Car won't start. Simply out of gas?
April 11, 2017 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Ok, I'll start with the short summary, and then go into the details: mid-2000's Honda Civic. Battery fully charged. When I turn the key it cranks, but won't start the engine. It's fairly cold here right now but not extreme (above freezing). Has been sitting for several months with a nearly empty tank.

So, the back story. We had brake problems on the car, but couldn't afford to fix them. Since it was a second car, and my partner didn't absolutely need to use it, we just let it sit. Apparently, the last time she used it, the gas got low enough for the "empty" light to come on. The car hasn't been driven in ~4 months. Somewhere in the middle of that time period, I started the car and let it idle for a couple minutes, with some kind of idea that this would prevent battery from running down. When I went to do the same thing a couple weeks ago, the car wouldn't start. I assumed it was the battery, and last night we charged the battery to full, using one of those battery tenders that can charge at 15A and then slows down to a "float" mode to trickle charge. It read full this morning (13V so maybe a bit over full?)... in any case, it wouldn't start.

I found this thread which gave some hints, and a bunch of other stuff via Google. My instinct is that it's simply out of gas. But I'm wondering if these other things, like water in the tank, are a concern, or if it could point to bigger concerns with the fuel pump or whatever. As you can probably tell, I don't know much about cars. It feels similar to when I've run the gas tank on a car low enough that it didn't stop on me, but wouldn't start the next time I tried. Do I just need to throw a gallon in the tank?

Thanks for any thoughts you can provide!
posted by abrightersummerday to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total)
The gas could've oxidized by now; it turns into gooey varnish when that happens. I'm not sure what the right move is, but it may need to be cleaned out with solvents or something. Adding a gallon of gas probably won't make it worse, so I'd try that for the cost of a $3 gallon plus a gas can.

Water's not in your tank unless some a-hole put it there.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:49 AM on April 11, 2017

While old car guys complain about modern gasoline, it won't go bad in 4 months. And there could be water in the tank since the ethanol in the gas has a tendency to absorb water vapor, which is exacerbated by having a mostly empty tank, which I guess is now mostly full of humidity-laden air.

You've already drawn whatever was at the bottom of the tank into the fuel system. For a first low-cost step, just fill it up and keep cranking.
posted by hwyengr at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2017

A "full" battery will read 13.2 volts, so you're probably good there.

When you say it cranks but won't start, do you mean it cranks at a nominally normal speed, or slowly like, "muRRR. murRRR"? If the latter, the battery might still be toast. Freezing a discharged battery is a good way to kill it dead; it will take a "surface charge" which looks okay when not cranking. In that case, you'd see the volts drop to 8V or less while someone else is cranking on it, then jump back up when the key is released.

Assuming the above is not true and your battery is still good (fast crank), run a couple key cycles. Put the key in, turn to the run (not crank) position, back to off, pull the key, put the key back in...That should cycle the fuel pump to get gas up to the engine.

And yeah, a couple gallons from a gas can could really help here so the fuel pump has something to push up to the engine.
posted by notsnot at 9:54 AM on April 11, 2017

If the car's been sitting in the cold and wet - you could have condensation in the distributor cap. Pull it off and blow it dry with a hair dryer.
posted by cfraenkel at 10:02 AM on April 11, 2017

Thanks for all the answers so far! Some good leads.

When you say it cranks but won't start, do you mean it cranks at a nominally normal speed, or slowly like, "muRRR. murRRR"? If the latter, the battery might still be toast. Freezing a discharged battery is a good way to kill it dead; it will take a "surface charge" which looks okay when not cranking. In that case, you'd see the volts drop to 8V or less while someone else is cranking on it, then jump back up when the key is released.

I'm at work right now, but now that I think about it, I did notice that starting the engine on my working car sounded faster than what I was hearing from the dead car. Maybe it is cranking abnormally slowly/weakly. We had many below freezing overnights during the period the car was out of use. In this case we should still be able to jump it and get it to the shop, right? The impetus for dealing with the the battery (or whatever) now, is to finally get the brakes done... Also, if the battery is the problem, is it possible the "reconditioning" feature on the battery charger will help? Or is that for a different kind of problem? We have this one. Also, can the charger measure the voltage while cranking? Or do I need some other measuring device for that? It does have a voltage check feature, which is how I knew I was at 13v, but I'm not sure it's safe to have the charger hooked up while starting the engine (it does have an "engine start" feature, but it's only 40A...)

Thanks again!
posted by abrightersummerday at 10:34 AM on April 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think a mid-2000s Civic has a distributor cap.
posted by spitbull at 10:37 AM on April 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your charger should be able to measure the voltage while it it charging according to the video. If you have another vehicle you should be able to revive the battery and take it to an auto parts shop and they should be able to test it for you. I would also clean the battery terminals and leads and make sure they have a good connection.

I am not really a "car guy" but my job used to have me gone for weeks and months at a time, so I have learned some things from having cars sit.

First, it wouldn't hurt to put some gas in it. I would also add a bit of "Sea Foam" to the gas which you can get at any auto parts store.

The best thing to try would be to use the jump start feature of your battery which will add another 75A to your battery according to the video. On one of my cars the starter would seem to freeze up after about 3 weeks. I assumed there were some plates that needed to turn that would rust enough in that time that they needed a little extra amperage to break free. After the first start it would start fine, even if I tried right away with the he regular battery before it could charge.

If that does does not work and the battery is good, you probably need a mechanic to troubleshoot. You probably have some trash or gummed up fuel in your fuel line, pump, or injectors. Four months should be OK, but if it was empty four months ago, you don't know how old the fuel was at that time. Starting it but not running it out 2 months ago may also give them a lead to where the problem is as it may have left excess fuel somewhere that thickened.
posted by Yorrick at 11:07 AM on April 11, 2017

Sorry, I forgot to add-- I don't have that exact model of charger. I have the same one except 15A/40A engine start, rather than the 25A/75A version. I know it can measure voltage while charging, what I'm concerned about is having it plugged in while cranking. Should I be able to leave in the standby/voltage check mode, crank the engine, and have someone watch the readout to see if it dips from 13V? Just wasn't sure if it was safe to essentially have the car try to draw however many hundred amps while essentially plugged into my house.

As for having another car "revive the battery", my understanding was that jumping the car would essentially just get it started so the alternator can take over, but if the battery is dead, that won't do anything to help it (considering it does read 13v right now, even if it's just a surface charge).

So far all signs do seem to point to putting in gas in as the first step. But if someone can confirm my ability to check the voltage *while cranking* (as maybe the pre-first step) that would be great, as I'm a bit paranoid about trying it. I do have a "jump starter" battery pack as well as another car, so I guess if the fuel pump and starter are fine, I should be able to get it running, but I'd love to not buy a new battery :)
posted by abrightersummerday at 11:30 AM on April 11, 2017

I had a battery go bad about a month after I bought it once. It worked fine for a month, then one day the car didn't start. We jump started it and drove it to the auto store, where they replaced the battery because it had a "dead cell" (or something like that). Hooking it up to a charger would show a full charge, but some other tester the auto store had showed it wasn't up to full voltage (or something I didn't quite grasp). So...your battery may be showing a charge, but may simply not be strong enough to start the car. Jumping the car to get the alternator going will allow you to drive to the auto store, but if the battery is dead it won't hold that charge from the alternator and it won't start again.

Besides, you don't want to try to drive to the auto store without gas in it! So, here's what I would do:
1. Check the oil and make sure you have enough in there.
2. Buy some gas and SeaFoam, put both in the tank (I have heard of ethanol gas going bad if it sits for a while, which is why putting SeaFoam in it will do some sort of magic so that it's more combustable again...I have no science to back that up at the moment. But SeaFoam is awesome and won't hurt anything so put some in when you put the gas in).
3. Jump start the car.
4. Drive to the auto store and get a new battery (or have them test it). Make sure someone drives behind you with jumper cables just in case!
5. Drive to the gas station and fill it up. Then drive it around for a while to get everything moving and burning in the engine.

If you can't make it through that list, then I'd be questioning the starter (which makes a funky noise if it's broken), or the fuel pump.

(Obviously I am not a mechanic but I have picked up bits of knowledge here and there).
posted by MultiFaceted at 11:47 AM on April 11, 2017

Killing a starting battery dead actually damages the battery. IME it is worse when the temps drop below zero (as I'm guessing it was in your location in the last couple months if Above freezing is a trem you are using now). Start budgeting for a new battery now as you are going to need it sooner rather than latter even if you get it running now.

To test you need to fully charge the battery, let it rest for a day and then check the voltage. This will give you a much better idea of it's condition than checking it fresh off the charger.

abrightersummerday: "Should I be able to leave in the standby/voltage check mode, crank the engine, and have someone watch the readout to see if it dips from 13V? Just wasn't sure if it was safe to essentially have the car try to draw however many hundred amps while essentially plugged into my house."

It's safe. The charger will only draw so much regardless of what the car is asking for. I wouldn't really trust the meter on the charger for much accuracy though. If only because it is on the wrong end of the charger leads.
posted by Mitheral at 12:11 PM on April 11, 2017

One other note I forgot to mention, that might help with diagnosis: When I first hooked up the battery charger, it was reading well above 50%, maybe close to 75%, on the gas-gauge like readout (E to F). And the headlights would still come on.

I definitely should have mentioned that at the top, but doesn't this sort of start to point away from dead battery (even though I've definitely earned a dead battery after leaving the thing unattended through winter)?

So leaving aside the battery for a moment. The consensus I'm seeming to get is gas+seafoam as a first step. It will be a pain to get much more than a gallon to the car... should a gallon be enough to find out if this is the issue or not. And should I therefore use a tiny amount of seafoam? And does anyone recommend AGAINST seafoam in this case? I will of course do the multiple trips to the gas station, if one gallon won't answer the question.
posted by abrightersummerday at 12:25 PM on April 11, 2017

Please don't use Seafoam. Just get some fresh gas in it. A gallon will be fine.
You could have a plugged fuel filter, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:05 PM on April 11, 2017

Put a gallon or two of gas in the tank.
posted by AugustWest at 1:33 PM on April 11, 2017

call around an old style station will probably loan a gas can.
posted by sammyo at 3:16 PM on April 11, 2017

Everything about this says "you are massively overthinking this and no further diagnosis is required until you put a couple of gallons of fuel in it and recharge the battery".

Seafoam smeeefoam. Just put fuel in it.

Do the above. Not a little bit of fuel, but AT LEAST a gallon. Cycle the ignition a few times (maybe 5 times - it will cause the fuel pump ton run for a few seconds each time) and then crank the engine and see if it starts. Everything you did before trying this step is a complete waste of time, so plan accordingly.

Record the attempts to start on your phone camera. Then if it doesn't start, post them here, but I'll bet it starts - reluctantly maybe, but it will likely start.
posted by Brockles at 4:52 PM on April 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

Agreed. I had a similar fiasco after spending over an hour "driving" a mile recently with the fuel light on. My battery was weak and I got it jumped, but it wouldn't start until I put about a gallon and a half of gas in it.
posted by bendy at 7:06 PM on April 11, 2017

Thanks again for all the insight, Mefites. I put around 3 gallons in the tank, and it started with a struggle. The exhaust was putting out some... not great... stuff. Let it run for a bit, and it eventually relaxed into the usual purr.

I suspect now that there was never any issue with the battery to begin with... I suppose the answer was in the title to my question. But I got a ton of good information out of this, and you all stopped me from going to any more extreme measures before just trying to fill 'er up.

The car is in the shop, finally getting the long overdue brake job. They're giving it an overall checkup as well--hopefully we didn't hurt it much by letting it sit.
posted by abrightersummerday at 11:18 AM on April 13, 2017

« Older Teach my old cat a new trick   |   What's the song playing in this NSFWish Spring... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.