Your ignition switch (or starter switch) locks your steering wheel in place when there’s no key in it. It is meant to prevent the car from being started without the key. It’s not much of a deterrent for the thief that knows how to get around it or hotwire a car, though.
An ignition starter switch also performs a practical function. If you’re waiting in the car, the switch will allow you to switch on the radio or lights without actually turning on the engine. So, the ignition starter switch is useful in many ways.
While you will likely never experience an issue with this component, a bad ignition switch can be a major problem. Fortunately, symptoms of a faulty ignition switch are fairly noticeable (especially if multiple ones appear) and the replacement cost won’t break the bank in most cases.
How an Ignition Switch Works
There are two basic electrical systems at work in your car – the primary and the secondary. The secondary system runs solely on battery power. It’s this system that allows the car’s clock to keep time when the vehicle is off.
It’s this secondary system that comes into play when you opt to move your key into the second spot. If you’re listening to music in your car while you’re sitting waiting, the secondary system is in play.
The primary system is stronger. For this system to engage, the secondary one has to switch over. When the switch is turned on, the circuit for the primary system is closed, and power can flow.
The power moves to the starter solenoid and various ignition system components including the starter motor, ignition coil, and spark plugs. The spark then ignites the fuel, and the car starts running.
To use a vehicle’s ignition switch, you first need to insert a matching key into the switch which is usually located on the steering column. Alternatively, many newer cars use a key fob to communicate wirelessly with an ignition switch. Instead of turning a key, you push a start button.
In almost all cases, for security reasons, an engine immobilizer system is also in play by way of a microchip (transponder) in the key or key fob that tells the car’s computer it’s ok to start the vehicle. If the transponder signal doesn’t match what the immobilizer is expecting (or there is no signal), the vehicle will not start.
Top 5 Bad Ignition Switch Symptoms
How do you know if you’re dealing with a faulty ignition switch or relay? Here are five of the most common signs the ignition switch may be bad. When you notice at least two or three of these symptoms, it’s fairly likely the ignition switch is the culprit.
#1 – Key Doesn’t Turn
When an ignition switch has excessive wear or damage inside of it, it will often prevent the key from correctly aligning with the keyhole. This is usually something that gets worse over time. You may notice the key not going in as smoothly as before and the issue gradually gets worse until the key doesn’t even go in or it goes in but fails to turn.
Make sure the ignition lock is not engaged by turning the steering wheel back and forth while you try to turn the key.
#2 – Car Won’t Start
The ignition coil draws battery power and uses that to fire up the spark plugs. If something goes wrong with this switch, your car won’t start. There are a few other things to check, such as the battery, but the ignition system is an excellent place to start.
Listen to the noise that your car is making. Is it completely dead and won’t turn over at all? Then, it’s probably a dead battery.
It doesn’t leave you in the clear, though. The battery could also drain as a result of a faulty ignition system.
#3 – Dashboard Lights Flicker
With older vehicles, wear and tear can cause failure in the switch over time. If the switch starts wearing out, one of the first signs is that you don’t hear the primary relay clicking over. Check the lights on the dashboard to be sure.
Now, put your key into the second position. If the ignition is the problem, then the dashboard will usually go dark. Move it into the starting position and take note of the warning lights that appear.
If the lights go out when the key is moved back to the second position, there’s a problem with the wiring to the ignition switch. Many times, you will experience flickering lights in your dashboard while you are driving. This is a warning to get things checked out.
It is something that you should leave to a qualified auto-electrician. The current running through these wires could cause severe injuries if you don’t know what you’re doing.
#4 – Accessories Won’t Power On
If there’s not enough power to get the car started, there won’t be enough for the accessories in the car, either. If your radio won’t work, or the air conditioner doesn’t start up, check the ignition system.
#5 – Car Stalls While Driving
If your car cuts out for no reason while you’re driving, it’s not getting enough power. It is often a sign that there’s a problem with the ignition system or the battery. If your car cuts out for no reason at all, then pull to the side of the road and call for help.
We can’t stress how important this is for road safety. If the car’s started cutting out while you’re driving, it’s a real emergency.
Ignition Switch Replacement Cost
The cost of an ignition switch can vary quite a bit depending on make and model of vehicle, whether it’s an OEM or aftermarket switch, and whether the switch is a combination unit (ignition switch plus lock cylinder).
While you can get a cheap aftermarket switch for as little as $20, it’s always recommended to go OEM (original equipment manufacturer). In most cases, your parts cost will be somewhere in the range of $70 to $300.
Expect to pay between $60 to $180 in labor to have the switch replaced. Generally speaking, ignition switch replacement takes about an hour to an hour and a half.
If you add up the average cost of parts and labor, the total ignition switch replacement cost will usually run in the neighborhood of $130 to $480. If you own a luxury vehicle and have a highly complex ignition switch or have a car dealership perform the job, expect to pay in the upper part of that range or even more.
If you can start the vehicle, you can drive it to the mechanic. If not, factor in extra money to have it towed instead. If the wiring around the switch has been damaged, you’ll need to have this fixed as well.
Can You Start a Car With a Faulty Ignition Switch?
If you’re lucky, you might be able to get the car going. If that’s the case, make your way to an auto repair shop or dealership at once. It is an issue that you must fix as soon as possible since it’s not just the starting up where there’s an issue.
There’s the real danger that your car could cut out on you while you’re driving. It could be extremely dangerous on the highway, for example.