The ignition switch is where it all begins when it comes to getting your car out of the blocks. It’s this component that provides the impetus for the car’s transmission system to kick into gear. It also activates all of the different electrical components that are in the car, like your dashboard, music system, etc. To say the ignition switch does a few very important things to help your car run the way it should is an understatement.
It stands to reason that when the ignition system isn’t performing like it should be, you instantly know in most cases. That’s because your car will simply refuse to start if the ignition switch isn’t feeling up to it. It’s also possible that a bad ignition switch still gets your car started but begins to act up later on in the drive. So in this article we’re going to find out how to detect whether the source of your troubles is that ignition switch after all. We’ll also see how you can go about replacing it.
But before we dive into diagnoses, let’s take a moment to get to know ignition switches a little better. This will help us better understand how problems with it manifest themselves in your driving experience.
- The Responsibilities of an Ignition Switch
- Symptoms of a Bad Ignition Switch
- Bypassing the Ignition Switch to Start Your Car
- Testing an Ignition Switch
- Cost of Replacing Ignition Switch
- Final Thoughts
The Responsibilities of an Ignition Switch
The ignition switch is also known as the start switch, which gives us a good idea of what role it plays in a car. This is the button that you need to hit in order for the car to come to life. Of course in this case you don’t hit a button, you turn a key. Although in modern cars you might hit a button to get your car going.
This doesn’t mean that your car is completely unconscious until you turn the key in the ignition switch. Cars have a secondary source of power coming from the battery, which keeps it powered passively. So even if your car isn’t running, the battery powers some of its components. This is why you can listen to music in your car even if the engine isn’t running.
Activating the ignition leads to the car being able to use its full range of resources. All the electronic components come into play thereon in. So the cabin lights, headlights, power windows, air conditioners, and other bells and whistles all have the power they need once you turn that key.
The ignition switch also triggers the series of events that leads to the car’s engine firing up. It does so by providing power to a component known as a starter solenoid. This component in turn activates the ignition coil and engine control unit (ECU) among other things. The ECU especially is an important component if a car’s engine is to run smoothly.
You will see in the following section that if an ignition switch doesn’t work the way it should, some of the aforementioned parts that it powers begin to behave weirdly. Let’s find out what signs you’ll notice if your ignition switch isn’t working the way it should.
Symptoms of a Bad Ignition Switch
An ignition switch is the kind of part that is constantly undergoing wear and tear. You simply can’t hop in your car and go on a drive without using it. As a result, the ignition switch in your car will begin to show signs of wear if you use your car long enough.
What are the signs that it’s taken too much of a beating? Let’s find out.
Key That Won’t Enter Keyhole
Like we said earlier, the ignition switch tends to undergo a significant amount of wear and tear over time. And it’s not too complicated why it happens. It’s just from your jamming the key into it to start your car over and over.
Over time, the ignition switch will be so damaged that the key won’t align with the keyhole anymore. Initially you may notice that the key doesn’t go into the keyhole as easily as it used to. Eventually the key may not enter the keyhole at all.
Before you conclude that the ignition switch is causing this problem, make sure that the ignition lock isn’t on. Turn the steering wheel back and forth a few times while attempting to insert the key. This will disengage the lock and help you isolate the ignition switch as the problem.
Issues Starting the Car
Sometimes when you have issues with an ignition switch, your car’s key will go into the keyhole just fine. But what you will notice is the car struggles to warm up and start like it usually would.
This happens because the ignition coil draws power from the battery and uses that to get the spark plugs going. If the ignition switch has gone bad, then you will find that the car won’t start (or not as easily as you would like it to) because the battery is struggling to power up.
Dashboard Acting Weird
We saw earlier that wear and tear is a natural part of using your ignition switch. If you’re dealing with a slightly older car, then checking how the lights on the dashboard respond to your key is a good way to figure out whether the ignition switch is at fault.
If that is the case, then you will notice that the primarily relay won’t make its standard clicking noise like it usually does. A good way to suss out the source of this weirdness is to move your key into the second position. Any issues with the ignition will cause the dashboard lights to go dark. Flickering lights are another sign that there is something off with the ignition switch.
Your car can stall for several different reasons. A fault at any point of the transmission chain can lead to it stalling while you’re driving. The most important thing to do if that does happen is to pull over immediately and get help.
One of the reasons your car behaves that way can be because it is experiencing issues with the ignition switch. It’s possible that the connection between the key and the ignition switch is tenuous and leads to the car being unable to confidently send signals to the engine. The best thing to do if your car stalls is to get a professional mechanic’s help because it’s the kind of issue that needs to be addressed hastily.
Accessories Being Under-Powered
One of the things the ignition switch does is to send the signals required to power up the electrical components in your car. So everything from the air conditioning to the heated seats to the music player run this way.
When your ignition switch isn’t doing its job, you’ll notice that the electrical accessories in your car begin to act. The exact symptoms you see will depend on the kind of accessories that you use. You may notice that your heated seats aren’t as warm as you remember them getting or the radio keeps giving out. Keep a keen eye on the accessories if you have a suspicion about an ignition switch gone bad.
Bypassing the Ignition Switch to Start Your Car
We saw in the previous section that a bad ignition switch can mean a very uncooperative car. You might end up in a situation where your car gives out on you and refuses to start no matter how hard you try. If that happens, not all hope is lost yet. There are ways to start a car even if you have a bad ignition switch.
Before we go into the details, it is important to remember that these are just stopgap solutions. Use them only to get your car started and make your way to the nearest auto shop. You can’t rely on these to sustainably start your car while you continue to have issues with the ignition switch.
This is a common way to get a car out of the blocks if it is experiencing any transmission issues. It usually works best on units that are produced in the mid-1990s or before that.
The first thing you need to do is get to the steering column and take off the plastic casing that protects all its internal components. You will see a lot of wires in there in many different colors. You want to find the wiring harness connector, which is usually centrally located in the steering column.
There are a few more wires that you need to locate, which thankfully come color-coded. The brown and yellow wires connect to the ignition of the car; the red wire goes straight to the battery.
Start by taking the red wire and stripping its insulation off about a half inch. Now you can connect the ignition wires directly to it and you’ll see the car’s lights come on. You can follow the same process with the starter wire by connecting it to the battery’s red wire to start the car.
If you’re confused about how to find these wires, you can always refer to your car’s user manual.
Jumpstart the Car
To make this method happen, you need to pop the hood and look for the battery as well as the ignition coil. Use a jumper cable to connect the positive ends of the ignition coil and the battery. When you do this, you route power to the car’s dashboard, which is required to get it started.
To actually start the car, you need to locate the starter solenoid under the hood. Connect the battery’s positive terminal to the solenoid and also unplug the wiring that connects the ignition switch to the solenoid.
The next thing you need to do is short the connection between the solenoid’s positive terminal and the point at which the ignition switch connects to it. You can do that using a screwdriver. Doing so will power up the solenoid and as a result the car itself.
We’ve seen a few symptoms of a bad ignition switch and ways to bypass it. But how do you tell for sure whether the ignition switch is the problem? Let’s find out.
Testing an Ignition Switch
Here are a couple of ways you can isolate a bad ignition switch as being what’s causing problems with your car.
Test With a Multimeter
The most obvious way to test an ignition switch is using a multimeter. Make sure that the ignition switch is in its OFF position when you start.
The positive end of the multimeter goes with the power feed wire of the ignition switch while its negative end can be brought in contact with any unpainted metal that’s in the car.
Now you can turn the key so that it’s in the RUN mode. If the multimeter displays a voltage under 90% of the battery’s voltage, then you’re likely dealing with a bad ignition switch.
Test With a Light
An indirect way to test an ignition switch is by connecting it to a test light. But before you can do that, disconnect the S terminal of the starter motor solenoid. This is so that the engine doesn’t crank when you put the key in the RUN position.
Now put the switch in the RUN position. Take the red wire in the ignition switch’s cable connector module and connect it to a 12v light, which is the test voltage. Also connect the ignition coil battery post to the test voltage. Now put the key in the START position and connect the white wire of the ignition switch.
If the light comes on at this point, then the ignition switch is fine. If not, then you probably need to get it fixed.
Cost of Replacing Ignition Switch
If you use a car long enough, you will reach a point at which you have to replace the ignition switch. The part itself can cost you about $200 to 250. So if you’re replacing it yourself, that’s how much you’ll spend.
If you need to take it down to the shop to get the switch replaced, then we need to tack on the price of labor. Assuming that the process takes between an hour to an hour and a half, you’ll spend about $60 to $100 on labor. Putting those together, replacing an ignition switch will cost you between $250 and $350 total. Keep in mind, the cost of labor varies in some parts of the country; prices may vary.
Ignition switches need immediate attention when they begin to act up. And they will begin to act up at some point given how often they’re used.
We’ve covered what signs point to a bad ignition switch and how to work with a car that has one. If you notice any of those symptoms, make sure that you get your car checked out immediately. Waiting will only make things worse.
Ensuring that the ignition switch works well gives you the best chance of having a smooth experience driving your car overall.