October 23, 2005 3:00 PM   Subscribe

After sitting un-started for about two weeks, my car won't start. What should I do before fleeing to the AAA?

I recently moved from a city where a car was a "necessity", to a city where you don't often need one. So, my Saturn SL-2 (model year 2000) sits in the same on-street parking space most of the time, with me starting it once a week as Car Talk has taught me to.

Unfortunately, I'd let this little weekend ritual slip for at least a week, maybe longer, and when I went to start my car this afternoon, it would crank, but never start/catch. The cranking also sounded much scrathier than it normally does.

So, being a mostly clueless american car owner, I did one of the new things I know how to do. I checked the oil. It was low! I bought three quarts of oil (5W-30) and added then one at a time, checking the dip stick between quarts until I was at the magic "full" line.

I then let the car sit for 10 minutes and tried starting it. The cranking sounded less scratchy (although that may be my imagination), but it still wouldn't catch.

Before I go running to the AAA, I thought I'd ask is any of the resident gearheads had any advice.
posted by alan to Travel & Transportation (44 answers total)
Did you try jumping it - it sounds like you might be losing charge.
posted by fshgrl at 3:20 PM on October 23, 2005

Response by poster: No, I don't think it's a jump situation. Like I said, the car's making it's cranking sound, if the battery was dead it wouldn't be doing that, right?
posted by alan at 3:29 PM on October 23, 2005

The car can definitely be cranking on a low battery and not catch. You have to decide whether the car is cranking normally or sounds a little slow. If there is any doubt, I would jump it and try just to make sure (get good, robust jumper cables and make sure someone in the source car is giving it gas).
posted by rolypolyman at 3:31 PM on October 23, 2005

Why not call AAA? If you have a membership already it's free and this is pretty much what it's for. Even if it is trying to crank it may not have the amps to spin the engine fast enough to start it.
posted by octothorpe at 3:32 PM on October 23, 2005

This is helpful.

Whatever you suspect, I'd fully charge the battery before doing anything else. Take it out, borrow or buy a charger and charge it overnight. Then you know that that bit is OK.

There are aerosol sprays which can help, you spray them into the air filter and they give the car a quick, volatile hit of fuel. Might be enough, particularly if the problem is just damp or cold. Your friendly auto shop will be able to sell you one (in the UK there's a brand called Bradex easy start).
posted by grahamwell at 3:32 PM on October 23, 2005

I just had the same problem. Car was cranking but not starting, radio/lights still worked and everything so I assumed it wasn't the battery. AAA jumped it, I took it to my mechanic, and it turned out my battery was bad. Don't immediately assume it's not battery-related -- might just need a jump and could be a simple fix.
posted by awegz at 3:34 PM on October 23, 2005

Not a gearhead, but I've owned a car that regularly had trouble starting. :) And lots of mechanics reviewed with me the basic principle that for the engine to run, you need air, fuel, and spark. So, if it doesn't start, that means one isn't getting well-supplied in the right balance. Electricity is a good candidate, but it sounds like you're getting that. So questions to ask yourself might be: do you smell fuel after a while of trying to start it? Is the air filter/intake clean?
posted by weston at 3:36 PM on October 23, 2005

Something similar just happened to me. It might be your starter. But since your car is making some noise, a battery problem is sounding more like it. But just to let you know.
posted by ruwan at 3:38 PM on October 23, 2005

Best answer: Your car needs three things to run. Air, fuel, and spark. When troubleshooting a "my car won't start" problem, these are the three to check. Spark is the easiest. If your battery can crank but the car won't turn over, you probably don't need to bother trying to jump it. You can try though; won't hurt. Check your spark plug wires, make sure those are OK. Your distributor or ignition coil(s) could be shot, but those are sort of a hassle to check yourself. The plugs themselves could somehow be messed up, but usually one or two being dead would still let the engine start, I think.

Air, as far as I know, is basically just intake and exhaust. Are either one clogged? Check your tailpipe for snow, dirt, or a chunk of potato (supposedly a common teenage prank). A clogged intake is pretty unlikely, and I don't know the layout of your engine so I'm not sure where yours is. Look for a plastic pipe with an air filter box in the middle of it.

Fuel is basically a question of gas quality (water or other crap in your tank?) and delivery. If there's no power to your fuel pump or injectors for some reason, that's a problem. If the fuel line or fuel filter is clogged you won't get gas to the fuel rail.

Has it rained a lot recently where you are? If so, moisture in the engine bay could cause any of a number of problems. Wait for a sunny day, push the car into the sunlight, and open the hood for a few hours to dry it out.

Good luck.
posted by autojack at 3:44 PM on October 23, 2005

You may have overfilled the oil resevoir trying to "fix it". I think you are supposed to check it when the oil is hot. If you take it somewhere to get the battery replaced, have them check it and drain the excess if necessary - you won't want to run it with too much oil.
posted by blackkar at 3:48 PM on October 23, 2005

Best answer: The following is all general auto knowledge, I've never wrenched a Saturn.

You need three things for a car to run: fuel, spark and compression (well and air but that is rarely a problem. You've probably got at least a little compression if the car is cranking over. Does the engine sound like a continuous whirr or does it pulsate? If it's just a whirr your pinion gear on the starter is probably not engaging the ring gear on the flywheel/flexplate. GM's are notorious for bad starter solenoids. It's so bad I've resorted to remote mounting them on Fieros with a Ford style remote solenoid.

If the sound sort of pulsates and if you only cranked it a couple times you might want to try it 5-6 more times (crank 10 seconds then wait a couple minutes to let the starter cool). Some cars have low oil pressure sensors that prevent spark if there is no oil pressure. You also may have flooded the car so for the first 3 times hold the pedal right to the floor (which will cut out cold start enrichment) and then the next 3 times just crack the accelerator.

You might have a failed fuel pump circuit. Check your fuel pump fuse and if possible swap something like your headlight relay for the fuel pump relay. Also if you have some one to help you can remove your gas cap and listen for the pump to turn when they turn the ignition to run. The pump will only run for a couple seconds if there isn't any oil pressure or rpm signal. You can also often smell gas after a lot of cranking

If you don't have DIS you can check for spark. Checking for spark requires a helper, a spare spark plug and a little knowledge. You can remove a plug wire from a spark plug and attach it to your spare plug. Hold the plug base against your block with an insulated pair of pliers and crank a couple seconds. You should see regular blue sparks jump between the electrodes. If you see sickly yellow sparks or no sparks at all you have a spark problem.

Some cars computers are sensitive to voltage, you might have enough amperage to charge but it pulls the voltage down so far that there isn't enough juice to power the ignition system. I've "fixed" a few Dodges with poor operating behaviour with a new battery. It's very telling that your car is five years old because five years is about how long an OEM battery is good for if it hasn't been abused.

PS: 3l is a lot. Your car probably only has a 4.4-5l capacity. It's possible you've damaged your engine and but the damage has only shown up now that the car is cold.
posted by Mitheral at 4:00 PM on October 23, 2005

blackkar writes "I think you are supposed to check it when the oil is hot."

Ideally engine oil levels should be checked cold with the car fairly level. The paranoid among automobile owners or those with expensive engines check it every day before starting a car. Modern cars are a lot tighter than older cars (I can tell I've been driving my '66 really, uh, "spiritedly" when the oil level drops noticeably in one day) but it's still a good idea to check it every tank of gas or before heading out on a trip.
posted by Mitheral at 4:11 PM on October 23, 2005

Mitheral writes "Some cars computers are sensitive to voltage, you might have enough amperage to charge but it pulls the voltage down so far that there isn't enough juice to power the ignition system."

Dang it, wrong word:
you might have enough amperage to crank but it pulls the voltage down that you have weak or no spark
posted by Mitheral at 4:13 PM on October 23, 2005

I am nervous about those three quarts of oil. That is really a lot to add. And you don't want to fun a car with the oil too overfilled, I blew out a major seal that way once, hundreds of buck to repair.
posted by LarryC at 4:16 PM on October 23, 2005

If your car has a carbie, this may work. If it's fuel injection, ignore me.

Remove the air filter so you can see into the top of the carbie. Get a lidful of petrol, just about two tablespoons or less. Pour this in the top of the carbie, then start the car. Let it run for a little while, and then turn it off and replace your air filter.

This used to always work for me when my car has similar symptoms.
posted by pompomtom at 4:56 PM on October 23, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks fro the general auto advice all, exactly what I was looking for.

I didn't want to call the AAA right away because

1. I don't have a mechanic in town yet, and wouldn't be able to tell AAA where to tow it if need be

2. I'd like to be less helpless when it comes to car stuff

The battery was replaced about two months ago, right before I drove across the country, so the 5 year battery life thing is spot on.

I found the air intake and the filter looked fine, and there was nothing obstructing the pipes. I checked the exhaust, and nothing was blocking it.

There were, however, tons of dead leaves around and under the car, so I decided to clear them out just in case they were interfering with something. In so doing, I uncovered this, which leads me to believe I am relatively fucked, and will be finding a local mechanic sooner rather than later.
posted by alan at 5:20 PM on October 23, 2005

The outside of that, at least, looks like a fuel filter. I've never seen the inside of one, but I'm kind of guessing that part is still attached to your fuel line. Letting your car sit a week or two won't do that, so I think it's coincidence that it happened when it did.

In the future, if you don't want to have to stress about your battery, you might get something like this solar charger to trickle charge your battery between uses.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:31 PM on October 23, 2005

i think that's way too big to be a fuel filter. maybe an oil filter, but they are not made in such a way that you'd be left with a hollow cylinder.
posted by joeblough at 5:52 PM on October 23, 2005

I can't even think what it would be, especially as it seems to be crusted with carbon deposits in your pic. Unless you can tell where it came from I'd be inclined to think it was random detritus.

If you had your battery changed recently I'd be even more inclined to give it a jump: and to closely examine the terminals to make sure all the parts are attached firmly. I assume you checked for corrosion? If you've moved somewhere a lot colder you're going to need a bigger battery as a general rule or you will get the problems you describe trying to do a cold start. All that goes double if you got it at Sears and it's a cheaper DieHard style- those suck in my humble opinion.

One other thing to check: gas. I had my truck towed one time because it would. not. start. and it turned out someone had siphoned my gas.
posted by fshgrl at 6:20 PM on October 23, 2005

alan writes "In so doing, I uncovered this, which leads me to believe I am relatively fucked, and will be finding a local mechanic sooner rather than later."

Have you got the 2.2 L4? That looks like it could be the casing for this cartridge type oil filter. Look around you may also find a cap that would block off one end. More pictures in this PDF from Wix (who by the way make some of the best filters.

If you can figure out where this goes you need a filter, casing (yours is dented) and cap plus some more oil probably. These are going to be dealer items most likely If it was me I'd just install all the bits and then give her a few drives listening for any wierd noises rather than taking into the shop. Then take it for an oil change just for insurance. You should have noticed your oil light coming on if this happened the last time you were driving. It possible someone needed a cap and stole yours if this part is reachable from underneath (I've had several staters off a Ford 300/6 stolen). That or you had the good luck for this to blow off so close to home that you got parked before your enigine pumped all the oil out of the missing oil filter housing. The fact that your engine cranks is a good sign. A seized engine wouldn't crank.
posted by Mitheral at 8:12 PM on October 23, 2005

If you've checked all the basics and it still won't start, take it to a good repair shop. Your saturn has a computer that can tell any shop what's wrong with the car in minutes. My girlfriend had a saturn that wouldn't start and after me farting around with it for a couple of hours, I finally took it to the shop. They hooked it up to the computer and found out by looking at the codes that there was a problem with the oxygen sensors.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 9:34 PM on October 23, 2005

Response by poster: I don't think those are carbon deposits, as I can't scratch them off. I believe it's black paint. (unless you meant the ash like substance on the inside)

Are those oil filters solid metal/steel? Because mystery part is. Also, I just checked the oil again, and we're still at full (not sure if a missing filter/casing would make the oil gush out over the past few hours since I filled it back up).

The inside is coated with an ash like substance in such a way that leads me to believe this was part of the exhaust system. I have no idea what part of the car it came from, and can't get a good look underneath.

The dent does look human made, rather than part of the part.

Two new pictures taken (sans flash)
posted by alan at 10:06 PM on October 23, 2005

This thread has me baffled but extremely curious. Some things I've been thinking:
  1. Oil filters don't just fall off (even cheapo Pram filters).
  2. I've never seen the casing of an oil filter separated from the filter itself. Are you sure that's from your car?
  3. That's definately not a fuel filter. First off, that's just a hollow black tube: fuel filters are shiny metal, have more parts, are small, and would be near the back of the car.
  4. Three quarts is probably way too much oil. The proper way to check the oil is start the car, let it run until it's warm, turn it off, then wait 5 minutes for the oil to return to the pan. Then check with the dipstick. Hopefully you didn't overfill it, but I'm positive this has nothing to do with your starting problem.
  5. My guess: Either your battery is low and can't put out enough to generate spark, or your alternator is dead. How many miles are on the car? Saturns have a tendency of eating alternators at around 70k miles.

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:16 PM on October 23, 2005

Forgot to add to the alternator possibility: could also very well be the starter.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:24 PM on October 23, 2005

Oh, and on the topic of oil consumption: the change interval for Saturns is something like every 3000 miles. I've heard a lot of horror stories about siezed engines because of high oil usage, then the dealers blame the customers for poor consumable replacement schedules (like the manual-recommended 5000 miles).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:30 PM on October 23, 2005

That thing doesn't look like a car part. Did any of the oil you added end up on the ground?

Scratchy cranking sound to me like the starter isn't properly engaging.
posted by knave at 10:37 PM on October 23, 2005

Response by poster: Are you sure that's from your car?

No, of course not. But it was in the leaves next to my car, and my car's been parked in the same place for over a month. Could be part of it, could not be part of it.

We'll be towing it away to a local shop tomorrow, where mechanics will have the luxury of looking at the car. (-: I'll have them change the oil as well, just to fix my big old three quart snafu.

Keep the guesses coming though, it's an education.
posted by alan at 10:45 PM on October 23, 2005

Civil_Disobedient writes "I've never seen the casing of an oil filter separated from the filter itself. Are you sure that's from your car?"

Look at my link to Wix. Cartridge style filters as found on the 4 cylinder Saturn are not the same as the spin ons. The cartridge style filter is more enviromentally friendly because less work has to be done when disposing of the filter media because it isn't wrapped in metal. Apparently there are two different kinds of filter specified for the Saturn and if you use the wrong one it won't fit properly. Three quarts of oil being missing could happen if the cap was loose on the oil filter.

The second set of pics look like the inside is dry. If that were the oil filter casing I'd think the inside should be oily.

Let us know what you find out, hope this doesn't end up costing you too much money.
posted by Mitheral at 11:07 PM on October 23, 2005

If the repair shop says it is the starter make sure they check the brushings before replacing the entire thing: brushings = $50 or so, new starter = $a lot more. Normally you will notice your starter going though, it will have labored starts or fail to engage at all on occasion for a while before it dies.
posted by fshgrl at 11:16 PM on October 23, 2005

Three quarts of oil being missing could happen if the cap was loose on the oil filter.

Good point, Mitheral. Thing is, that piece is missing a top to it. Could be that whatever separated the case from its top is also what caused that big dent? It would be helpful if alan could take a look at the oil filter on his car and see if anything's amiss. Here's a labeled S-series Saturn engine for reference--that should give you an idea of where the oil filter is *supposed* to be.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:53 PM on October 23, 2005

That engine has a regular spin on filter not a cartridge filter. Usually you can't interchange them.
posted by Mitheral at 12:24 AM on October 24, 2005

A couple of things:

1. When was the last time you put new gas in the car? If it was several months ago, the gas may have deteriorated to the point that it won't ignite. Open the gas cap, If the odor is similar to linseed oil, it supports the old-gas theory.

2. Take that cylinder to the Saturn dealer and ask them if it's from your car. It could easily have fallen from some other vehicle. A heavy cylinder can roll a long way if it starts out with some velocity, or if it finds a slope.

3. Do try a jump-start, for all the reasons others have noted. It's common for an engine to crank but not catch (especially if other conditions are marginal), when the battery is somewhat depleted. Starting is the toughest thing a car electrical system has to do.

4. When you get it running, don't just sit in it with the engine idling; drive it for at least ten minutes. Idling does charge the battery, but not as much as driving, and other parts of the car need exercise, too. This advice is for your once-a-week startup.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:35 AM on October 24, 2005

For future reference, solar panels that plug into your cig lighter are affordable and a great resource for long-sitting batteries. I used to keep on on the battery in a moored sailboat and it was a big winner. It's not something you can plug in and be able to start your car in an hour but for a long-sitting car it could make a great difference.
posted by phearlez at 11:14 AM on October 24, 2005

alan writes "We'll be towing it away to a local shop tomorrow, where mechanics will have the luxury of looking at the car. (-: I'll have them change the oil as well, just to fix my big old three quart snafu."

Well? I'm dying to find out what the problem was. :)
posted by Mitheral at 6:48 PM on October 24, 2005

Response by poster: Well, shop can't take it until Thursday, so we're waiting until then. I'll post here when I know more, even though by then we'll be in the bowels of ask metafilter.
posted by alan at 8:34 PM on October 24, 2005

I'll be here.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:25 AM on October 25, 2005

>solar panels

If you get the kind that plugs into the cigar lighter, make sure you have the kind of "cigar lighter" socket that's still electically connected with the car switched off. Not all stay connected. Else you need to clip it directly to your battery or find another hot connection, or make one.

The solar panels will help maintain a battery; they won't do much to recharge a drained one nor save you from an old dying battery.

Once the battery can't produce enough amps to both turn the engine over and make sparks at the same time, it's a liability.
posted by hank at 4:07 PM on October 25, 2005

Response by poster: And the verdict is.....

still no word. The mechanics were of the opinion that the thing I've linked to above did *not* come from my car. They've been (apparently) shorthanded for most of the week and haven't figured out what's wrong yet.


I'll keep posting for you fetishists :)
posted by alan at 12:26 PM on October 29, 2005

Thanks, we'll keep watching.
posted by Mitheral at 7:57 PM on October 29, 2005

Yeah, didn't look like it. Please update us few masochists when you know.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:46 AM on November 2, 2005

Response by poster: Well, anyone left gets a gold star.

Turns out the holy trinity of Air, Fuel and Spark remains intact. My ignition module was somehow hosed. No ignition module, no spark.

Thanks all for the automobile lesson. It's nice to be informed, even if I'm still mostly helpless when it comes to the cars.
posted by alan at 8:46 PM on November 3, 2005

Thanks alan. So your low oil was just a red herring, dang.
posted by Mitheral at 6:30 AM on November 4, 2005

Response by poster: Yeah, a red herring and a sign I need to pay better attention to these things :)
posted by alan at 8:15 AM on November 4, 2005

Yay, gold star!

Now go change your oil. Saturns need new oil every 3,000 miles to be in your dealer's good books.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:03 PM on November 4, 2005

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