Saturday, November 29, 2014

Diagnosing a no start, no crank condition

For the last few weeks I've noticed that when I turn the key in my RV, the engine wouldn't start, and wouldn't crank. After several turns of the key it eventually started. This was an issue I was all to willing to ignore for far too long. Without any research or prior knowledge of a no crank, no start condition, I convinced myself the issue was with the lock cylinder. I also spoke with my Dad, who owned a slightly older Ford motorhome and he suggested it might be the ignition switch.

Stupidly, even with this issue that could leave me stranded, I proceeded with my plan to take the RV out for it's first real test in over a year. I drove thirty miles to the nearest State Park. The weekend went off without a hitch. But when I went to leave the engine wouldn't start. The same issue I was having before. Lucky for me the gods were smiling on me and I got one more start and was able to drive all the way back to home base. Once back at home base however, the issue reappeared and this time my luck had run out. She wasn't starting no matter what.

This was the Wednesday before thanksgiving. I had an appointment to get the wheels aligned Monday so I had to get this issue fixed ASAP. Knowing the auto parts stores would be closed Thanksgiving day I drove to two stores and bought a Lock Cylinder and an Ignition Switch, so I can work on it on Turkey Day.

Again, I feel I must mention that I made a common mistake in diagnosing the issue. I didn't consult the literature and I decided, based only on a hunch that the lock cylinder and/or the ignition switch must be the issue. I carried on with this thought much too long. Here's how I decided my thought process was flawed.

I removed part of the lower dash, the "shroud" surrounding the steering column and the two bolts holding the steering collum up. With the shroud removed and the column lowered I could see the actuator rod between the lock cylinder and the ignition switch. The cylinder and rod were functioning properly. I convinced myself the switch the the culprit. Even with the steering column lowered it was very difficult to reach the ignition switch. Not wanting to damage the steering column I finally decided to look for other potential factors in a no crank, no start issue.

I was motivated by laziness, not proper diagnosing procedure, but the result was the same. I found other components that were far more likely to be the cause of the issue. It was as simple as doing a google search. I found a YouTube video by Eric The Car Guy who give a great overview of the proper procedure for diagnosing a no crank, no start issue. The components I tested were the starter solenoid and the starter.

Testing the solenoid was pretty easy on my vehicle. The solenoid is mounted on the fender directly in front of the battery. To test the solenoid, just clamp a jumper cable to the positive terminal of the batter and touch the other end to the "S" terminal of the solenoid. If you hear the starter turning, then the solenoid is bad. I heard nothing. This one test told me that it's very likely the starter has failed.

Just to sure, I installed the ignition switch that I bought Wednesday. It was difficult, but I was able to reach in and pull it out without damaging the steering column. The new switch didn't fix the issue, so I reinstalled the old switch. I can return the new switch and get my money back as it wasn't damaged or dirtied.

That leaves just the starter or some mechanical failure inside the engine as the culprit. I was a little worried it was the engine. I hadn't checked the oil in a while. Before I ordered a starter I checked the oil. It was low. I was scared. I just got a replacement engine, I didn't want to buy yet another one.

Removing the old starter was pretty easy on my vehicle. I didn't even have to jack it up. First I disconnected the battery, then I crawled underneath, undid the starter cable. Then it was just two shockingly long bolts and the starter came right off. Lucky for me the local auto parts store had several in stock to choose from. It's worth noting that this particular store had different starters for automatic and manual transmissions for my vehicle. It's also worth noting this information was in small type in the product description. It would be very easy for someone just reading the headline to miss this important detail.

Just for my gratification, I had the auto parts store test the starter before I picked up the new one. It was one of the few times I was really hoping to have a failed part! I left the store gratified that the starter was bad, so bad in fact it "broke" the testing machine. By broke I mean it drew so much amps that it tripped the store's dedicated circuit breaker for that machine.

Installing the new starter was as easy as taking the old one off. I feel pretty lucky that it was so easily accessible on my vehicle. On others it might not be. I also installed a new starter solenoid, since it was suggested by the manufacturer as a "best practice," and because it was only $20.

I still had the steering column partially apart. With the ignition switch still exposed I used a screwdriver to put the switch into the start position and...nothing. I was bummed...for about 20 seconds. Then I remembered I hadn't reconnected the battery. :-) With the battery connected it started right up! Success!

After that it was just a matter of buttoning up the steering column. I learned a valuable lesson about proper diagnosing procedure and strong motivation to check the engine oil regularly.

Lastly, I should point out that the starter I took off said "Motorcraft." That means it's likely the original starter, over 25 years old! So if the new one lasts that long, it will be $75 well spent.
The original OEM starter.

It's a good idea to take a picture of the starter solenoid before disconnecting it.