***Note: The information in this article was posted prior to the 2017 California wildfires. Based on the wildfires, more research and information has become available about how smoke could be connected to stalling, engine failure, and other car malfunctions. If you’re interested in learning about the possible effects of smoke on a vehicle, including those caused by a natural disaster like a forest fire, jump ahead.
When you stall, it usually means you’re procrastinating on doing your homework. When your car stalls, it means the engine has died, which can be a really frustrating and even scary experience. In fact, your car engine can even stop running while you’re driving. But don’t panic, because we’re here to thoroughly prepare you for a car engine stall in the event it ever happens.
Why is my car stalling?
So what causes car stalling problems? Car engines quit because of a variety if issues around air flow, fuel or mechanics. Some common reasons for motor vehicle stalls include:
- An empty gas tank
- A fuel mixture that isn’t rich enough (this is usually the cause of cold stalling and intermittent stalling)
- A faulty fuel pump, alternator or EGR valve
- A dead battery
- A dirty air filter that’s preventing good airflow
- Low fuel pressure (if your car only stalls on inclines this may be the case)
- Problems with releasing the clutch (manual transmission vehicles only)
- Coolant sensor reading hot
- Ignition related problems such as loss of spark
Stalling in Manual vs Automatic Transmission Vehicles
If you have a manual transmission, your car is more likely to stall. Why? Because with a stick shift, it’s all about that clutch. If you forget to engage the clutch or switch into the neutral gear when stopping, you can cause the engine to stall.
Meanwhile, automatic vehicles use what’s called a torque converter to manage transmission fluid and keep your engine running while at a stop. If your torque converter fails, the engine can stall out. Torque converters can fail for many reasons, including dirty fluid, overheating and problems with stall speed, which is the RPM at which your torque converter shifts power from the engine to the automatic transmission. In order to check your torque converter, you might have to perform a stall-speed test. Here’s how:
1. First, find out what your car’s RPM should be, then locate your tachometer (a tool that measures RPM).
2. Place immobilizers behind your wheels under the car to prevent them from moving. Crank that parking brake. (Then crank that Soulja Boy.)
3. Press the foot brake all the way to the floor and start your engine. Vroom, vroom. Change gears from park to drive, but instead of hitting the gas pedal, do not take your foot off the brake. We’ll repeat: do not take your foot off the brake!
4. Keep pressing the brake pedal, but use your other foot to engage the accelerator pedal for a maximum of five seconds. Check your tachometer for the stall speed and see if it reads lower than it should be. When you’re done, be sure to remove your foot from the accelerator pedal first, then the brake pedal, then you’re safe to crank the parking brake back down.
5. If you need to get a new torque converter, visit an auto shop. Or, if this whole process sounds like something you totally want to avoid, just head to a mechanic and ask them about performing a stall-speed test for you. They can make a recommendation on whether or now you need a new torque converter.
What Happens When Your Car Stalls?
If the engine quits while you’re driving, the car will first lose power steering and then power brakes. Your first course of action should be to apply the foot brake and steer gradually over to the side of the road. Then, turn on your hazard lights and try to restart your car. If you cannot restart it, call an auto mechanic or friend with jumper cables for help. If the jumper cables don’t do the trick in rebooting your stalled engine, you may be looking at another problem that requires some repair work.
If your engine stalls while your car is at an idle speed (idling means you’re sitting still), you might not be able to steer it to the side of the road. If this happens, turn on your hazard lights and call either the police or roadside assistance to help you safely get your car out of the road. Be sure not to get out of your car and try to push it while you’re in traffic. The driver’s safety should be the number one concern!
If your engine stalls out, use these tips so that you don’t feel scared or stuck. With your newfound knowledge, you’ll be able to diagnose the problem whether you have an automatic or manual transmission or find someone who fixes cars for a living who can help.
Can natural disasters make my car stall?
We all know that secondhand smoke and smoke from forest fires can wreak havoc on the human body. The effects on a car are also similarly disastrous, though in the case of a vehicle, it requires a large volume of smoke and debris to see negative effects.
People have questioned the effects of smoke on cars and how it could create stalling in the past, but it seems that a surge in debris-filled smoke has caused the car issues to increase. There could be a few different reasons why a vehicle may stall out during a natural disaster, but all of them are indeed smoke-related, mostly in regards to oxygen intake.
The engine of a car can overheat due to smoke’s oxygen suck, leaving its cooling system unable to properly process the engine’s heat. It might not stall immediately, but as the oxygen flowing in decreases, the vehicle may slow down and eventually stop. This process starves your car of fuel, which is what makes it move forward.
If you’re trying to drive through a fire, there’s a particularly high chance of a car stalling, with the vehicle’s air filter getting clogged due to ash, smoke, and debris. A clogged air cleaner will reduce the car’s intake of air and reduce the desired effects and operations of the engine. Clogged air filters/cleaners can cause stalling, misfires, loss of power, overheating or engine smoke.
It’s of the utmost importance that you remain safe during a fire. Make sure that you’re evacuating the area quickly, remaining prepared, and observing the effects of a disaster on your car, but more importantly, your health.