Marine Diesel Engine Starting Problem

If you’ve never worked on engines before it’s quite a steep learning curve when it comes to troubleshooting. For over two years, and after a major refit, our trusted Westerbeke Generator has never failed us. That is, until recently! Unfortunately, we experienced a marine diesel engine starting problem.

After pre-heating the starter and then turning the engine on, all we could hear was tick-tick-tick-tick-tick (check out the video below to hear the sound – it’s below the following picture). It sounded as if the starter motor was trying to start the engine, but it just wouldn’t kick over.

Marine Diesel Engine Starting Problem

In hindsight, and knowing what we didn’t know before the issue, we could have saved ourselves loads of time and hundreds of dollars.

My hope is that you’re able to learn from our mistakes.

Whether you’re experiencing a starting problem now or you’re preparing yourself for life on a boat, this video will help you to potentially save yourself from a misdiagnosis. The video will demonstrate the issue we had in addition to using two potential solutions. One potential problem is the battery. The second is the diesel engine starter motor. The video covers a solution to both problems.

Marine Diesel Engine Starting Problem Video

Marine Diesel Engine Starting Problem Troubleshooting Checklist

  • Check the battery terminals – are they loose or dirty? If yes, tight and/or clean them.
  • Check the status of the battery. If it’s not charged and can be charged, charge it. Otherwise, check to see if it needs to be replaced. Do not rely on a green indicator as we did. If there’s another battery you can use, move the terminals and see if that works.
  • Check the ground connections. Check the starter circuit, particularly the starter ground.
  • Finally, check the actual starter motor for stuck or worn brushes. Also check the solenoid.

In the video you’ll notice that we started with the starter motor and worked backwards! Well, that’s not true. We did check the battery that powers the generator and the indicator had a green light. We assumed that if the indicator was green it meant that the batter was NOT dead.

Either the green indicator is faulty or the indicator stays green until the battery is completely dead. Our battery still had a charge in it however the charge was not sufficient enough to start the starter motor.

If we had known that our battery was the issue we would have saved time, money and effort.

Instead, we removed the starter motor, researched the Internet to find a replacement and then waited a few days for the replacement. Once we had the new starter motor we had to research how to swap the old for the new. We (or I should say Simon) then had to swap out the starter and all for a disappointing result.

To keep my PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) alive, I’m telling myself that at least we now know how to replace a starter motor. Not all has been lost – we have gained wisdom and experience 🙂

Back to the issue at hand…

While feeling dejected that our generator did not start with the new starter motor, and by odd coincidence, a friend paid us a visit. Our friend, having a background in the marine industry, questioned, ‘have you checked your battery?’

One thing led to another and our friend left us and returned with a proper battery checker. As shown during the video, you’ll notice that the charge in our generator battery was 63 cold cranking amps out of 1000. Although our battery light showed a green light it was close to dead.

We used one of our engine batteries to try and start the generator and it started right up!

The Marine Diesel Engine Starting Problem was our battery.

We got there in the end – eh?!

Let me leave you with a very helpful resource that we keep on board. The book below, titled Marina Diesel Engines – Maintenance and Repair Manual is super handy to have on board.

Unfortunately I looked at this book after we fixed our problem!

I used this book to get the information above for the checklist. What I suggest is if you’re new to Marine Diesel Engines, get this book. The first part of the book explains how Diesel engines work and it’s full of pictures and diagrams. The second part is all about maintenance. And the final parts contain repairs, breakdowns and winterizing.

When we took a Diesel Marine Engine course our teacher recommended these books to us.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this book is in print anymore. I think you might have to get a used copy. Regardless, if you can get a copy of it, grab it. Every page is full of pictures and easy step-by-step processes. We also have a book by the same author about outboard motors. I consider both the books as ‘must-have’s’ for our onboard library.