A SHORT STORY
Not so long ago, underneath a huge shade tree in the heartland of rural Americana, just beside a long and winding country, dirt road, Clem and Jethro were working on the tractor. The starter had gone out again for the third time since last August, when all the trouble started. Clem had his toolbox open, his favorite red rag tucked in the back pocket of his bib overalls, and was busily wrenching away when suddenly, he stopped.
Jethro could see that his cousin’s face was consumed in deep thought. He didn’t bother asking Clem what was wrong, because he knew that look. He knew it would be a few minutes, but he would just have to be patient. Eventually Jethro could see the words were about to come.
” Ya know, cousin, I think I just figger’d somethin’out “. Jethro could see the thoughts came from deep wih in the confines of Clem’s brain. And Clem was no dummy in Jethro’s eyes. Clem could fix just about anything. Even the town Doc, who was darn near the smartest man on the planet, brought his prize cars and tractors to Clem whenever they needed “fixin”. Jethro knew he didn’t have to ask ” What’s that, cousin ” but out of common courtesy, he did anyway.
“Them starters and wires and ‘lectrical stuff, what makes ’em work is smoke. ” Jethro understood what he said, but didn’t understand what he meant. He couldn’t help scratching his head and asking ” Smoke ? How’s that, Clem ? ” . “Well, they all work real good ’till you let the smoke out, then once the smoke gets out, they don’t work no more. “
ABUSE : RECOGNIZE IT & KNOW THE CAUSES
Although this sounds ridiculous, it’s also the perfect analogy for this article on starter care, proper how to use care, and abuse. No, starter abuse is not when you drop it on the floor a few times, use profane language directed at the starter, call it names, or smack the side of it with a hammer, although many of us can attest to the fact that such actions do occasionally occur. Starter abuse is commonly called by professionals ” over crank “. The scenario goes as follows
1. Some sort of engine drive ability problem occurs. This could be ANYTHING that causes the engine not to fire up like it usually does. Anything with the spark plugs, plug wires, computer, or computer sensing component. Fuel systems malfunction commonly at the pump, filter, and TPS throttle position sensor. Diesel engines are notorious for moisture and temperature problems with the fuel systems.
2. Any way, for whatever reason, the engine won’t fire like it’s suppose to. It’s cranking over, …. So you crank…and crank…. and crank. If you crank your starter longer than 15 seconds straigbut it won’t runht… without giving the starter a rest of 30-60 seconds you have just committed starter “ABUSE”. If you crank your starter more than 60 seconds straight, without giving the starter a rest of 1 -2 minutes, you have just committed starter life expectancy “MURDER”.
3. And just like Clem said, if you crank your starter till the smoke comes out, now you have TWO problems to fix… The problem of why the engine wouldn’t fire up, AND now you need a new starter. A starter that has been severely abused to this condition is un-rebuildable. When a rebuilder tears a starter apart and smells that ” burnt ” smell, you might as well throw it in the scrap pile. Also you may notice on dis assembly a few other symptoms.
(a) The wires that lead to the brushes have a blue discoloration as they near the brush itself.
(b) The copper disc in the solenoid has been warped from its original shape and has one or two huge black imprints surrounded by a number of smaller imprints.
(c) The armature is the main give away that abuse has been inflicted. It will have entire burnt sections, or be entirely black with an EXTREMELY distinctive burnt smell. The commutator will have a blue ish hue. Older armatures that have solder in them will have holes where the solder was, and you’ll be able to see the solder in distinct lines around the inside diameter of the field housing. This is a dead giveaway that the starter was cranked for such a long period of time, that the solder was heated to a melting temperature, then was thrown out of the armature as it was spinning.
No other possibility (other than abuse) can cause this scenario to occur. There is no other way for the starter to become this hot without over cranking it. Furthermore you know that the starter was cranking when it failed because it threw the solder out of the spinning armature due to centrifugal force. If there were some other type of mal-function, like a short somewhere internally, the heat would occur at that point. If there were an “open” somewhere, the starter would have ceased to function. Abuse, however can occur from 2 different reasons.
Abuse can be caused by human error or vehicle malfunction. The vehicle can cause starter abuse by having a bad or sticking ignition switch, or a shorted ignition wire which causes it to become “hot” or energized when it shouldn’t be. This means that when you let off the key, the starter keeps on cranking, or the starter can start cranking inadvertently while the vehicle is being operated. This situation is particularly volatile because not only is the starter trashed, but quite often other damage is experienced. Vehicles that have a starter that comes on inadvertently after the engine has started, or won’t disengage are usually recognizable by a blue ness on the shaft between the nose bushing and the bendix. If the unit is dis assembled you will notice a burnt or blue ish color bushing inside the bendix hole.
Another tip off that the bad starter was caused by a defective ignition switch or shorted harness is noticeable with an armature inspection. If the starter cranked for a long period of time before being stopped ( in other words, if the vehicle was driven very far with the starter engaged) the windings in the armature will be mushroomed out (thrown outward) on the half of the armature nearest the drive (bendix) end. You usually notice that the blackness in the windings is more prevalent in the drive end half. If the abusive situation is user inflicted (an intentional grossly long cranking time) the burnt and disfigured windings are more prevalent at the commutator half of the armature.
CARE AND PROPER USAGE:
GOOD STRONG VOLTAGE
Nothing is more important to a starter’s life expectancy than a maximum amount of voltage in an optimal environment. Automotive batteries when used in conjunction with a starter motor have some unique and interesting characteristics. It seems sometimes that a battery, when in the cranking mode, tends to act in a self regulating manner. In other words, if a job requires 200 amps, the battery will supply 200amps. If a job requires 400 amps, the battery will supply 400 amps. up to the highest amperage rating that the battery is capable of ). This a good thing, unless you have a bad cable or built up corrosion on a connection somewhere.
When there is a voltage drop, any job will require more amps to do the same work, because in this case, voltage and amperage are inversely proportional. The less volts you have to a certain point, the more amps you’ll need to compensate, to get the same amount of work done. This can be illustrated for the mathematical minded people with the simple formula: amps x volts = watts. If you had a car that required 2400 watts to get it started, and had 12VDC at the starter, a simple division problem lets you know the amperage required is 200ADC. But, if you had a voltage drop in the cables and only had 11VDC at the starter the battery would increase its amperage out put to 218ADC.
12VDC x 200ADC = 2400 watts ( power required to start vehicle )
11VDC x 218ADC = 2400 watts ( power required to start vehicle )
10 VDC x 240ADC = 2400 watts ( power required to start vehicle )
You can see from these examples how the amperage will rise dramatically as the voltage decreases by only one volt. So you would think, “car still starts” ,”kind of solves its own problem” and that’s true, but there is a hidden demon in this arrangement. The demon is heat. Heat is synonymous with amperage in this case. The lower the voltage, the higher the amperage, and the higher the heat. The heat is what causes the most damage, over time, to a starter. Probably you can realize why its a good idea to periodically perform a voltage drop test on you starter, even if it appears to be starting normally.
KEEP THE ENVIRONMENT GOOD
Just as heat developed by low voltage can slowly eat away at a starter, so does heat from external sources like the exhaust. Most vehicle starter solenoids that are near exhaust pipes are factory equipped with heat shields. But the older exhaust systems become, the more heat they release to surrounding areas.
Many newer starters are equipped with permanent man made magnets instead of the old fashioned copper wound fields. Magnets are much more resilient to high heat sources than the fields, but there is still no way to eliminate the old fashioned copper coil windings in the solenoid. When high heat reaches these windings they are weakened and become frail from too much thermal cycle. There are various tricks in the article “Defeat Starter Heat Problems” which is included in this site.
Oil leaks that are around or near the starter are quite frequently a huge factor for starter life. Oil has the uncanny ability to “wick” its way into just about anywhere. Any starter will have small openings that can become a gateway for leaks to invade. Once the oil gains entry the chemicals start to break down any insulation that it comes in contact with. When oil comes in contact with the brushes it disintegrates them. This entire process only takes about 30 days.
Anti freeze of any type is also a bad thing for starters. The brushes in a starter are not purely copper but a compound mainly consisting of copper and graphite. When anti freeze comes in contact with starter brushes it breaks down the bonding material. Brushes literally fall apart. If you have an antifreeze leak and it ends up inside the starter, the starter will begin a failure process in only a few days.
KEEP YOUR ENGINE TUNED
Today’s cars with the advent of computerized control and fuel injection systems are meant to fire immediately after the key is hit. Actual “crank time” should be about .5 – .75 seconds. If your car doesn’t “fire right up” you need to see a mechanic to find out why. Don’t kid yourself by saying ” My car fires up OK, it just takes a second or two longer than that.” That might not seem like a lot…Now multiply that by 5,000. That’s how many starts a new starter will try to get…IF you keep your engine tuned right.
BENDIX, THE HUMAN ELEMENT
A Bendix needs to be out of the flywheel BEFORE the engine fires. A bendix needs to be out of the flywheel BEFORE the engine fires. No, we’re not just trying to get search engine traffic. This is the second most common problem in the starter industry today. ( next to over crank ). Millions of people do not know that they’re starting their car wrong. If you’re holding your key on, even a half second too long, you’re making things extremely bad on your bendix. Try letting the key off a half second sooner than you usually do, if your car starts, continue this practice. If your car doesn’t start, go back to your old ways.
Most people can hear or actually “feel” when the flywheel picks up speed (kicks into combustion mode) if you are familiar with your vehicle, and aware of how the various systems operate. With a couple minutes of practice, a good driver can actually time things so that there is a slight “pause” between cranking mode and firing mode… Your bendix would appreciate it. In other words, use the starter to get the flywheel moving, let off the key, inertia will actually take over for a brief amount of time, then the computer will fire the engine. This is called The Perfect Start.
Bendixes are actually one way clutches with a gear on the end. The bendix has to slip one way, so the teeth will line up when the starter is already spinning as it contacts the flywheel. When you have the key on, and the engine is firing simultaneously, the clutch is being grossly over run. This doesn’t really hurt anything when you just do it for a 1/4 second or so. But here again, multiply that by 5,000.