8 Typical Symptoms of a Bad ATV Starter

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When an ATV doesn’t start, sometimes it is due to a faulty starter. Knowing the symptoms of a failing starter can help detect a potential problem early on before a failed starter leaves you stranded out on the trail. 

A bad starter can cause various symptoms, including:

  • No crank, no start
  • Intermittent starting problems.
  • Grinding noises.
  • Starter free-spinning.
  • Buzzing noise or one-click sound.
  • Heavy smoke from the starter.
  • Drained battery.

What Is A Starter and How Does It Work?

As the name implies, the starter is a component that is essential in starting your ATV. The purpose of the starter is to turn the engine to initiate the ignition process, which then takes over to keep the engine running.

The starter unit is part of the vehicle’s starter system comprising these components.

  • Battery
  • Ignition switch
  • Starter relay.
  • Starter and starter solenoid
  • Wires connecting the parts.

You’ll typically find the cylindrical-shaped starter bolted on the engine by the flywheel. The starter unit consists of an electric motor, a solenoid, a spring-loaded actuating arm, and pinion gear. 

This is how an ATV starter works:

  • Turning the ignition switch or pressing the starter button signals the starter relay to close the electrical circuit from the battery to the starter motor. 
  • The electrical current flowing from the battery turns on the electric starter motor and activates the starter solenoid.
  • Attached to the starter motor is a small pinion gear that turns a much larger ring gear attached to the engine flywheel. Usually, the two gears are not connected. 
  • When you activate the starter, a plunger in the starter solenoid shifts the pinion gear about ½ inch forward to interlock with the ring gear. 
  • When the electric starter motor turns, the interlocked gears make the engine rotate until it starts.
  • Releasing the starter button breaks the circuit to the starter, and springs ensure the pinion gear disengages from the flywheel.

What Are the Symptoms of a Bad ATV Starter?

When a starter motor goes bad, it is usually due to a failing motor, worn-out gears, or a failing starter solenoid. Often, you’ll be able to pinpoint the problem by the symptoms. 

1. No Crank, No Start

A no crank, no start is when the engine will not turn over and will not start as you activate the starter. 

When an ATV does not start, it is usually not due to a bad starter. But, when the starter is, in fact, bad, the engine will not turn over, and the ATV will not start.

If you’re having problems starting your ATV but don’t experience any other symptoms in this list, I recommend heading over to our complete guide on troubleshooting an ATV that won’t start.

2. Intermittent Starting Problems

If the starter does not activate on the first attempt, but the next time you turn the key, it fires right up, it might be because of a failing starter relay. 

3. Grinding Noises

When the starter pinion gear is not engaging correctly with the starter ring gear or the gears are worn down, they make an awful grinding noise when you activate the starter.

The grinding noise typically happens only occasionally in the beginning but more often as the gears wear. 

4. Whirring Sound – Starter Free-Spinning

Free-spinning, or freewheeling, is when the starter gear spins without engaging with the flywheel. When this happens, all you hear is the whirring sound of the starter motor turning. 

Freewheeling can happen when the gears are entirely worn down, when the starter solenoid has failed, or when the pinion gear mechanism has become corroded or dirty to a point where the solenoid cannot shift the pinion gear. 

5. Buzzing Noise or One Click Sound

The starter motor is powered by electricity, and when it turns, it draws a high current load from the battery through heavy gauge cables. 

Inside the starter motor, brushes feed the electricity to the motor through the commutator. As the brushes wear out, they no longer make as good contact with the commutator, and the starter motor needs to draw a higher current from the battery to turn over. 

You can notice the brushes beginning to wear out from the starter motor becoming hot to the touch.  

Eventually, the resistance between the brushes and the communicator becomes too high, causing the motor to overheat. As the motor and starter housing heats up, the starter motor begins to drag and slows down until it seizes completely. 

When you turn the key, all you hear is a clicking sound from the solenoid activating the plunger or a buzzing noise from the motor failing to turn over.

A buzzing noise might also come from the starter solenoid kicking in due to low battery voltage. Here is how you test the starter solenoid.

Note that most of the time, when you turn the key and hear a clicking sound, it is not from a seized starter but is more likely caused by a drained or bad battery or a faulty starter solenoid.

6. Heavy Smoke From the Starter

If you continue trying to operate the starter after it seizes from overheating, the overheating will escalate until heavy smoke begins pouring out from the starter motor.

Smoke from the starter could also be caused by an internal short in the starter motor’s electrical windings. 

7. A Drained Battery

As the starter motor wears out or begins to fail, it draws a much higher current from the battery than usual. 

If you notice your battery becoming drained faster than usual and there are no other apparent causes, it may be from a failing starter. 

You will also notice the engine cranks slower than usual, and the lights may dim down from the high current draw. 

Related: 10 Reasons Why Your ATV Battery Keeps Draining (Going Dead)

Other Possible Causes With Similar Symptoms

 When troubleshooting bad-starter symptoms, it is good to know that several other possibilities can have similar symptoms. 

  • Faulty Starter Relay
  • Blown Starter Fuse
  • Faulty brake-sensor switch.

What to Do When Your Starter Is Going Bad?

If you suspect your starter is going bad, you do not want to continue using it until you’ve run a proper diagnosis.

Before diving into the starter, the first thing is to test that the battery is good and the terminals are not corroded or loose.

Sometimes, you can free up stuck brushes by gently tapping the starter housing with a dead blow hammer as you activate the starter. However, this is usually only a temporary solution, and the issue may soon reappear. 

Related: How to test the condition of your starter.

If you don’t feel comfortable diagnosing the starter, you should have a mechanic help you.

The mechanic will be able to pinpoint the exact cause of your problem.

Sometimes, the starter can be returned to working order with a proper cleanse and new brushes. 

When the starter is disassembled to service the starter motor, ensure the starter pinion assembly is clean, lubricated, and moves freely.

Other times, the starter motor has shorted out, and the entire starter needs to be replaced.

If there is an issue with stripped gears, you should keep your fingers crossed that it’s the pinion gear, not the ring gear. A pinion gear is relatively easy to replace and only requires removing the starter.

However, when the ring gear strips out, it’s much more time-consuming to access and replace the damaged gear with a new one. This is typically a job best left to a mechanic unless your home mechanic skills are above average. 

Related Questions

Will a Bad Starter Still Crank the Engine?

A starter beginning to go bad may still be able to crank and start the engine, but it turns at a noticeably lower speed. Eventually, as the starter fails, it can no longer turn the engine. 

Can You Jump Start an ATV With a Bad Starter?

Jump starting does not help to start an ATV with a bad starter, but it helps if the battery is bad or drained. Do not attempt to jump-start an ATV with a starter that is overheating and seizing out, as doing so may cause additional damage. 

Haavard Krislok
Haavard Krislok
Haavard Krislok is an ATV and off-road enthusiast with a rich background spanning two decades in owning, maintaining, repairing, and utilizing ATVs for farming, logging, and hunting. Outside his professional life as an engineer and project manager, he cherishes recreational trail riding and is the creative force behind BoostATV.com, serving as its owner, editor, and content creator.

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