CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Van cranks but won't start...what's worth checking before I get it towed?

I have a 1993 Chevy G20 van that was starting intermittently and now won’t start at all. It cranks but doesn’t start. On one of the occasions that I actually got it started I went to have the battery and alternator tested and was told that the alternator was good but the battery was low. I then bought a battery charger and attempted to charge it. It has not started since. It also will not jump. I have tried to listen for the fuel pump and I don’t hear anything…of course that could be because I don’t know what to listen for.

So my question is: what more should I check before I give up and get it towed? I just want to be sure that I’m not spending all that money for a tow when it was something easy like a relay or a battery issue. I have some mechanical knowledge but no where to apply it (i.e.: my vehicle is outdoors and I don’t have a lot of tools or a decent jack). Any suggestions are appreciated.

Does the starter motor turn the engine over when you turn the key (cranks)? Do the lights go on bright? If you have no lights, no starter motor operation, and the battery won’t take a charge from either the charger or a second battery, your battery is shot. Need a new battery.

If however the starter works, you’ve got another problem. I hope you didn’t cross the connections on the battery with the charger or jumpers and blow the computer out. If the battery is good, need to separate whether you have an ignition problem (no spark at plugs) or a fuel problem (no pressure at fuel rail, no pump running, etc.).

Feeniepop: since your other post reports that you found a rodent nest in the vicinity of your engine, I’ll offer this as a long shot possibility: There’s some chance that rodents have chewed something which could be the reason you can’t get your van to start, something like a wire or wire harness. You might start looking around for possible signs of that, especially near the area where you found the nest. This may be something you can find yourself. It may be as simple as insulation chewed on nearby wires which are now in contact where they should not be. If you get lucky and find something like that, it should not be difficult to resolve the problem enough to at least get started so you can drive it to a shop and avoid a tow. Good luck!

What happens when you spray some starter fluid into the air intake and then try to it? If it seems like it ‘wants’ to start, you may have a fuel delivery problem. If it still doesn’t, I’d look in the direction of the ignition. You can get a spark tester from pretty much any auto store and plug it in line with a spark plug. It usually consists of a bulb or spark gap that looks a bit like a spark plug. When starting, the spark tester will flash if you have spark.
That will narrow down your problem.

In case you’re not getting fuel, this may be worth checking:
On the econo van, which I take it is very similar to your van, there’s fuel pump inhibitor in the kick panel next to the passenger’s right foot. It looks a little like a circuit breaker with a red button on it and a connector going to it. In case you get into an accident, the red plunger pops out and breaks the connection to the fuel pumps, disabling them. You can see if it somehow got reset or possibly is bad. You can short the two contacts going to it, in effect disabling that inhibitor. Those things can go bad.
If the red button has popped up, you pop it back in to make it work again.

Does battery charger show any amp draw when u hook it up? 0-1 amps or 2-4 amps or ??? I would take off both battery terminal connections and clean them. Charge battery. See if starter engages or tries to crank motor.

Thanks everyone for the responses! Unfortunately it sounds like the spark plugs on my van are only accessible under the wheel so I would have to jack it to check for spark (I don’t have a decent jack and the car is outdoors on uneven ground so this is probably not safe). The car cranks and the lights come on. Should I try a new battery at this point? My charger does not have a gauge on it to read the charge.

Regarding fuel I do not have the red button that was mentioned but I did check the fuel filter fuse and it was okay. Should I try to replace the fuel filter relay?

I will continue to look around to see if anything is chewed or frayed from my recent fuzzy visitor.

If the starter motor cranks, its not the battery. When you turn the key to on, the fuel pump should go on for a few seconds and then shut off-indicating the fuel pump is working. If you don’t hear a whrrrr from the fuel tank, then your pump is probably not coming on. Also it takes a minute or so with the key off for the computer to reset again to hear the pump running. If the pump is not coming on, then could be a fuse to the pump, bad pump, bad relay, computer, etc. If the pump comes on, then you’ve got a spark/ignition issue. I agree if you’ve got critters, look for chewed wires, nest in the exhaust pipe etc. Sounds like maybe cheapest is to tow it.

My easy way, try some starter fluid, if it kicks over it is a fuel issue. Do you do stuff yourself?

If it cranks ok, the battery is ok, abd there’s no reason to believe the alternator would be bad either. Likely either the fuel system or the ignition system. Bad fuel pump, bad crank sensor (if you have one), or bad ignition coils. If it will start in warm weather, maybe idle rough, then it could be the coolant temp sensor or a vacuum leak.

Well I toyed around and changed the fuel pump relay and it started. It had started intermittently before that so I am going to hook the old relay back up and try to start again to make sure it’s not a fluke.

Okay, it starts with the old one and the new one. Now I’m just confused. Maybe jiggling the wires did the trick?

Would anybody suggest getting it looked at to see what the issue was or should I just be happy and move on with my life?