What to Do When Your Windshield Washer Stops Working

Stephen Fogel
March 28, 2018

windshield washer not working

The windshield washer isn’t the flashiest component of your car. It’s used primarily for cleaning off bird poop, smashed bugs or other filth that’s caked on your windshield. But you need to be able to see what’s in front of you — so when your washer doesn’t work, you have a big problem.

Let’s take a closer look at how your washers operate, and how you can keep them in good condition.

How windshield washers work

Your windshield washer is a fairly simple electro-hydraulic system. The washer fluid is stored in a tank under the hood. When you activate the washer — usually by pressing or pulling the multi-function switch attached to your steering column — it activates an electric pump that sits at the bottom of that tank. The pump propels the fluid through a length of tubing that leads from the tank to just under the windshield (and to the rear window, if you have a washer there). 

At the ends of the tubing are nozzles that spray the fluid onto the windshield, where your wipers can use it to clean dirt and debris from the glass. 

» MORE: What to do if your windshield wipers aren’t working 

First things first: Check the washer fluid

If the tank is empty

First, let’s rule out the most obvious and easy-to-solve problem. Open your hood and find your washer fluid tank. If you’re not sure where it is, check your owner’s manual. The lid is usually black with a wiper design in yellow. Open the tank’s lid and take a look inside. Use a flashlight if you can’t see inside the tank. Does it look empty? If so, you may have just solved the problem.

Solution: Fill the tank with washer fluid — not just water. Tap water will cause the spray nozzles to clog, and it will freeze when you need it most. If your winters regularly drop below freezing, consider using a winterized type that won’t turn to slush or ice. Once the tank is full, start your vehicle and try the wipers. It may take a few seconds for the fluid to get to the nozzles and spray the windshield. If you don’t see any fluid coming out after 10 seconds or so, stop trying. Running the pump too long without fluid can damage it. There may be another problem here, in addition to the low fluid level.

If the fluid is frozen

If you looked in the tank and can see fluid, but it’s frozen, you have a different problem. You can’t pump frozen fluid through the washer system. 

Solution: You’ll have to thaw the frozen fluid, then remove it from the tank and replace it with fluid that won’t freeze. This may be a job best done by a mechanic, especially in winter conditions.

If the fluid is dirty 

If you look into the tank and see dirt and other debris in there, the gunk may have worked its way into the system. This can clog the lines or cause other problems.

Solution: The tank will need to be removed and cleaned. Other parts of the system may be affected and may need to be checked and cleaned. This should be left to your mechanic.

Get it diagnosed by a professional

Other causes of a washer problem 

Check the fuse

This is another washer-related problem with an easy fix. Get out your owner’s manual and find the section on fuses. You will first need to know the location of your vehicle’s fuse box — many new vehicles have two or even three fuse boxes. Next, determine the location of the fuse that controls your windshield washer pump. It will be seperate from the wiper fuse on most vehicles. Many times the lid to the box will have the fuse identification map on it.

Solution: Remove the fuse carefully — there may be a tool to remove fuses on the box lid — and check whether it has blown. You’ll likely see a broken wire or scorch marks if it has. If it’s no good, replace it with a new fuse of the same amperage rating. Now start your vehicle and try the washers.

If the washers don’t work after this, or if the fuse blows again, you have a more serious problem. Your mechanic will need to take a look.

Check the pump

Your windshield washer pump can wear out or burn out. A leading cause of this is letting your washer fluid run dry. When the pump runs without the cooling effect of the fluid flowing through it, it can overheat and fail.

Solution: If you’ve already verified that you have fluid and the fuse is OK, start your car and turn on the washers. If nothing comes out and you can’t hear the pump operating, it’s likely the problem. While replacing the pump is not that difficult, getting to it can be. The pump sits at the bottom of the washer tank, and the tank is often buried deep inside your front fender or in other hard-to-reach places. Access can require some disassembly of other components. If you can’t easily get to the pump, this work is best left to your mechanic.

Check the tubing

If you’ve made it this far, and you have fluid and can hear the pump, the next step is the tubing that leads from the pump to the nozzles. It can break, crack and leak. The tubing can also become clogged by dirt and debris.

Solution: Check the entire length of each piece of tubing, from the washer fluid tank to the nozzles. If it’s damaged or leaking, replace it. If it’s clogged, remove the hose where it connects to the nozzle — if fluid is getting that far, then you have a clogged nozzle. If fluid isn’t getting that far, try using a length of fine wire to clean it out the tubes then rinse with water. Compressed air also works for clearing a clog. If you aren’t up to tackling this, your mechanic can handle it.

Check the nozzles

This should always be done in conjunction with checking your tubing. The nozzles are the final component that your washer fluid must travel through before making it to the windshield. They can get obstructed easily, due to their tiny openings. Most vehicles have the nozzles located on the hood or the cowl just below the hood, but some can have them on the wiper arms. There may be two separate nozzle assemblies, or there might be one that sprays both sides of the windshield.

Solution: Insert the point of a sewing needle into the small opening in each nozzle to clear the clog. Try the washers after doing this, and repeat as necessary until the fluid sprays properly. If dirt or grime has built up on the nozzles, clean them thoroughly with soapy water and a clean cloth. Compressed air is an option if the other methods don’t solve the problem. If you can’t get the nozzles cleared, or don’t feel like dealing with it, then give your mechanic a call.

If you have a vintage car

If you own an older car, one made in the 1970s or earlier, you may have a foot-operated windshield washer. The system is the same except instead of an electric pump, you force fluid out by stepping on a switch. If this is true for you, you don't need to worry about the fuse box or electric pump, but you should check the connection from the foot pump to the reservoir. 

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.