9 Steps To Start A Car That Hasn’t Been Started In Years

Most of us have a car that has been sitting in the garage for too long, and the time has come to sell or move that car. But, a car that has been sitting for too long won’t start right away.

There are some steps that you need to take and things that you need to check. If you try to start the engine right away, you might damage your engine. That is why I have made some research and found what people do before they start the engine on a car that has been sitting for too long:

  1. Check For Sticking Key
  2. Inspect The Engine
  3. Check The Engine Oil
  4. Lubricate The Cylinder Walls
  5. Drain The Gas Tank
  6. Check The Coolant
  7. Check The Power Steering And Brake Fluid
  8. Attach A Battery Jumper
  9. Start your car

These are the 8 most common steps that people do before they start their engines. Please note that even if you check all the stuff, your engine might not start. There could be other issues like a bad fuel pump or a dead battery. I have a solution for that too. Let’s get started.

1. Check For Sticking Key

The first thing to check is the key and how hard it is to get it in and out. If it little tough to get it in and out, we have a sticking key. This is usually a quick and easy fix. So,

to fix the sticking ignition lock, you’re gonna be using a dry lubricant spray ( You can grab yours here via Amazon.com). Do you know how a lock actually works and why it’s hard for your key to move in and out?

So, there are two main reasons why your key might be hard to move in and out of the lock:

  1. Every time you put your key in your pocket, you have a chance of getting lint on the key and when you go use the key in your lock, you force that lint in the lock and it just gums things up.
  2. The other reason is the pins inside the lock. When you push the key in, the pins move out of the way and become even so that you could pop the lock open or start the car. So, if these pins aren’t lubricated, it could be difficult to move the key in and out.

So, what you need to do is to spray a dry lock lube. It’s a dry lubricant. It goes in wet and then the liquid evaporates and provides lubrication so the key could slide in and out without getting hung up.

Make sure you roll down a window or leave a door open or something and so just shake the lubricant up. You really don’t need a lot, just a little burst and work your key in.

2. Inspect The Engine

Before you even try to start the engine, you need to inspect the engine. When a car sits for a longer period of time, animals like to make your car their new home. So, they’ll build nests out of straw and leaves which could easily catch fire with a hot engine.

So, take a look around and make sure you don’t see any nests from animals anywhere in the engine. The other place to look is in the grill and below the grill, not only for animals but leaves and debris starts getting stuck up there which will cause your car to overheat when you first start it.

3. Check The Engine Oil

Engine oil is the most important fluid in your vehicle. It is the lifeblood of your engine. Inspecting the oil level before starting your vehicleOpens in a new tab.

What I suggest, and probably all the mechanics in the world is to change the oil in your vehicle if your car has been sitting for over a yearOpens in a new tab.

  1. Check the owner’s manual to see which type of oil and filter your car uses. You can either buy it at the local store, or you can get it online at Amazon.com
  2. Lift your car off the ground using a jack or a ramp.
  3. Locate the oil-draining pan located under the car. The draining pan is usually black and has a bolt on it.
  4. Place an oil collection pan and loosen up the draining pan bolt.
  5. After you drain the oil completely, put the bolt back in place and tighten it. If your bolt is damaged, replace it with a new one.
  6. Locate the oil filter. The oil filter should be near the draining pan. It has a cylindrical shape. Make sure you place an oil collection pan underneath the oil filter as you remove it.
  7. Add the new oil filter. If your filter is placed in a vertical line, make sure you fill it up with oil before you install it.
  8. Locate the cap with an oil sign on top of your engine. Add your new oil there.
  9. Get your car on the ground and check the engine oil level.
  10. Dispose of your old oil at your local oil store.
  11. Do not start your car yet.

You can check How To Change Your Engine Oil – Complete Beginners Guide here.

4. Lubricate The Cylinder Walls

The next very important thing that you need to do is to lubricate the cylinder walls with some fogging oil (grab it on amazon.com) before you start the engine. So, when an engine sits for a long time, all the oil drips down to the bottom of the drain pan.

Even the oil that’s supposed to be coating the cylinders slowly makes its way down. So, the cylinders are completely dry, and that’s where the fogging oil comes into play. This is how to do it:

  1. To fog the engine, remove the spark plug wire and then remove the spark plug.
  2. Inspect the spark plugs. You want to make sure that there are no cracks in the ceramic part of the spark plugs. If there are any cracks, you have to replace them.
  3. Inspect the area that’s in the engine and sparks. You want to make sure it’s not gummed up with oil. If it is, clean it off or replace them.
  4. Check the gap on the spark plugs. The gaps on my 2007 Hyundai are supposed to be 0.055 of an inch. Take your gapping tool and take your spark plug. Gently move it across until it kind of gets stuck. You want to be careful with the platinum plugs. You don’t really want to rub against them hard because you’ll remove the platinum coating the electrode.
  5. Go into the spark plug hole with the spray and hold the trigger down for one or two seconds. What it does is put a thin coat of oil on the cylinder walls and piston rings because extra lubrication is never a bad thing. Spray the fogging oil in each cylinder. There are usually four on each side. And that’s going to completely lubricate the upper combustion chamber.

5. Drain The Gas Tank

Now with all the cylinders fogged over and lubricated, you have something else that’s very important that you need to do with any car that’s been sitting for a while and that is draining the gas tank. Old gas doesn’t burn as well as new gas, plus old gas can clog up the fuel system. So, you need to remove the old gas and add in some new gas. If your gas tank is in very bad condition, you can check out how to clean your gas tank without removing it.

Let’s get to it:

  1. Grab a hose and push it down until it hits the bottom of the tank.
  2. Grab a pump (get it on amazon.com) and connect the hose to the pump so you could pump out the gas.
  3. Start pumping the gas out and have an empty gas container ready. Once the gas starts running down the hose, it’s going to create suction and pull the rest of the gas in the tank out with it. You can remove the pump just try not to make a mess. The key to making this work is to have the end of the hose below the car’s gas tank you have gravity doing your work. The gasoline is getting pulled down by gravity and it’s going right into the tank. Once you remove the hand pump, it’s actually a decent flow. Be sure to have an extra gas tank just in case the first one fills up.
  4. Put some fresh gas in your tank. It’ll dilute any of the bad gas that’s remaining in your tank, and it should be good enough to start your car.
  5. You’re probably wondering what to do with all this gas. Your local recycling center will take the gas because you don’t know if it’s any good, or you could try running this stuff in your lawnmower, and if it runs in the lawnmower then you know the gas is still good.

Fun Fact: How Long Does It Take For Gas To Go Bad?

Gas can go bad in 3 months or 3 years. It depends on the condition of your fuel tank, fuel filter, and your location. However, before you learn how long it takes for the gas to go bad, first you need to understand what bad gas is and how it looks.

Drain the old gas into a clean glass bottle and compare it with fresh gas. Check the smell and the color difference. Usually, the bad gas is much darker than the fresh gas.

Why Does Gas Go Bad?

Well, the gas could be bad when it’s fresh. In some countries, especially in the gas stations in rural areas, they add water and all kinds of chemicals to make more gas and therefore more money.

6. Check The Coolant

Now with the old gas removed and some fresh gas in the tank, the next thing you need to do before you start the engine is to check the coolant. On the side of the coolant reservoir, there are indicators like LOW and HIGH. These lines show you whether you are good on coolant, or you need to add more.

  1. Open up our coolant reservoir and use one of the hydrometers (grab one on amazon.com). These are actually really inexpensive. All you do is put it inside the reservoir, squeeze the bulb up and it’ll take a sample for you.
  2. Inspect the color of the sample. Make sure there are no air bubbles.
  3. Check the temperature. The hydrometer has a pointer that says to which temperature your car is protected. It should be around negative 35 degrees.
  4. If the temperature test shows bad results, you will have to change the coolant.

See How To Perform A Complete Coolant Flush Here.

7. Check The Power Steering And Brake Fluid

After doing the coolant, you’re technically safe to start the engine. But before you start the engine, there are a few more things that I want to cover just to be extra safe, such as the power steering fluid. The power steering fluid is really easy to check. On the side of the power steering fluid container t says minimum and maximum. So, it has to be between these two lines.

The next fluid to check is another non-essential for running the engine, but it’s very essential for stopping the car and that’s checking the brake fluid. On the side of the brake fluid container, there’s a max line and there’s a minimum line. So, you want to make sure the brake fluids are in between both of those lines. If your brakes are worn out, your brake fluids are going to be on the lower end, and if your brakes are brand-new it’s probably gonna be on the upper end.

8. Attach A Battery Jumper

Now that your fluids are changed, you have fresh fluids and fresh oil. Now you will have to attach a battery jumper (grab yours on amazon.com) to your battery. If the car has been sitting for more than a couple of months, there is a good chance that the battery is dead. Attach your battery jumper to the battery, and put the black cable to negative and the red cable to positive.

9. Start Your Car

It’s time to start your engine. If your car doesn’t start right away, don’t worry. It takes a little bit of time for the oil, fuel, and all the fluids to circulate through the engine and get things running. Also, it takes little time for the battery to recharge.

We have performed all the necessary checks before starting an engine that has been sitting for a long period of time. We did those steps so we don’t damage the engine when we try to start it. If your car doesn’t start, there could be some other issues. The most common problem with a sitting car is the fuel pump. 

My Car Won’t Start, What Should I Do?

One of the most common problems anybody who owns a car will face and that’s when you go to start your car it just won’t start, especially if it has been sitting for a long time. This could be due to a couple of issues.

Problem #1 – Bad Battery

It’s pretty easy to diagnose if your battery is dead. If you don’t have a DC meter, there are a few pointers that will tell you for sure if your battery is dead. Here are they:

  1. When you go and start the car, it won’t crank. Your car could crank at the beginning, but after trying to start the engine 2,3 times, it could stop cranking. If it cranks at the beginning, pop the hood to make sure the starters are engaging and the engine is spinning. If the starters are working, then it’s the battery.
  2. The battery light is on. If there are any issues with the battery, the battery light will appear on the dashboard. This could also mean that your alternator is not charging your battery. So, if you replace the battery and you still have issues, you might have a bad alternator.
  3. Check the clock on the dash. Almost all cars have a clock somewhere on the dashboard. Check the time on the dash and on your phone. If the time is different, it means that your battery was very weak and it restarted all the carOpens in a new tab.
  4. Listen to the car as you start it. Try to start your engine and listen to the sounds coming out. If it sounded like the engine turned over very slowly and it didn’t sound right, it sounded like it was really lugging and was having a hard time. That’s typical of a bad battery so without any equipment just listening to things you could diagnose a bad battery.
  5. Inspect the battery terminals. Perform a visual inspection of the positive and negative battery terminals. There could be a crystallization on the terminals which could lead to a bad connection, and therefore your car cannot start. If you notice any dirt or crystallization, clean the terminals with some sandpaper and towels.
  6. Check the age of the battery. The average lifespan of a car battery is 4 years. But batteries could go bad in a shorter period of time. The manufacturing year is written on top of the battery.
  7. If you don’t have a multimeter. Now, if you don’t have a multimeter, the next thing you could do is just jumpstart your car battery. Charge it up and start your car and then go over to your local auto parts store. They’ll check your battery for free and they’ll actually put a load on it and they’ll tell you if the battery is bad then they can also check your alternator for free to tell you if the alternator is what’s causing the battery problem. There is a slight chance that you could have a draw parasitic. This means that something is using your battery power while the engine is off.
  8. If you have a multimeter.  I do own a multimeter and this is how I check my battery. I have it set to 20 DC volts. Go black to black and red to red. the reading should be around 12 volts. When you’re testing with the multimeter, you want to make sure that your prong is on the battery head and it’s nice and clean. You want a good connection. If the terminals are all dirty and greasy you might not get any voltage or you might have weak voltage.

If you have any of the issues and you have diagnosed a bad battery, you have to replace it. After you replace the battery make sure you write the date of purchase on your battery. As I said, the batteries have around 4 years of lifespan. This way you will know how old is your car battery and change it on time.

Problem #2 – Bad Fuel Pump

There are a few things that you can check to see if you have a bad fuel pump.

  1. The first thing to do is grab the key and put it in the ignition. Turn it to the run position. When you turn it to the run position, listen for a ”hmm” or a whining sound from the fuel pump in the rear of the car. If your fuel pump is working properly, you should hear a sound for two to three seconds. That sound will mean that the fuel pump is building pressure, which is essential to start a car.
  2. Check the fuse box. The problem could be your fuel pump or your fuse. Grab your owner’s manual and flip through it until you get to the page about fuses. See which fuse is for your fuel pump. Locate the fuse box in the engine bay and open it up. Remove the fuse and look for a break in the connection of the fuse. If there is a break in the connection, replace your fuse.
  3. Check the readings. Grab your multimeter and stick one prong into one side of the fuse holder and another to the other side. The readings should be around 12 volts. This means that you are getting power to the fuse box. The next place where you should check the readings is on the back of the car where the fuel pump is. After you locate your fuel pump, you will find the wiring where the fuel pump is getting its power from. Disconnect the wires by pressing down the little tab and pulling them apart. Since the pump only gets power with the car in the run position, turn the key to the run position. Now grab the black lead and ground it to the exhaust. Any bare metal part will act as ground. Now grab your red lead and check each of the prongs in this connector to see if there’s voltage. The reading should be 12 volts. Anything less than 12 volts means that you are not getting power to the fuel pump.
  4. Check the inertia switch. The inertia switch is usually located in the trunk under the carpet. The inertia switch has a red button on the top. The button should be pressed all the way in. To test this all you do is get something and you hit it and the button should pop up. Then you should be able to press the button down, it’ll click, and it will reset. This switch is designed to cut the power to the fuel pump in case there’s an accident. But sometimes it could get triggered just from hitting a pothole or maybe you have some junk in the trunk that just hits it. So, if you’re not getting any voltage to the pump real quick, check the inertia switch because that might be the easy solution to your problem.
  5. Check the fuel pump relay. The fuel pump relay is located on the passenger side, in the footwell. To check if the fuel pump relay is kicking, you should hear a ‘click’ sound every time you turn your key to the run position. If it doesn’t click, you are not getting power to the fuel pump relay.
  6. Pressure tester gauge. There is a good chance that you don’t have a pressure tester gauge, but just in case you have, this is how you can check the pressure. Take off the Schrader valve cap right at the fuel rail and screw on the pressure gauge. This will give you the exact fuel pressure. When you turn the key to a run position, the readings should jump to at least 30 PSI, or maybe higher. If it stays on zero, your fuel pump is not getting pressure. If your fuel filters are clogged, the pressure will rise slowly.

Igor Iwanowski

I am a certified Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) mechanic since 2018. I specialize in Brake systems, dashboard warning lights, EGRs, general engine problems, EVAP and Emissions issues.

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