A lawnmower that won’t start, especially when taken from storage, is almost always due to one problem: bad gas.
Storing a lawnmower in the fall without adding gasoline stabilizer to the fuel tank can cause the fuel to break down and plug the fuel passages. If fixing that problem doesn’t help, there are a few other common maintenance practices to try, as we explain below.
Here’s what to do when your lawnmower won’t start
Replace the gas
Over time (like the six months your lawnmower sat in your garage over the winter), the lighter hydrocarbons in gas can evaporate. This process creates gums and varnish that dirty the carburetor, plug fuel passages and prevent gas from flowing into the combustion chamber.
The carburetor bowl below formed corrosion and deposits during storage, which can easily plug fuel passages and prevent the engine from starting.
Ethanol-containing gas can absorb water from the atmosphere, which can lead to phase separation, which occurs when ethanol and gas separate, much like oil and water. Ethanol that has absorbed enough moisture and has sat long enough can foul the fuel system and prevent the engine from starting.
No matter how many times you yank the pull cord and pollute the air with your advanced vocabulary, the lawnmower won’t start if it isn’t getting gas.
In extreme cases, evaporation of lighter hydrocarbons can change the gasoline’s composition enough to prevent it from igniting. The gas may be fueling the engine, but it doesn’t matter if it won’t ignite.
If you neglected to add gasoline stabilizer to the fuel prior to storage, empty the tank and replace with fresh gas. If the tank is nearly empty, simply topping off with fresh gas is often enough to get it started.
On some mowers, you can easily remove and empty the fuel tank. Sometimes that’s more trouble than it’s worth. In these cases, use a fluid extraction pump or even a turkey baster.
Clean the carburetor
You’ve replaced the fuel, but your lawnmower still won’t start.
Next, try cleaning the carburetor. Remove the air filter and spray carburetor cleaner into the intake. Let it sit for several minutes to help loosen and dissolve varnish and gums.
On some carburetors, you can easily remove the float bowl. If equipped, first remove the small drain plug and drain the gas from the bowl. Remove the float bowl cover and spray the float and narrow fuel passages with carburetor cleaner.
This kind of “quick-and-dirty” carburetor cleaning is usually all it takes to get the gas flowing again and your lawnmower back to cutting grass.
If not, consider removing the carburetor from the engine, disassembling it and giving it a good cleaning. Be forewarned, however: taking apart a carburetor can lead to nothing but frustration for the uninitiated. Take pictures with your phone to aid in reassembly. Note the positions of any linkages or the settings of any mixture screws, if equipped.
If you’re at all reluctant, visit the servicing dealer instead. Also consider replacing the carburetor altogether. It’s a fairly simple process on most smaller mowers and it’s often less expensive than taking it to the dealer.
Clean/replace the air filter
With the air filter removed, now’s the perfect time to clean it.
Tap rigid filters on a workbench or the palm of your hand to dislodge grass clippings, leaves and other debris. Direct compressed air from the inside of the filter out to avoid lodging debris deeper into the media.
Use soap and water to wash foam filters. If it’s been a few years, simply replace the filter; they’re inexpensive and mark the only line of defense against wear-causing debris entering your engine and wearing the cylinder and piston rings.
Check the spark plug
A dirty or bad spark plug may also be to blame. Remove the plug and inspect condition. A spark plug in a properly running four-stroke engine should last for years and never appear oily or burned. If so, replace it.
Use a spark-plug tester to check for spark. If you don’t have one, clip the spark-plug boot onto the plug, hold the plug against the metal cylinder head and slowly pull the starter cord. You should see a strong, blue spark. It helps to test the plug in a darkened garage. Replace the plug if you don’t see a spark or it appears weak.
While you’re at it, check the spark-plug gap and set it to the factory specifications noted in the lawnmower owner’s manual.
If you know the plug is good, but you still don’t have spark, the coil likely has failed and requires replacement.
Did you hit a rock or other obstacle?
We’ve all killed a lawnmower engine after hitting a rock or big tree root.
If your lawnmower won’t start in this scenario, you probably sheared the flywheel key. It’s a tiny piece of metal that aligns the flywheel correctly to set the proper engine timing. Hitting an immovable obstacle can immediately stop the mower blade (and crankshaft) while the flywheel keeps spinning, shearing the key.
In this case, the engine timing is off and the mower won’t start until you pull the flywheel and replace the key. It’s an easy enough job IF you have a set of gear pullers lying around the garage. If not, rent a set from a parts store (or buy one…there’s never a bad reason to buy a new tool) or visit the dealer.
My lawnmower starts, but runs poorly
If you finally get the lawnmower started, but it runs like a three-legged dog, try cleaning the carburetor with AMSOIL Power Foam. It’s a potent cleaning agent designed to remove performance-robbing carbon, varnish and other gunk from carburetors and engines.
Add gasoline stabilizer to avoid most of these problems
Which sounds better? Completing all these steps each year when your lawnmower won’t start? Or pouring a little gasoline stabilizer into your fuel tank?
Simply using a good gasoline stabilizer can help avoid most of the problems with a lawnmower that won’t start.
AMSOIL Gasoline Stabilizer, for example, keeps fuel fresh up to 12 months. It helps prevent the lighter hydrocarbons from evaporating to reduce gum and varnish and keep the fuel flowing. It also contains corrosion inhibitors for additional protection.
I have a five-gallon gas can in my garage from which I fuel two lawnmowers, two chainsaws, two snowblowers, a string trimmer, an ATV and the occasional brush fire. I treat the fuel with Gasoline Stabilizer every time I fill it so I never have to worry about the gas going bad and causing problems.
You can also use AMSOIL Quickshot. It’s designed primarily to clean carburetors and combustion chambers while addressing problems with ethanol. But it also provides short-term gasoline stabilization of up to six months.
Use a good motor oil for your lawnmower
Although motor oil has no bearing on whether your lawnmower starts or not (unless you don’t use oil at all and seize the engine), it pays to use a high-quality motor oil in your lawnmower.
This is especially true for professionals or homeowners running expensive zero-turn or riding mowers.
Lawnmower engines are tougher on oil than most people realize. They’re usually air-cooled, which means they run hotter than liquid-cooled automotive engines.
They often run for hours in hot, dirty, wet conditions. Many don’t have an oil filter, further stressing the oil.
In these conditions, motor oils formulated for standard service can break down, leading to harmful deposits and reduced wear protection.
For maximum performance and life, use a motor oil in your lawnmower designed to deliver commercial-grade protection, like AMSOIL Synthetic Small-Engine Oil.
Its long-life formulation has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to safely exceed original equipment manufacturer (OEM) drain intervals in the toughest conditions. It provides an extra measure of protection when equipment goes longer between oil changes than is recommended by the OEM.
Originally published July 3, 2019.