How To Find Those Annoying Rattles, Squeaks and Noises In A Car
Want to know how to find a rattle in a car? Most people believe that cars have feelings. Just notice how they act when their car has a dead battery. They will plead with it to start, telling it “Just start one more time, please, please,” and then promise the car they will get it a brand new battery really, really soon. If it does start, they tell it “thank you, thank you, thank you.” It’s the same with rattles, squeaks, and other odd noises that your car may make, especially if you have many miles on the odometer.
While we might talk to our cars, sometimes our cars have a difficult time communicating back to us. That’s especially true when they are making strange noises and you want to know how to find a rattle in a car, truck or suv.
Strange Noises Are a Form of Communication
Rattles, squeaks, clicks, ticks, groans, moans and whines can be difficult to understand and hard to locate. But before taking your car to a psychologist, try using these tips to locate those troubling noises without professional help. Unfortunately, there is no underlying scientific theory to guide us in locating the causes of strange noises. But here is a collection of hard-earned wisdom from years of experience working in a repair shop. We’ll define three categories of strange noises: rattles, squeaks and squeals, and other noises.
Rattles Are Usually the Loudest
Is the noise coming from the car’s interior? Consider all the little parts inside of each door that work the lock and window mechanisms. There are plenty of small parts that can work themselves loose and become unglued from the glass window, as well as a few plastic rollers that routinely break from age and wear. Whether your car has manual or electric windows, there are many parts inside of each door.
There is usually no particular rhythm to rattles that originate within doors. Try driving with the window open, closed and at various positions in between. Push on the door panel or window while driving. Whatever the cause, though, you will eventually have to remove the interior door panel to fix it. It’s easy. You will first remove a few screws to take off the arm rest, maybe find some small clips to pop the panel loose, take off the door handle (on some cars), and the like. It’s simple, clean and (usually) pleasant work. Since there are tons of YouTube “how to” videos, there is probably one that shows how to remove your particular car’s door panel. If not, consult the repair manual you bought online or at the auto parts store. After you get the door panel off, just look inside the door with a flashlight and see what’s wrong. Be careful, because the metal edges of parts inside the door can be very sharp.
While you are working in there, lubricate the roller tracks with some grease, and soak the glass felt channels with WD-40. Those two things will help the window go up and down faster. Also, to prevent the bottom of the door from collecting rain water and rusting (rain goes into the door and then drains out of the bottom), find the small holes that allow water to drain out of the door and clean them out with a small screwdriver or piece of a wire shirt hanger.
Dashboard Rattles Are the Worst
Compared to simple door rattles, dashboard rattles are particularly frustrating. Possibly because we are in such close proximity to the dash, we hear them louder. Maybe the car was reincarnated from a previous life as a cement mixer and has a deep, subconscious inner desire to make rattling noises. Whatever the cause, we always seem to want to pound on the dash with our fists to duplicate the rattle. It never works, because the car is not moving and flexing.
Just drive the car normally, and push firmly on different parts of the dashboard. Pay close attention to the instrument panel, where colored plastic rests against the clear plastic gauge cover. Plastic deforms with age, and from the sun’s heat baking it through the windshield, and from the car sagging ever so slightly with age. Two adjacent plastic parts that rub together ever so slightly will make a very loud, incredibly irritating noise. Remember that today’s cars don’t have a heavy steel, rigid chassis. They are made with a unibody construction to save weight, so you can imagine how much a unibody can sag with mileage, age, potholes, speed bumps and the like.
Save Time: Search Online For TSBs
Many dashboard rattles have been “fixed” by shoving a folded matchbook cover between two plastic pieces that are rubbing together. That can last years. The real tip, though, is to check online for TSBs (Technical Service Bulletins) for your car. If your car has a strange noise, usually a lot of other people already have had the same problem with their cars of the same model. Dealership technicians have dutifully recorded the fixes in their repair records, and the manufacturers collect and disseminate that technical information to the public. How helpful. And there is a lot of that technical information to be had for free. So before pulling out your hair trying to figure out where that noise is coming from, spend some time with Google. You will be amazed what you can discover about your car online.
Exterior rattles are somewhat easier to locate. If they are bad enough to hear inside a car with the windows up, they should be easy to locate. Does the rattle change with speed? Your wheel covers might be loose or damaged, especially if you have an older car with fake spokes in the wheel covers. I’ve seen lugs nuts that actually came loose and were rattling around inside wheel covers. Makes you cringe, too. Not the safest thing to discover. Learning how to find a rattle in a car might be more life saving than you thought!
Rattles when you hit bumps? We usually want to duplicate and locate that noise by hitting the fenders with our fist. It never works, because the car isn’t moving, and it doesn’t like being hit anyway. Hurts its feelings. Just get under the car and look. Try driving behind a big department store, very close to a cinder block wall, with all the windows down. Your car’s errant sound will bounce off the wall and back to you, enabling you to hear it better. Speed bumps are good too. It’s always small, light parts that come loose and rattle, not big, heavy components. Make sense?
Squeaks and Squeals
I’ll never forget, during my time as an apprentice, when a customer asked us to tighten all the body bolts on his car, because it was making irritating squeaks on a random basis. There was no pattern at all to the noises. It might as well have been a ghost causing it. Maybe the car was indeed haunted. But rather than waste time tightening a bunch of bolts, the shop owner told me to instead spray WD-40 on all the rubber door gaskets. They were dry from age, and their slight wiggling against the metal body as the car was driven made them squeak. No more ghost!
Do you hear a squeak, squeak, squeak that varies with engine speed? It could be a fan belt that is dried out from engine heat and high mileage. Confirm the diagnosis by spraying a tiny bit of belt dressing from a spray can (don’t drown the belt, just spray a tiny bit of dressing on it) with the engine idling. If the squeaking stops, you have a worn out belt. The belt dressing is not a fix, though, so don’t get excited that you fixed something cheaply. And don’t tell anybody this, but I’ve confirmed many a worn, dried out belt by spraying a little WD-40 on it to stop the noise. Yes, you do have to wash it off the pulleys when you replace the belt. A shot of brake cleaner followed by compressed air works great.
Alternator bearings will sometimes squeak or chirp like a bird when they are dry and about to fail. A stethoscope works great in pinpointing the exact location of the noise. Power steering pump bearings and bushings, though, rarely make noise, because they are usually well lubricated. Idler pulleys routinely go bad and will squeak or roar like crazy. They are inexpensive, too, so change them when you replace that belt you got 100,000 miles out of.
Loud squeal when you turn steering wheel all the way to one side? Probably a loose power steering belt if your car has the old style V-belts. Does it instead have a serpentine belt that drives several accessories? The tensioner is bad, causing a loose belt.
Here’s a good one. Squeak or creaking noise, sometimes very loudly, when going over bumps? The suspension bushings are dry from age and worn from use. Not necessarily worn out enough to replace, though, so you can get by with simply tightening them up, a lot, with your very big wrenches. But tighten them up with the car’s weight on the wheels. I know it’s awkward, but that keeps the suspension in its normal operating position when you lock the bushings into place with those big bolts.
Those Hard-to-Describe Noises
Our third category is noises that don’t fit definitively into any particular category, except that they irritate you. They are not as easy to diagnose as how to find a rattle in a car. Whistling or howling noises coming from under the dashboard (no, they are not ghosts) are leaking body seams that let in outside air. The car probably also leaks in water when it rains. The exact locations of those leaks, though, are very hard to identify, and even harder to fix. You usually have to remove the entire dashboard and most of the HVAC components crammed under it to access the leaking seam and to apply body sealer to close it up. Either the factory did not apply enough of its pliable seam sealer or the car was wrecked and the impact opened up a seam. Either way, check those TSBs first. Other people already had your problem. A little online research can really save you a lot of diagnostic time. Plus, it makes you look smart to your spouse.
Moaning noise, like a wooden ship on the high seas? Yes, your car might have a ghost, and not a happy one, either. If not, though, you probably hear the noise loudest either on acceleration or deceleration. Sagging rubber motor mounts can let a part of the exhaust system touch the underbody and transmit normal engine mechanical noise into the interior. I’ll bet there’s a TSB on that too, and a redesigned motor mount to fix it, along with instructions on how to reposition the exhaust system. Google and learn!
Roaring and rumbling sounds, like a freight train coming to a stop, are usually coming from worn out wheel bearings or axle bearings. By the time the roaring is loud enough to notice, the bearing is shot and will soon fail. If you notice that the noise is much louder when steering right, like on an interstate exit ramp, the noise is coming from the left side of the car. When steering in either direction, the outside wheels turn faster, and the inside wheels turn slower. Added to that, the centrifugal force of the turning car loads the outer wheel bearings. Make sense? The wheel bearing that is turning fastest and under the most stress makes the most noise. A roaring that does not change when steering means bad differential bearings. Sorry. It’s expensive.
Let’s not forget the infamous whining on acceleration or deceleration. Worn out ring and pinion gears on rear wheel drive cars cause that. Contrary to the old stories about putting special additives or banana peels into the axle to stop that noise, the only real fix is expensive. Replace the gears.
Keep Your Sense of Humor
In closing, the best stories are the really weird or funny ones. Don’t spend hours trying to locate an intermittent rattle only to discover it’s coming from a loose jack and lug wrench inside the trunk. What about children’s toys piled up on the back seat floor? Yep. Every customer complaint does not indicate a mechanical problem. It happens.
So always check the simple things first. Like loose change in the glove box. (No, you can’t buy a soft drink with it. It belongs to the customer.) A ticking that increases with speed, as we all know, is a small rock lodged in a tire tread. (Some people don’t know that.) Just look the car over first. You can identify many problems just by seeing them. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by looking.”