed the battery's ability to hold a deep charge by using this. The other battery probably never really charged from an hour of idle. So...one battery is probably kicked, the other needs to be charged appropriately. These batteries are a few years old. I shoulda read the directions.

I'll have the batteries checked out. Will get new ones or have them charged appropriately.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 5:59 PM on May 24, 2012

I have this same engine, although in a different vehicle. The clicking you're hearing is normal. I get the brake light when I'm starting it up, as well. Also normal. It turns off once the engine fires.

I've had an alternator go bad on me before, though it was while I was driving (a rather long haul). I noticed the charge gauge on my dash (not sure if your 350 has this, but that's a good key) start to drop. Alternatively, you can just stick a voltmeter on your alternator and see what it reads. That's the test I used, quick and painless. They're maybe $4 max from a local hardware store. If it reads low, that's the problem.

I'm not a mechanic, or even reasonably well versed in this engine, but I've spent some time with it. I think the problem is either old batteries, or a bad alternator. Your starter is probably fine.
posted by daboo at 6:03 PM on May 24, 2012

But I don't think that would produce multiple clicks

It depends on the starter and the level of charge. The starters that are no permanently engaged can do multiple clicks as the drive gear is thrown in (against a spring) and then as the battery can't sustain be current to hold it it springs back. Voltage can recover and clack it goes in again etc. as the battery slowly dies they can go "click......click....click..click...cli..cli..drrrrrrr". It's quite entertaining in an "oh shit, now I have to buy a battery" kind of way.
posted by Brockles at 6:03 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

it says not to use it to recharge large, depleted batteries.

This will most likely be because having been designed as a maintenance (top-up) charger, it can't push out enough current to charge a depleted battery in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time. Maintenance chargers are basically designed to offset the battery's own self-discharge current and not much more.

I only used it on one. But I bet I may have killed the battery's ability to hold a deep charge by using this.

I strongly doubt that improper use of a maintenance charger, in and of itself, would damage a battery. Far more likely is that you simply have a shitty old battery (they're good for maybe four years - after that they get rapidly worse) that your weak-ass charger never had the time to bring up to full charge.

Car batteries don't mind being trickle-charged if you can afford the time to do so but they really, really dislike being allowed to discharge to near flat. Every time you let a car battery discharge to the point where it can no longer start your motor, it takes a month or two off its service life.
posted by flabdablet at 10:44 PM on May 24, 2012

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