How to Get Your Van to Start, After Going Through Water

If water is in the oil, spark plugs, or the engine won’t crank as it is stuck, there could be water in the engine. Stop to prevent any more damage.

Otherwise disconnect the battery and dry electricals, starting with the distributor, ignition coil, then leads and cables until you find the fault.

The first thing is to ensure the engine is not hydrolocked, this is when the water is in the actual engine block and not just the electrical systems connected to it.

The chances are your van just has an electrical problem from the water, which will be very easy to fix


Don’t Try Starting if There’s Water in the Engine

Trying to start a hydrolocked engine will cause more damage, which will be even more expensive to repair.

The cost of fixing a hyrolocked engine is so high, you don’t want to do anything to make it higher. It can mean you need a new engine block, so you want to get this possibility out of the way first.

The cylinders in the engine squash air mixed with petrol to run, but they cannot squash water.

Running an engine with water in will bend the piston rods, connecting rods, and other things. This is where things get very expensive to repair.

The water can blow the head gasket, which is a thin layer of metal between the top of the engine block and its body. If that’s all, then you are relatively lucky, because if the engine ran longer, the piston rods bend or break, valves get damaged, and so on.

The more you run it, the lower down the engine the damage can get, until the engine block and other parts also break, so it’s cheaper to get a new engine.

Usually its just an electrical problem which is simple and easy to sort out.


How to Know if the Engine Is Hydrolocked

If the:

  • Engine will crank and won’t start, it’s probably an electrical problem.
  • Engine won’t crank as it is stuck and the starter motor is trying to start it, you probably have water in the engine.

The engine won’t crank if it is hydrolocked, or will have a very hard time doing so. This is because the pistons in there cannot squash the water in the pistons.

If the ignition system is working and you can hear it struggling to crank the engine, but it can’t turn the engine, then you probably have a hydrolocked engine.

Maybe the starter motor is making a clicking sound, because it’s trying to crank the engine, but the engine won’t turn. If the solenoid on the starter motor is clicking, but the motor is not, it may be an issue with the starter motor.

Hydrolocking usually happens really quickly, with a sudden jolt.  The water rushed into the engine as you went through the water and suddenly won’t move. So if the problem happened slowly, then that’s another sign your engine may not have water in it.

However if the engine will crank freely, but not start, it is probably an electrical or some other problem.


Shallow Water Usually Means an Electrical Fault

Manufacturers usually put the van’s air intake to the engine as high up as possible; this is because they know how damaging water getting into the engine can be.

So if your van went through shallow water, it probably just sprayed water into the engine bay and did not get the engine through the air intake.

Maybe water also came through the vent on the front of the van, where the radiator’s cooling fan pushed it through the engine bay even more strongly.

So going through shallow water can get the water onto the electrical equipment but not into the engine to cause hydrolock.

Going through really deep water is serious though; as well as water getting in through the main intake vent, it may even get through the breather tubes in the differential and fuel tank.


The Engine Could Be Slightly Hydrolocked

The engine may have taken in only a bit of water, enough that it won’t start, but not enough to stop it from turning. You would still have had to have gone through deep water for it to get in though.

To analyze this please, check the following:


Water in the oil

Use the dipstick to check the oil to see if there’s any water in there.

The oil should be black, with a thick consistency. If it’s a chocolate color and less thick, or another color, then it could have water in it.

Even if the engine starts, water in the oil will stop it from lubricating the engine properly and cause long-term damage.

Also check the fuel lines as well to see if water is in there.


Turbochargers Can Block the Water

If your van is turbocharged, although vans are unlikely to have one, the air has to go through a turbocharger before it gets to the engine.

This means if your van has a turbocharger, the water is less likely to have made it into the engine.


WD-40 Spray Helps Dry Things Out

Its best to dry things with a cloth if you can, or with a heat blowing tool, but WD-40 is a standard way mechanics use, and it works really well.

WD-40 a spray can that sprays very thin oil, which disperses the water away.

Simply spray it, and you will see the water disperse away.

The first place to start is the distributor, then ignition coil, next do the leads and connectors, and go on from there. Don’t spray near the battery though!

I go into full details of what to dry in the next session

However it’s the third choice to do after the options above, because it also disperses grease away, so if it gets into parts that need grease, they are now not so well lubricated. This can make the engine and other parts of your car, such as the distributor’s contacts not last so long, as they are less well lubricated.


Water Has Affected the Ignition System

You need to see if the following parts are not working because of water in the system. This is the best order to do it in. It’s basically a checklist, and you keep going until your van will start up again.

Be careful when trying each time, because eventually you will drain your starter motor battery.


The Distributor

It looks like a circular and often domed unit, which is about the size of a hand. They are usually only in older cars that use it to electrically time ignition, as more modern cars tend to use computerized timing systems.

Any moisture in there will short out the spark, so it won’t spark. Look out for any sparks on top of the distributor when you try and start the engine, often caused by th cap on top of it being damaged. Also maybe the seal on the cable that goes into the top of it is not watertight.

First take out the cables and check them, before you consider opening up the distributor to see if there’s water inside.

If your van still won’t start, remove the cap and dry the distributor out. Be very careful not to remove the grease on the contacts, as otherwise the contacts will quickly wear away once the van gets going again.

Make it is still properly greased after you finish, or in the long run, the unit will not last as long because the grease on the contacts stop them from being worn down.


Check HT Coils

This looks like a cylinder and contains a transformer. This turns the battery voltage into the much higher one needed to cause the sparks that light the fuel in the engine.

There are also leads going into and out of it; remove them and see if they have let in water.

After you’ve checked the cables going in and out, see if there’s water inside. It’s possible the casing has a tiny crack in it that lets in water.


Check Spark Plugs

Look around the spark plugs and see if there’s any water there.

If, after you’ve cleared this away, the engine still won’t start; take out the spark plugs, especially looking for if there is any water in them.

Do the following carefully and only if you are competent to do so.

Take off one of the spark plug wires and hold it, so it’s almost touching the engine and have someone crank the car. If the spark is working, it will arc to the engine block.


Starter Motor/Alternator

The starter motor probably got soaked, but they tend to still work when this happens to them.

Hopefully there are no openings, but if there are, get a handheld device that will blow hot air through it. Make sure you don’t get too close, so you don’t damage the starter motor.

Maybe the starter solenoid is still full of water.

If this is the problem, if you live in a place that is not too cold, it should dry out in a couple of days.

Unless the fan blew water onto the coil packs and alternator, you should be alright in a couple of days.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to use compressed air and blow water out of as many valleys on and around the engine as possible to speed up the drying process, but be careful around the alternator.

Be cautious that the reason it won’t turn is the engine is hydrolocked, but usually in this situation you can hear a clicking from the starter motor as it tries to do its job.

The problem could be the solenoid which is usually attached to the starter motor, this provides the electricity to the starter motor.


Battery Terminals

If the lights don’t work, maybe there is a problem with the battery connectors or the grounding cable that goes from the battery to the bodywork.

Look to see if there is water on the terminals on the battery, plus the cable that grounds the electricity to the bodywork is still functioning.

Be really careful to ensure it’s not you that makes the positive and negative electricity touch, as this can cause death or a serious injury. So be especially careful if there is water around!

You need to dry the battery and its connectors, but do so really carefully, water, electricity and you are not a good combination.

Look around for all the electrical connectors.


Dry the Fuse Box

Disconnect the battery first for safety reasons and dry out the fuse box.

There may be a fuse box located under the hood.

When you take one out, make sure you know where it goes back!


Dry the Van’s ECU (Electronic Control Unit)

In modern vans, ECUs (Electronic Control Unit) are small computers used to control the engine, such as its timings. See if you can work out if it is sealed properly and water has not gone in there.

The computer is basically a circuit board that will either short and get destroyed, or survive if dried out quickly before it corrodes.

The computer may have diagnostic codes that give further information about the problem, but to access these readings, you may need special equipment that only a mechanic has.


EFI (Fuel Pump Relay)

The EFI sends power to the fuel pump, so it’s not working, the fuel pump cannot pump fuel into the engine.

The easy sign is if there’s no noise from the fuel pump when it should be working, but otherwise you will need a multimeter to check it


Keep Going Through Other Electrical Items

Above are the main things to check first, but if you can see anything else, keep going.

The main thing for safety reasons is not to reconnect your battery while doing this, to ensure you don’t get a fatal electric shock.

Every so often, you will need to reconnect it to see if your van will restart as you have solved the problem. However please don’t reconnect the battery until you have put the items back together properly.

It can be easy to get stressed in this situation and rush, but it’s never worth it.


Air Filter

This is usually made from paper and is inside a round flat plastic case on top of the engine, called the air filter box.

It’s the first thing to get waterlogged when water tries to come into the engine. If the water was dirty and contained debris, these things may also be in the air filter.

Check the air filter, and if it’s wet and has dirt and other debris on, your van’s engine may not be able to get the air it needs.


The Catalytic Convertor

Many mechanics don’t look at this option because it’s not the normal and obvious thing to cause the problem. Mainly because it’s after the engine.

However if you quickly took your foot off the gas pedal while your van was in the water, water may have been drawn up into the exhaust and end up in the catalytic convertor.

If the extremely cold water from what you drove through, hits the hot honeycomb metal structure in your catalytic converter, it can be enough to make it completely shut.


Electricals Dry Out Naturally After a Few Days

This is probably not much use to you now, but good to know. Especially if you take it to a dealer who charges you for work, but doing nothing would have worked just as quickly.

The exception though, is if water got into the computer, it can cause corrosion that the digital components may not recover from. So you may need to open the case and dry it out yourself.


Check the Radiator Is Not Leaking

If you went through the water fast and hit the water hard, it’s possible the radiator got damaged and is no longer watertight. Check to see if it is leaking.


Get the ECU to Go Into Flood-Clear Mode

Cranking the pedal to the floor puts gas into the spark plugs.

Keeping your foot down on the pedal for longer makes gas come in even more.

Keeping your foot down on the pedal for a while, can make the ECU go into a flood-clear mode and cuts the fuel injection. Then the engine may work when you try to start it again.

If this works, your van will start in a smell and smoky way.

It’s not hugely likely to work, but its worth a go as one of the last things to try.


Once You Have the Van Going Again

Make sure the brakes are working okay; if there’s lots of water in them, they may not work so well.

If you can, it’s best to leave it running for 10 minutes before setting off to be sure everything’s okay. You don’t want the engine to cut out on a highway.

If there’s a chance any water got into the oil, change the oil to make sure your van has the longest and healthiest possible lifespan.


Remove Dirty and Dirty Water With a Jet Spray

Go to a self wash service, or use your own jet wash on a low power setting.

The water you drove through was probably dirty, and it won’t be good to have it lingering on the inner parts of the car.

Doing so can increase long term corrosion and getting other related electrical problems


If the Problem Comes Back

If, later on, or a few days later, your van again won’t restart, it’s probably an electrical issue. You of course, want to find out what the problem is, so it does not persistently repeat itself.


Use a Water Spray to Find the Fault

Once your van dries out after a day or so, it should start again. This is the opportunity to find the fault so it won’t happen again.

Get a hand water sprayer and spray different parts of the engine. If the engine won’t start after you sprayed a certain part, you have probably found the fault.

Also look out for if a spark appears when you spray, as that can reveal the problem.