How to Get a Van Going When it Won’t Start

You may not be at home when your van won’t start, but there may not be a need to call a tow truck right away.

Prior to calling a tow truck, these are the first things to do when your van won’t start:

  1. Warm the Battery – Turn ignition several times
  2. Battery Terminals – Check they are tight
  3. Check Shift Lever – Move to neutral
  4. Starter – Give it a sharp knock
  5. Fuel Pump – Check if it makes a noise
  6. Fuel Pump Switch – Check it hasn’t tripped
  7. Engine Flooded – De-flood the engine

Often when a van won’t start, it is nothing major, and so you can get it started but will have to address the problem from repeating.

These are the things you can check on your own and without professional assistance. Although not all of these may be a permanent fix, they may get you and your van home or to your mechanic, saving you on towing charges.


Warm the Battery

If when you turn the ignition key, you hear a click, but the van won’t start, it could be a battery problem.

The battery may not be dead though, it may just be weak and needs warming up. To warm the battery turn the ignition switch to start 10 times. Let the battery rest for 5 minutes, and then try to start the van again.

Tip: To tell if the battery is good, weak, or dead, turn on the inside light.

If the inside light does not work, the battery could be dead and need recharging but check the battery terminals first.

If the inside light does come on, with the door open and the light on, try and start the van. If the light stays bright, the battery is good.

If the light dims, the battery is weak but may only need warming up in order to get you home.


Check, Tighten and Clean the Battery Terminals

If the battery appears to be dead, it may just be that the battery terminals are loose, thereby making the battery ineffective.

Both the positive and the negative battery terminals should be on tight, but even if they are, corrosion build-up may be making them ineffective.

The battery terminals should be removed and cleaned, but if you have no tools, you may be able to perform a temporary fix. Take off a shoe and knock each terminal with the heel. This may hopefully move each terminal enough to make a connection with the battery posts.

If this fix works, you will still have to remove and clean the terminals as soon as possible.


Check Shift Lever Is In Neutral or Park

The van is designed to only start when the shift lever is in either park or neutral. If the lever is slightly out or not positioned well, it will stop the van from starting.

If you had the stick lever in park then move it to neutral and try to start again. If that did not work, once again move the lever, this time back to park, and try starting again.

When you move the stick to either neutral or park, try and ensure it sets in correctly.


Tap Starter Motor to Free the Contacts

If the battery is good and your van won’t start, the problem could be with the starter.

Unfortunately there is not much you can do about a faulty starter except replace it. However, sometimes the contacts inside a starter stick. This means that giving it a sharp tap with something like your tire iron may free the contacts.

If tapping the starter does start the van, there is no way to be sure it will work every time, and so you should still replace the starter at the earliest opportunity.


If Fuel Pump Not Working, Try Swapping Fuses

If the van is getting power from the battery, then it won’t start due to a lack of fuel.

When you turn the key in the ignition, listen for a purring sound coming from the vicinity of the fuel pump. If the pump is working, it should make a purring sound when the ignition is turned.

If you hear no sound, then the fuel pump is probably the problem, but there are still actions you can take which may fix the problem.

First check the fuse in the fuse box. Pull it out and check if it looks good. The metal strip inside it should be intact for it to be effective. If the fuse looks damaged, you can look in the box for a fuse which has the same amperage and swap them. Do not forget of course, that whatever you took the fuse from will now no longer work but at least your van may start and get you to somewhere you can buy a new fuse.

On Ford vans, there is also a fuel system cutoff switch which may have tripped. If the switch has tripped, the pump will be immobilized, thereby not allowing the van to start until it is reset.

This switch is designed to cut off the fuel if the van is involved in an accident; it can however be tripped by a knock to the passenger door. The switch is located in a panel inside the passenger door and is easy to reset if it has inadvertently tripped.


Do Not Retry While Engine Is Flooded

A flooded engine has nothing to do with water but instead is a term used for when the air fuel mix is wrong.

This means that there is too much fuel around the spark plugs with not enough air to ignite it. The spark plugs are therefore inhibited from doing their job.

Prior to fuel injectors, a flooded engine could be remedied by keeping the foot on the gas pedal whilst turning the ignition. For more modern vans with fuel injectors, this will not work as the computer senses the engine is flooded, so stops more fuel from leaving the injectors.

The best solution for a flooded engine on a modern van is to let the engine stand idle for a while. If weather permits, open the hood so the excess fuel can evaporate more quickly. After about 10 minutes, the spark plugs should be free of excess fuel, and the van should start.

If waiting does not clear the starting problem, you will have to remove the spark plugs, dry them and replace them.

If the van’s engine frequently floods, the fuel injectors may need cleaning. You can easily do this by letting fuel injector cleaner run through the system.

Note: If you suspect your van’s engine is flooded, do not keep trying to start it before the plugs have dried, as this could drain your battery. Do not pump the gas pedal when trying to start, as this will make the problem worse.


Other Causes Why the Van Won’t Start

 Other causes for your van not to start could be a dirty air filter or clogged fuel filter. If the filters are the cause though, you would have previously experienced trouble starting and fluctuating fuel flow while driving.

If one of the filters is the problem, you will be able to clean the air filter yourself and perhaps even change the fuel filter without the expense of a professional.



Whether you are at home, work, or anywhere else, your van not starting will be a cause for concern. There is no need to panic though, as often you can solve the problem on your own with no tools but just a little patience.

Do not keep blindly trying to start it as that will drain the battery or flood the engine, if they were not already the problem.

Instead try just once more and listen and look:

  • Does the engine crank or not?
  • Does the fuel pump purr?
  • Do the lights work?

These will give you an idea as to whether the problem is power, battery related or fuel related. Then take the action above you think most appropriate for your situation.

Most of the above initial actions require no tools. The only exceptions are if you need to clean the spark plugs or air filter but they too do not need specialist’s tools. You will need tools to change the fuel filter but then you would have to buy a new filter anyway if that is the problem

As odd as it may seem, one of the most common causes of a vehicle not starting is that it has no fuel. It is therefore, always best to keep checking your fuel gauge and not allowing the tank to get too empty. Any contaminants in the fuel will settle to the bottom of the tank, and those will be sucked up before the tank is actually empty.