Tips for Starting Stuborn Engines on Power Equipment


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Well, spring has sprung and many of you are pulling your power equipment out of storage. Whether it’s a lawnmower, rototiller, weed eater, or chainsaw, the one thing that all of these devices have in common is an internal combustion engine.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband was talking to a friend who was spending some time working towards getting a riding lawnmower running again. This inspired me to write an article that might help many of you who have a hard time getting those engine driven power tools started after sitting over the long cold winter months.

Let’s Start with the Basics

All internal combustion engines have three things in common. They need compression, fuel, and spark in order to start. The purpose of this article isn’t to go into great depth about the internal workings of an internal combustion engine. Instead, I’ll take a couple of minutes and talk about the first things that WE would try if we had an engine that was being stubborn that didn’t want to start.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that whatever engine you are trying to start was running fine when you put it away for the winter. To keep things simple, we’ll use a lawnmower as an example in this article.

Every year, thousands of people notice that the grass is growing in their yards so they open their storage sheds with the intention of mowing their lawns only to find that their lawnmowers won’t start. If you have found yourself in this situation, you’re certainly not alone. Unfortunately, depending upon your level of expertise when it comes to working on small engines, you may need to have a mechanic service the machine before you can get it into running order.

If, on the other hand, you’re the type that likes to do your own repairs, I’ve got some good news for you. If the engine was running when you put it away for the winter, it’s fairly safe to eliminate two of the three key components as possible problems that are necessary for an engine to run.

Remember, all engines need compression, fuel, and spark to run. If your lawnmower was running fine when you put it away for the winter, it’s pretty safe to say that it has good compression and the spark plug is producing an adequate spark to ignite the fuel.

In our experience, the most common cause for a small engine to not start or start and run poorly is the fuel component of the internal combustion triangle. What usually happens is people put their lawnmower away for the winter without taking the time to properly winterize it and treat any remaining fuel that may be in the fuel tank, fuel lines, and carburetor.

What I Would Try First

If I was fighting with a stubborn engine that wouldn’t start, the first thing that I would do would be to drain any of the gasoline that might have been left in the tank from the prior season into a gasoline safe container.

Next, I would drain any gas from the carburetor float bowl. Consult your engine manual but there’s usually a small screw on the bottom of the carburetor that is designed to allow you to drain the float bowl. Again, make sure that you drain any fuel that is in the bowl into a gasoline safe container.

The next thing I would try would be putting a little bit of fresh gasoline into the fuel tank. People often forget that gasoline won’t last forever and in some cases it can go stale in a matter of a few months.

We’ve had experiences when we purchased used power equipment where all we had to do was drain the fuel and replace it with fresh gasoline and the engine started right up. If this works for you, great! You’re back in business!

If it doesn’t, I would suggest that you check your engine manual for the proper procedure to determine whether or not your engine is getting a spark at the spark plug. Like I mentioned before, if you had spark before you put it away for the winter, you probably still do.

In this case, you’re probably going to have to clean the carburetor. We’ve tried taking shortcuts and simply spraying carburetor cleaner into the carb but we were never successful with this approach.

In nearly every instance where one of our engines needed the carburetor cleaned, my husband had to remove it from the engine and disassemble it for a thorough cleaning.

You see, the purpose of a carburetor is to mix gasoline with air to create a flammable vaporized air/fuel mixture that can be ignited by the spark plug. It’s a relatively simple device but it can be a bit finicky. There are some very tiny orifices inside carburetors that can easily become gummed up with deposits caused by leaving untreated gas in them.

It really doesn’t take much at all to clog up a carburetor. If the tiny orifices in a carburetor are clogged, it will be impossible for it to create the proper fuel to air mixture and your engine won’t start. If you’re the adventurous type, there are lots of good YouTube videos that you can refer to if you want to learn how to clean a carburetor yourself. I should warn you that while this isn’t a difficult job, there isn’t much room for error during this process.

As I mentioned before, carburetors can be quite finicky so if you don’t get all of the orifices thoroughly cleaned or you don’t get the carburetor reassembled exactly the way it should be, your engine won’t run or it will run poorly.

Don’t Overlook Routine Maintenance

Depending upon the particular type of power equipment that you are tuning up, there will certainly be other procedures that the owner’s manual will recommend performing. These include, but are not limited to, oil changes, fuel filter changes, and air filter cleaning or changing.

Be Sure to Learn from Your Mistakes

All power equipment requires routine maintenance. That should go without saying but if you happen to have found yourself in a situation where your lawnmower wouldn’t start this spring, I highly suggest that you take the time to familiarize yourself with the proper winterization methods that are outlined in your owner’s manual.

It doesn’t take long to properly winterize power equipment and the time that you’ll save when you’re ready to use it in the spring will be well worth the effort.

Warning: I feel obligated to remind you that when working with power equipment, it is imperative that you follow all required safety protocols. Remember, gasoline is extremely flammable so be sure to never work around it with an open ignition source. Also, be sure to wear any appropriate safety gear such as gloves and eye protection. Last but not least, always work in a safe, well-ventilated location to protect yourself from deadly fumes.


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