last weekend found me in an interesting situation. i was coming home from my ivory tower office in downtown friday night and decided to stop at wal-mart and shop for food like the rest of you mere mortals. all of that went well, so i decide to stop again for gas since my car does not run on hydrogen fuel cells, zero point energy, hamster corpses, or any other unreasonably exotic power source. that’s when the situation changed. my car wouldn’t start. i turned the key and all i got was a single loud click.
because of the way it was behaving, i figured the starter needed to be replaced. i called road side assistance and had it towed to my house. after peeking under the hood for a few minutes, i slammed the hood shut and proceeded to consume a large portion of the beer i bought at the store earlier that evening. i spent the next day doing all kinds of mundane things like yard work and dishes. sunday was the day things got interesting.
i did a little research and called around. i found a starter at one of the local auto parts stores. i even found a site called repairpal that can give you reviews of a particular vehicle (such as this honda accord), as well as some helpful info on replacing things like timing belts, and where the closest mechanic is to you (san francisco auto repair for instance).
none of that information was as helpful as what i found in the haynes manual, so after poking around under the hood some more and checking all the connections, i decided to just replace the starter and be done with it. that was my first mistake.
the car is a 1999 camry four cylinder, so getting the starter out was easy. after buying a five dollar socket adapter to loosen the two bolts, it popped right out. i took it to the store, turned in the old starter for the core charge, then bought a new one and came home. the new starter went in just as easy as the old one came out. awesome, we’re finished. so i get in the car and turn the key. click! damn.
the starter was obviously not the problem, or if it was, it wasn’t the only problem. my next theory was that the relay wasn’t throwing cleanly enough. after going back to the store and replacing it, i still had the same problem, and now i’m two parts into a three part problem. the only other thing it could be is the giant half inch thick braided copper power cable going directly from the battery to the starter. there’s just no way that can fail, right? i mean there’s nothing about it to fail. at this point i felt it was more likely that i got a brand new starter with something wrong with it, so i yanked it back out and headed back to the store.
this is the important part. this next bit right here could have saved me a whole lot of time and effort, so if you’re reading this and you have a similar issue, pay attention. the auto parts store near my house will bench test your starter to see if there’s anything wrong with it. they’ll hook it up and turn it on to make sure that it spins up and does what it is supposed to. i had them do this to my new starter. when he first hooked it up and turned it on, i heard the loud click that i was hearing when i turned my key in the car. at first i thought that i had indeed bought a defective new starter. but a few seconds later i heard the guy flip the switch and it spun right up. damn. its not the starter. then the guy mentioned that he didn’t have the power cable hooked up, just the relay cable. well isn’t that interesting?
in a moment of clarity, i asked the guy to go into the back and pull my old starter off the shelf and test it. after a few minutes he came back up to the counter with it. he hooked it up to the bench, flipped the switch, and we both watched it spin up just like it was supposed to. there was nothing wrong with my original starter. now its time for a refund, i thought. so i returned the new starter, got my old one back, and asked for a new starter cable.
when i got home and put my old starter back in the car along with my brand new starter cable, the car fired right up with no issue. somehow, against all logic and reason, the old giant red power cable just wasn’t able to carry enough juice to turn over the engine anymore. i still don’t understand how that happens, but it does. i kept the old cable and i plan to slice it open and take a look at the copper inside. i have to know why.
the next thing i did was pull out the new relay and put the old one back in. the old relay worked great, so i took the new one back to the store. i could tell they were already tired of seeing me since i had been in there four times already. they weren’t going to take the $35 relay back without a receipt, which i didn’t have, so i took store credit instead of the refund and bought some other stuff i needed.
so to sum it all up, i was able to repair my own car and it only took four trips to the store, $225 in purchases, $175 refund that didn’t show up until days later, a $35 store credit, three different parts, and a frustrated new guy at the parts counter. what did all of this get me? it got me absolute power over a bad situation, the satisfaction of a job done myself, and after a day or two the refunds hit my account and i realized that this barely cost me anything at all, at least compared to this estimate.