What is an Ignition Switch

The ignition switch is the device found on the steering column, usually on the right side below the steering wheel or on the dashboard, that allows you to start your car. It has different positions to determine which electrical system in your car will be going on and off. This mechanism provides the primary power to start your car’s engine as well as the constant sparks to ensure your car continues running. The ignition switch also guarantees that the car is powered down safely. You can also find an ignition switch in other types of vehicles like boats and motorcycles as well as on electrical generators.

What is the purpose of the car’s ignition switch?

1.    The ignition switch connects the starter to the car’s battery.

This allows the battery to provide a powerful surge of electrical current to the starter, thus enabling the engine to start.

2.    When the car is parked for long periods of time, the ignition switch controls the power that is used by the different car accessories (like the radio and air conditioning unit).

Two basic parts of a car’s ignition switch

The two basic parts are the lock cylinder (where the key is inserted) and the electronic switch that is found behind the cylinder.

Positions on a car’s ignition switch

There was a time when there were only two positions in a car’s ignition switch: On and Off. Nowadays, there are four basic positions on a car’s ignition switch. These are: off/lock, accessories, on and start.

  1. Off – This position is sometimes designated as the Lock position. It is at this position that you insert the key into the switch. Headlights and interior lights can be turned on even if the ignition switch is on the Off position because these lights get their power directly from the battery. The power door locks also work at this point.
  2. Accessories - When you turn the key to this second position, you can now turn on certain accessories that do not require a lot of power like the radio. This is to make certain that the battery is not drained.
  3. On – Once the key is in this position, all the other electrical systems are green and go. The dashboard lights go on and you can now operate the air conditioner, heater, power windows, power seats, signal lights, windshield wipers, computer systems and navigational systems. This is the last position before you actually start the car.
  4. Start – Flipping the key to the last position starts the car’s engine. When you turn the key to the start position, the starter is engaged and the engine goes on. Since this position is spring loaded, once you release the key, it goes back to the On position.

The ignition switch turns on your car so it can run and bring you to your destination. But beyond this, the ignition switch also supplies electricity to your car’s accessories. You can power up different accessories without turning on the engine. Ignition systems are more complex now as more and more electrical and electronic systems are added to modern cars. Taking care of the ignition switch is part and parcel of keeping your car in tiptop shape. After all, without the ignition switch you cannot drive to where you want to go.


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