Dash Lights Flickering and Car Won’t Start? How to Fix | Automotive Help

Dash Lights Flickering and Car Won’t Start? How to Fix

Dash lights flickering and failure to start is a very common issue that can happen to any vehicle. While your first impulse may be to think that there is something wrong with the starter (and it is possible), it’s usually caused by an issue with the battery or battery connections.

This article is written assuming that you are sitting in your car that won’t start and you don’t have much in the way of tools with you. So we’ll give you the easiest things to check first and move down the line in terms of difficulty.

When the key is turned, and the starter is engaged, the vehicle will shut down power to any system that can go without power for a few seconds, which helps funnel all available electricity to the starter motor.

If you’re hearing this sound while the dash lights flicker, it’s almost certainly a battery issue:

1. Loose Battery Terminal (Likely)

Tighten Battery Terminal For Flickering Lights When Starting

A loose battery terminal can cause flickering dash lights. If a terminal is loose, the electrical connection to the vehicle is bad, and the dash lights can flicker without the vehicle starting.

It’s easy to tell if the battery terminals aren’t tight. Wiggle them back and forth. If either one moves, it’ll need to be snugged.

If either terminal is loose, tightening it should get your dash lights to stop flashing and get your vehicle to start.

If you are stranded without the ability to tighten the terminal where you are, push the terminal down and turn it with your hand a bit. That can give it enough bite to get your vehicle started until you can get home and tighten it.

2. Corroded Battery Terminal (Likely)

A Normal Battery

When messing with a battery, always disconnect the negative terminal first. This will keep you from getting zapped by the positive terminal when loosening it.

Your vehicle needs a solid connection to the battery at the positive and negative posts. Without a good connection, it can cause the flashing dash light symptom that you are experiencing.

Super corroded

If your battery posts look like the one above, you’re going to need to clean them up. A good wire brush will get the job done.

How to Clean a Corroded Battery Post

Here’s how to clean a battery post/terminal:

  1. Disconnect the negative battery terminal from the post. Make sure to tuck the negative cable away so it won’t touch its post again. This will help ensure that you don’t get accidentally shocked.
  2. Disconnect the positive battery terminal from the post.
  3. Using a wire brush or a dedicated battery post cleaning brush, clean the corrosion off of the battery posts.
  4. Clean the battery terminals. You can use a dedicated battery terminal cleaner. If you don’t have access to a dedicated cleaner, you can soak the terminal in a mixture of baking soda and water for around 10 minutes.

3. Bad Battery (Most Common Cause)

A bad (or drained) battery is the most common reason why a vehicle has flickering dash lights but won’t start.

If you find that the battery was too low to start the vehicle, that doesn’t necessarily mean the battery is bad.

Here are a few ways you can test the battery:

Jump It

If you are stranded away from home, you can see if jump-starting your vehicle will get it to start. If it jumps, you’ll know that a drained battery was causing the no-start/flickering dash lights issue.

Here’s how to jump a vehicle:

Jump Start Flashing Dash Light Fix
  1. Connect to the positive terminals first: Connect the red jumper cable to the vehicle that won’t start’s positive battery terminal, then connect the other end of the red jumper cable to the running vehicle’s positive battery terminal.
  2. Connect to the negative terminals: Connect the black jumper cable to the dead vehicle’s ground terminal. Then connect the other ground wire to a good ground source on the running vehicle. There’ll usually be a spot pretty close to the battery that’s labeled ground. Any engine or accessory bolt that’s clean will usually work fine. The ground on the running vehicle’s battery will technically do the job too, but there’s a small chance that hooking up this way can start a fire at the battery, so don’t do it.
  3. Do nothing: Let the battery charge for a few minutes.
  4. Start the vehicle: If it seems like it’s acting differently (flashing less or trying to start), adjust the jumper cable contacts and let it charge some more.
  5. Remove the jumper cables: Reverse the process.

If the battery or alternator light comes on after the vehicle starts, you’ll likely need a new alternator. Driving with either light on will eventually cause the battery to drain again and leave you stranded.

Test the Battery Yourself

You can test the battery with a multimeter. Here’s how to go about doing so:

  1. Set the multimeter to volts.
  2. Touch the red prong to the positive battery post.
  3. Touch the negative battery post

At this point, you’ll see a battery voltage level. Without the vehicle running, it should be around 12.5 or so. Anything below that might not be enough for the vehicle to start.

As a rule of thumb, anything under 12 is likely a bad battery. A bad alternator can cause a good battery to drain.

Bring it to the Local Parts Store to be Tested

These guys will be happy to test your battery

Most local parks stores, such as AutoZone, Napa, Advanced Auto Parts, etc., will be happy to check your battery to see if it’s bad. It’s a big win for them because you can buy a new battery there if it is bad.

Depending on the equipment used, the process can take up to a half hour. So keep that in mind.

Other (Less Likely) Causes of Dash Lights Flickering + No Start

Here are things known to cause this scenario but aren’t as common.

Bad Ground Wire

Flashing Instrument Lights Click when starting

Above, we discussed that a bad ground connection at the battery could cause the lights to flicker and a no-start condition. But, a damaged or loose ground connection can cause the problem anywhere on the cable.

Inspect the ground cable for any obvious damage. Then, follow it to its mounting location on the engine block or chassis. Make sure that it is snugged tightly and there’s no rust underneath it.

Bad Starter Connection

The battery cable that runs from the battery terminal to the starter can be loose at the starter. This is usually only seen after somebody has replaced the starter and didn’t tighten it enough.

The starter battery cable can also get heat damage from the exhaust if it’s run the wrong way.

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