How to Fix a Van That’s Struggling to Start

When your van struggles to start, it always seems to be at an inappropriate time. You may be late for an appointment or are keen to get home after work.

While you may at first feel frustration, once it starts you go on your way and think no more of it. Even though it started that time though, it may not start at all the next time, and so you should take actions sooner rather than later.

This is a list of things to do if your van trouble in starting:

  1. Battery Weak – Recharge
  2. Battery Cables Loose or Dirty –  Tighten or clean connections
  3. Spark Plugs – Engine flooded
  4. Fuel Filter Clogged – Replace filter
  5. Starter Faulty or Failing –  Replace
  6. Ignition Switch –  Faulty
  7. Engine Oil – Dirty, needs changing
  8. Fuel Level – Low

Obviously having gotten your van to start, you will not want to shut down again until you reach where you are going. When you reach your destination you should check which of these things is giving trouble so as to avoid your van struggling to start again.

Your van may start with any of these problems, but it will struggle more and more the longer you take to address them.


Weak Battery

If your battery is weak, it may be struggling to get enough power to turn over the engine. The battery could be weak due to you leaving something on, like lights in which case the alternator should recharge the battery as you drive.

However, if the alternator has become faulty, then it may not be recharging your battery, in which case the van may not start at all next time. Once you have reached your destination, you should therefore stop the van and try to restart it again.

If it starts without trouble, check to see what you may have left on before, and turn it off. If the van does not start, you will probably need a new alternator.


Battery Cables

The battery cables connect to the positive and negative poles on the battery. If these cables are not on tight, they may not pass enough current  to battery and so need to be tightened.

It is also possible for the connections or battery poles to become corroded, often due to battery acid. This corrosion will also inhibit power from being passed from the battery to the van’s engine.

If you remove the cables from the battery, you will easily be able to clean both the connections and the battery poles. Once the clean connections have been re-attached, the van should start easily.


Flooded Spark Plugs

When people refer to an engine being flooded, they actually mean that the spark plugs are covered by an excess of fuel. This excess of fuel does not allow for the spark plugs to obtain enough air to make a spark.

While your initial reaction when your van struggles to start may be to keep trying, if flooding is the problem, it will just become worse. If the engine is flooded you will probably be able to smell fuel in which case take a break.

Since most modern vehicles have fuel injectors, there is only one real cure for a flooded engine and that is to let it rest for 5 minutes. Those 5 minutes should be long enough for any fuel on the spark plugs to evaporate and thereby allow for a suitable air-fuel mix to create a spark.


Clogged Fuel Filter

The fuel filter plays an important role in your van as it prohibits contaminants from getting into the fuel injectors. Over time the fuel filter can become clogged, and as it does, it permits less and less fuel to pass. At some point, it may stop sufficient fuel to pass for the van to start on the first attempt.

If the fuel filter is the problem, your starting will continue to become harder and harder. The only solution for this is to change the fuel filter. This is usually considered a task for a professional however, if you feel you can do it yourself, here is a link to show you how.

Fuel filters are needed as every time you refuel, contaminants can enter your tank. This is especially the case when you refuel in dusty or windy locations.


Faulty Starter

A starter is a high-torque electric motor whose task is to draw power from the battery in order to spin the engine’s flywheel, causing it to start. If your battery is good and your battery connections clean, then the starter may be your problem.

A starter can wear out, which means it needs several cranks to spin the flywheel. One way to check if your starting problem is the battery or the starter, is to switch on your lights. If the lights are bright, then power can be drawn from the battery. This will indicate your battery is good, and so you probably have a starter problem.

If you have failed to get your van started and the starter is the problem, it is sometimes possible to get it  to start by tapping the starter. This may not work every time, but on occasions, the contacts inside the worn starter may be jolted into contact

You will still have to replace the starter as soon as possible.


Ignition Switch

Unfortunately if your van has a problem with the ignition switch, it is a problem which only a professional mechanic can usually fix. To resolve this problem, a mechanic will have to dismantle the complete steering column.

Just like in the starter, the ignition switch has contacts which after time can get worn. Fortunately this is not a very common problem and is more likely to happen in areas of high humidity only.

Prior to an ignition switch causing the van difficulty starting, it may have shown tell-tale signs of beginning to fail. These signs could include intermittent loss of lights or other electrics, and perhaps even nothing happening when you initially turn the key to start.


Dirty Engine Oil

Engine oil is designed to have a certain viscosity or thickness; if the oil becomes too thick or dirty it cannot perform effectively.

Engine oil is intended to lubricate all the moving parts in the engine, including the starter. If the oil is not the right consistency or is dirty, it can adversely affect the starter’s efficiency. This means that the starter may need several cranks before it can move fluidly enough to start the engine.

This is one of the reasons why regular servicing of your vehicle is essential for maintaining its efficiency.

Fortunately if this is the problem, it can easily be solved by doing an oil change, remembering to also change the oil filter at the same time.


Low Fuel Level

Vehicle recovery services surprisingly state a lack of fuel being the cause of many of their calls for assistance in starting vehicles. This is probably because people forget that a fuel tank does not need to be empty to stop a vehicle from starting.

As I mentioned, contaminants enter the tank during refueling, and these will settle in the bottom of the tank. As fuel in the tank becomes low, these contaminants overwhelm the fuel filter, stopping it from allowing sufficient fuel to pass and start the van.

Obviously a solution to this is to add more fuel but remember, you may have already clogged the fuel filter, so that may also need to be changed.

To avoid this particular problem, it is always best to try and keep the tank from going below quarter full especially if your fuel filter has not recently been changed.



There are other problems which may cause your van to struggle to start but like the ignition switch they will need professional assistance.

The first thing to try and ascertain is if the van has a power or fuel problem which is making it struggle to start. If the lights all work, the battery is probably in good enough condition. If the starter is cranking, then it is probably OK, and so you should look for a fuel problem:

  • Can you smell fuel? If so you may have inadvertently flooded the engine, and so you need to allow the spark plugs to dry off
  • Check beneath the van for any fuel leaks
  • Check your fuel level. Has your fuel indicator been working properly?

Once you have determined the source of the problem, you can hopefully get mobile again.

To avert this problem from recurring though it is probably best to get a mechanic check out the van when possible as it may be the start of a bigger problem.