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1998 Honda Civic Random Stalling and Trouble Restarting

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I have a 1998 Honda Civic CX, manual transmission with 113K miles (75% are freeway miles).  It runs very smoothly and still gets 46 mpg.  However, for the past six months it will occasionally stall while I am driving, at either freeway speeds or idling at a stop light.  I used to be able to restart it immediately, but now it is sometimes is hard to restart and once wouldn't restart for several hours.

The CEL does not come on when it stalls and the car does not throw any trouble codes, either stored or pending.  The battery was five years old so that was the first thing I replaced.  I have subsequently changed the fuel filter, fuel pump relay, fuel pump and the ignition control module (OEM).  After changing the ICU I didn't have any stalling for over five hundred miles but it sometimes did not start on the first crank as it usually does.  But I still get random stalling every now and then.  I still never have any trouble starting up my car first thing in the morning.  I typically drive for 45 minutes and then park for 90 minutes.  Then when I try to start up my car it sometimes stalls and/or cranks but does not start right away.

Also, something new happened recently.  My OBDII scanner will power up but will sometimes say that it cannot communicate with my car.  Sometimes is will run through the tests even if it says it cannot communicate with my car's computer.  Other times it won't run any tests.  I verified that the scanner is good by testing with another scanner.  Is this a hint that my ECU is going bad?  What is your professional opinion?  Thanks for any help that anyone can give me.     

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For whatever it's worth I've had this kind of problem (random stalling and then hard to start) on two cars that I've owned. Both times it was due to a similar cause, a bad connection from the distributor pickup to the ignition module. 

In the 1990s I used to own a 1975 AMC Hornet which used a Prestolite electronic ignition. It developed the kind of symptoms you describe. Turned out to be a flaky connector to the pickup in the distributor. That ignition system was overly sensitive to the condition of that connection and the factory fix was to eliminate the connector and solder the wires. After doing that no more stalling problems until the car rusted to death years later.

I also had this problem about 15 years ago with my 1986 Saab 900 (my daily driver at the time) it turned out to be the electrical connector for the Hall effect sensor in the distributor. It's still OK after all this time after replacing the bad connector.

In both cases I was dealing with cars that had no onboard diagnostics so it was necessary to use old-school methods, like wiggling the connectors, to find the problem.

 

I was going to take out my distributor and inspect it closely with a magnifying glass but I couldn't get the electrical connector unplugged. It was frozen in tight. I guess I should try again to get it unplugged and take a very close look at all the little wires in the distributor. At this point the distributor is my main suspect (I'm running out of other suspects). The problem is, whenever I test my car, it is running fine. I've managed to restart it after stalling at least a dozen times and have been able to make it back home. Only once have I had to have it towed home and by the time I took a look at it the next day it was running perfectly. I suspect that it's just messing with me.

Depending on how your ignition is set up instead of having a pickup in the distributor the ignition may be triggered by another sensor. Typically that would be the crank sensor. The same logic applies though, an intermittent bad connection on the sensor triggering the ignition can cause this kind of problem.

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Considering the car age and the symptoms, my guess would be the ECU. 

That's what I'm guessing too but wanted to see if anybody else had the same symptoms and problem. But thanks for the opinion.

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Have you tried capturing data with a scan tool while driving and checking it for anything suspicious when the problem happens?

Yeah, I drove around for awhile with my scan tool plugged in. But no codes were thrown even when my car stalled. I even looked at live data while the engine was running but nothing suspicious showed up. My scanner isn't very sophisticated but it should be able to at least capture a generic code. But all throughout this problem I'm having absolutely no codes have ever popped up. Very perplexing.

What you want is to check live data at the point where the engine dies on you. Even inexpensive scanners can usually record live data for later playback.

When I drove around with my scanner plugged in my car did stall. It was producing live data but when the engine stalled it did not record any freeze-frame data since no codes were triggered. I think my scanner only records live data at the moment a code is triggered. But I'll check my scanner's documentation just to be sure. Thanks.

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Check to make sure the battery terminals are tight and not corroded. I had a similar problem on my 1999 Accord, and shimming the battery terminals solved the problem. If all is tight, at least you can cross it off your list of things to check. 

let us know how it goes!

I put in a new battery so the terminals are clean and the connections are tight.

I will also post when I finally fix the problem. I've found several posts on different car forums that had the same or very similar problems. However, NONE of them ever bothered to post what the resolution was. Kind of irritating when they don't let people know how or if they fixed the problem. These forums are not just for taking information but for GIVING information, too.

Does your car randomly cut off in the middle of driving? Or does it just have trouble starting/restarting?

If it just has trouble starting, it could be a relay underneath the steering wheel. I remember having trouble with my 1999 Accord starting. Turned out to be just a relay that was known to go out over time.

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I would monitor system voltage when it stalls

What voltage should I be measuring and where should I measure it? I had previously tested both the coil and the icm with a probe tester. Of course, at the time I tested it the car was running just fine so both components tested OK.

My car usually stalls when I'm in traffic so I'm desperately trying to restart it and get out of the way. I can't really raise the hood, take apart the distributor and start probing when I'm blocking traffic. Smile But yesterday it stalled in a nearly deserted area of a huge shopping center parking lot, so I had a chance to do a little more trouble-shooting. Again, my scanner did not show any trouble codes. But I had a timing light with me so I hooked that up to see if I was getting any juice to the spark plugs. When I cranked the engine I got very dim flashes on the timing light and the engine would not start. The second time I cranked it I got a nice, bright light and the engine started right up. So it's definitely a problem in the ignition somewhere. I'm guessing that the ECU controls the voltage in the ignition system. Is this another clue that my ECU is going bad?

 

There was also another strange symptom that I experienced before my car stalled yesterday. When I drove my car to the shopping center the climate control fan inside the cabin would not run (the AC was off). That's the first time that has ever happened. When I stopped in the parking lot I turned off the engine, immediately restarted it and tested the fan again. This time it worked. Question: Does the ECU also control the climate control system and fan? I'm assuming that it does, so it may be another clue that my ECU is going bad. In any case, I'm running out of ideas as to what may be the problem so I'm going to order a salvaged ECU off of eBay. I will report back once I replace my ECU.

I don't buy cars without a voltage gauge right on the instrument panel. But if you don't have one ...

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Posted by: @diydave

The only clue I have is that the electric signal to the spark plugs are very weak when my car won't start (as checked with a timing light)

I'm hesitant to go out and buy a new distributor since I've already replaced the ICM and the coil with OEM parts. I also replaced the distributor cap and rotor (with Autozone aftermarket parts) but that didn't solve the stalling and hard starting issue either. Does anybody know what else might cause intermittent weak electrical signals to the spark plugs? Seems like I've replaced all the usual suspects. I am really stuck at this point. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.

If you buy a new distributor from Autozone, and it doesn’t fix the problem, can you return it for a full refund?

I don't think so. Most places don't let you return electrical parts. But since you mentioned it, I'll check with them about what their policy is with distributors. OTOH, Amazon might let me return a distributor with no questions asked.

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Have you tried load testing your alternator?  It might be something that simple.  Hope so.

If I can get my car down to AutoZone or O'Reilly I'll have them test the alternator. But wouldn't a bad alternator light up an idiot light? Also, I think the car should be able to run even without an alternator, for as long as the battery has enough charge.

I was able to drive my car down to O'Reilly Auto where they tested my battery, starter and alternator. All tested fine, so at least I can eliminate all of them as suspects.

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UPDATE:  I swapped out the ECU but the stalling/hard starting recurred.  So that wasn't the problem.  I also replaced the coil with a new OEM coil and it ran great for two days.  On the third day the the motor stalled while I was driving on the freeway.  Now I'm extremely perplexed.  Still no DTC (diagnostic trouble codes) being thrown.  

The only clue I have is that the electric signal to the spark plugs are very weak when my car won't start (as checked with a timing light).  I'm going to take apart the distributor, plug wires and inspect them carefully tomorrow.  Anybody know if the crankshaft position sensor or the camshaft position sensor might cause stalling/ hard starting?  I would have think that these sensors would throw a DTC if they were going bad.  I'm all out of ideas; any suggestions would be appreciated.  Thanks.

     I got ahold of a copy of the official Honda service manual for my Civic. I found out that there are three sensors inside of the distributor, in addition to the coil and the ICM. Those three sensors are: TDC, CMP (camshaft position), CYP (cylinder position). The crankshaft fluctuation sensor is separate and is located near the oil pump, not inside the distributor. The service manual has the test procedure for the distributor sensors, which I followed. All three sensors checked out within spec, so I decided to believe the tests this time, instead of installing a new distributor. Also, no DTCs had ever been thrown.

      I did a deeper dive on the web and found a website where complaints about cars were compiled (carcomplaints.com). It is make, model and year specific. When I looked up my 98 Honda Civic I found numerous electrical complaints about ignition failures. After reading them all, a common occurrence was ignition switch failure, even multiple failures after replacement. At that point it became my prime suspect.

      My car had been recalled for an ignition problem in 2002, which I thought was for the ICM. After checking my paperwork from that recall I discovered that it had been recalled for a defective ignition switch. Turns out that a lot of Hondas have problems with their ignition switches. Also, it made sense that since my car never threw any DTCs, a faulty ignition switch would fit the symptoms that I'm having with my car. So I ordered an ignition switch (with a lifetime warranty) from Amazon for $30.00.

     It's an easy replacement and it finally SOLVED MY PROBLEM! My Civic is now purring like a kitten again. After removing the old ignition switch and opening it up, I found that the contacts inside were scorched pretty badly and there was carbon powder everywhere inside the switch. Turns out that there is significant current running through the switch when the car is running. That causes the contacts to get hot which in turn causes the resistance to go up to the point where not enough current get through to the ignition circuit. When that happens the ignition just shuts down. It took me nine months to solve this issue, so it's a huge relief to have a reliable car once again. I hope this helps anyone having similar problems with their cars.

PS Do not be fooled into thinking that your ignition switch is OK simply because it cranks the starter good and strong. That was one of my mistakes. The starter circuit uses different contacts inside of the ignition switch and does not take the abuse that the contacts on the run circuit does.

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