Windshield Wipers Not Working? Here's How to Clear It Up

Stephen Fogel
February 22, 2018

windshield wipers not working

Most of the time, your windshield wipers just sit at the base of the windshield, forgotten — until the weather changes for the worse. Then you turn the wipers on, expecting them to perform flawlessly. Whether it’s rain, snow or sleet, you depend on the windshield wipers to help you drive safely in inclement weather.

But wiper blades wear out, and things can go wrong with the mechanisms that drive them. Let’s look at the issues that keep windshield wipers (and washers) from doing their job.

» MORE: How to replace your wiper blades

How do your wipers work?

Windshield wiper design has changed very little since the part was first invented in 1903 — though the way it’s powered has advanced with technology. The earliest wipers were manually operated, and the first automated wipers received a patent in 1922. These were vacuum-powered, and were popular until around 1960, when electric-powered wipers took over.

The rotary motion of your spinning wiper motor is converted to the back-and-forth motion of the wipers by a linkage that is somewhat similar to what you would see on a steam locomotive. The rubber blades attached to the wiper arms then clear your windshield.

Your windshield washer system backs up the proper operation of your wipers. It pumps a concentrated, pressurized stream of water or cleaning solution onto the windshield, where the wipers can spread it around and clear the glass for you.

If your wipers are smearing

Wiper blades that leave streaks or smears are a common malady. They may be worn out — but before you go replacing them, try cleaning your windshield thoroughly. Be sure to get all the oil, dirt, bugs and other encrusted stuff. Now clean the edges of your wiper blades. See if your wipers’ performance improves. 

If you still see streaks or smears, the rubber on your blades is probably just old and worn out. Wiper blades are a wear item, like your brakes and your tires. Eventually they will age and need replacement. 

Wipers get worn down by the following:

  • Exposure to sun, air pollutants and smog, all of which dry out and crack the rubber
  • A dirty environment, where constant cleaning of dirt from your windshield can grind away the smooth edge on your blades
  • Regularly running your blades on a frozen windshield, causing premature wear

Solution: Replace your wiper blades. This is an easy and inexpensive fix. Your nearest auto supply store will have replacements. Check your owner’s manual or do some online research to find out what size wiper blades you need. You should replace your blades at least once a year, and maybe every six months if you live in a sunny, dry climate or a place with other extreme weather. If you want to really be prepared, buy a second set and keep them in your car.  

Get it diagnosed by a professional

If your wipers aren’t moving

Your windshield wiper system uses both electrical and mechanical components. The system is powered by an electric motor, which drives the mechanical linkages that make your wipers move across your windshield. 

If your wipers don’t respond when you turn them on, here’s a simple way to see if you have an electrical problem or a mechanical one: With the car off, try to manually move the wipers back and forth. If they don’t budge, it is likely an electrical problem. If you can move them freely, you may have a mechanical issue, in which a broken linkage has separated the wipers from the motor. Let’s look at the potential trouble spots.

Electrical causes

Wiper motor: Your wiper motor is an electrical device that drives mechanical linkages to make the wipers move. The motor can wear out or short out. Without an operating motor, your wipers won’t work.

Solution: Replacing the wiper motor should get your system working again. This is a job for your mechanic.

Wiper motor fuse: Your wiper motor electrical circuit has a fuse that will blow in case of an overload, protecting the motor. The blown fuse will cut the power, shutting down the wiper system.

Solution: Check your owner’s manual for the location of your fuses, and to identify which fuse protects the wiper motor. Pull out the fuse and inspect it — if it’s blown, you should be able to see a broken wire inside it, or char marks. Replace the fuse and see if the system operates properly. If the fuse blows a second time, call your mechanic. There’s a more complex issue causing the problem.

Wiper switch: Over time, the switch on your steering wheel or dash that you use to turn on the wipers can wear out or short out. You may even see smoke rising near the location of the switch. 

Solution: Have your mechanic check your wiper switch, along with the rest of the system. A replacement switch is a quick and inexpensive fix.

Wiper wiring: The various electrical components of your wiper system are connected to each other by wires. This wiring can wear, break or lose its insulation.

Solution: Visit your mechanic. The source of the wiring problem will need to be tracked down and repaired.

Mechanical causes 

Friction between moving parts: Wear, corrosion and material fatigue can cause friction between the mechanical parts of the wiper system and lead to a problem. Mounting blocks and bushings can give out, and the wiper shaft can jam. 

Solution: This is a job best done by your mechanic. Mounting blocks and bushings can be replaced pretty easily. The wiper shaft should be taken apart, cleaned and lubricated. 

Loose nuts: Each of your wiper arms is connected to the wiper mechanism by a securing nut. If these nuts come loose, your wipers won’t move. This may affect only one wiper nut, which will leave one wiper working and the other one broken.

Solution: Tighten the loose securing nut. This usually sits under a protective plastic cap at the point where the wiper pivots. Gently pry off the cap and tighten the nut underneath. Replace the cap. If this does not solve the problem, call your mechanic. 

Other wiper problems

Wipers are frozen — literally: Windshield wipers are designed to remove manageable amounts of snow and melting ice from your windshield. But if you live in a cold climate with large snowfalls and park outside, you need more than just your wipers after a major snowstorm. Your wipers can freeze in position, be covered in ice, and be unable to clear your windshield. 

Solution: First, use a large, sturdy snowbrush to remove the snow from your windshield, windows, roof and other surfaces. An efficient ice scraper is also a good idea when your windshield is frozen. Be sure to clear your wipers of any accumulated snow or ice so that they can flex properly and make full contact with your windshield. Run your hand over the windshield when you’re done to make sure that there are no remaining chunks of ice stuck to it.

Windshield is cracked or chipped: Over time, your windshield is subject to a great deal of abuse. Stones are kicked up by the vehicles ahead of you on the road, striking and nicking the windshield. Sand and debris are blown into the glass as you drive. Pockmarks, chips and cracks can form. The resulting surface is anything but smooth. This can cause premature wiper wear, and also affect your wipers’ ability to clean the glass.

Solution: Have the chips and cracks in your windshield repaired — your auto insurance’s comprehensive coverage may help pay for this. A glass treatment product like Rain-X may give you a smoother surface and minimize these effects. If you have major windshield cracks from edge to edge, you may be legally required to replace your windshield. Check your state motor vehicle regulations, and call your car insurance agent to see if you are covered.


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.