What To Do When Your En­gine Won’t Start

(and it started yes­ter­day)

Passage Maker - - News & Notes - BY STEVE ZIM­MER­MAN

Af­ter a good run, you shut down the en­gine for the day and set­tle into a nice an­chor­age. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, cup of cof­fee in hand, you press the start but­ton and the en­gine won’t start. “How can that be,” you won­der. “It ran fine yes­ter­day.”

If I were the un­lucky skip­per, I’d re­peat the process. As­sum­ing no im­mi­nent dan­ger, I am bet­ter off if it still won’t start, be­cause if it does even­tu­ally start, I’m likely fac­ing an in­ter­mit­tent prob­lem, one that will be far more dif­fi­cult to solve with an en­gine that does start. The sit­u­a­tion can be di­vided into two ba­sic sce­nar­ios: The en­gine will not crank at all, or it cranks, but will not start.


Be­fore do­ing any trou­bleshoot­ing, check the shift lever po­si­tion. Many boats have a safety mech­a­nism to pre­vent start­ing the en­gine while in gear. Move the lever in and out of gear a few times and try again. If the en­gine still doesn’t start, the neu­tral safety may have failed, and it might be nec­es­sary to tem­po­rar­ily by­pass this switch to get the en­gine started.

As­sum­ing that the shift lever was not the prob­lem, start the trou­bleshoot­ing with the start bat­tery, bat­tery switch, and ig­ni­tion cir­cuit breaker. First check the volt­age of the bat­tery, ei­ther at the main panel or with a mul­ti­me­ter at the bat­tery posts. You might be able to elim­i­nate a host of pos­si­ble causes by check­ing for volt­age at the starter so­le­noid. The so­le­noid has two larger ter­mi­nals (see “Shake Hands With Solenoids,” Oc­to­ber 2014). The wire from the bat­tery con­nects to one ter­mi­nal, and the other ter­mi­nal sends cur­rent to the starter. While your part­ner tries to start the en­gine, test for volt­age on the ter­mi­nal con­nected to the starter with the pos­i­tive me­ter probe on this ter­mi­nal and the neg­a­tive probe on the en­gine block (make sure you have a good con­nec­tion—prefer­ably find an un­painted bolt or scratch through the paint). The volt­age will fall into one of the three fol­low­ing cat­e­gories.

If the volt­age reads “0” the prob­lem is some­where be­tween the bat­tery and the so­le­noid, in­clud­ing the ig­ni­tion switch cir­cuit and the so­le­noid it­self. Check volt­age at the bat­tery posts and if you find good volt­age there the prob­lem lies be­tween the bat­tery switch and the start so­le­noid or in the so­le­noid. Make sure the bat­tery switch and the ig­ni­tion cir­cuit breaker are in the on po­si­tion. If yes, then re­fer to Shake Hands With Solenoids col­umn to trou­bleshoot and do a work­around.

If the volt­age reads be­tween 0 and about 8 volts, the prob­lem is ei­ther the bat­tery or the starter it­self. Check volt­age at the start bat­tery (while crank­ing). If it’s be­tween 0 and 8 volts, you have a bat­tery prob­lem. Start the en­gine from an al­ter­nate bat­tery, or start the gen­er­a­tor and make sure the charger is work­ing. Some boats have a par­al­lel switch for en­gine start­ing. If you have the op­tion to se­lect an al­ter­nate bat­tery, that is a bet­ter ap­proach than us­ing the par­al­lel switch. Here’s why: If the start bat­tery has a bad cell, when you par­al­lel with a good bat­tery you weaken the healthy bat­tery. Par­al­lel switches work well when you have a healthy bat­tery that is low, but not when the bat­tery has a se­vere prob­lem. Boaters often un­der­es­ti­mate the con­di­tion of a bat­tery based on the volt­age. Keep in mind that at 12 volts a bat­tery has about 50 per­cent of its ca­pac­ity re­main­ing, and at 11.5 volts only about 10 per­cent re­mains.

If the bat­tery has good volt­age (12 volts or more) the prob­lem likely will be at the starter. Ex­am­ine all wiring con­nec­tions, es­pe­cially at the starter. If you find rust or cor­ro­sion, turn off the bat­tery switch and re­move and clean the ter­mi­nals. If the ter­mi­nals look good, try tap­ping the starter with a phe­no­lic ham­mer or the wooden end of a metal ham­mer while crank­ing.

This prac­tice should only be at­tempted on older Bendix type starters. On the newer plan­e­tary gear starter mo­tors tap-

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