General troubleshooting tips

When first approaching a failed or otherwise misbehaving system, the new troubleshooter often doesn't know where to begin. The following strategies are not exhaustive by any means, but provide the troubleshooter with a simple checklist of questions to ask in order to start isolating the problem.

As tips, these troubleshooting suggestions are not comprehensive procedures: they serve as starting points only for the troubleshooting process. An essential part of expedient troubleshooting is probability assessment, and these tips help the troubleshooter determine which possible points of failure are more or less likely than others. Final isolation of the system failure is usually determined through more specific techniques (outlined in the next section -- Specific Troubleshooting Techniques).

Prior occurrence

If this device or process has been historically known to fail in a certain particular way, and the conditions leading to this common failure have not changed, check for this "way" first. A corollary to this troubleshooting tip is the directive to keep detailed records of failure. Ideally, a computer-based failure log is optimal, so that failures may be referenced by and correlated to a number of factors such as time, date, and environmental conditions.

Example: The car's engine is overheating. The last two times this happened, the cause was low coolant level in the radiator.

What to do: Check the coolant level first. Of course, past history by no means guarantees the present symptoms are caused by the same problem, but since this is more likely, it makes sense to check this first.

If, however, the cause of routine failure in a system has been corrected (i.e. the leak causing low coolant level in the past has been repaired), then this may not be a probable cause of trouble this time.

Recent alterations

If a system has been having problems immediately after some kind of maintenance or other change, the problems might be linked to those changes.

Example: The mechanic recently tuned my car's engine, and now I hear a rattling noise that I didn't hear before I took the car in for repair.

What to do: Check for something that may have been left loose by the mechanic after his or her tune-up work.

Function vs. non-function

If a system isn't producing the desired end result, look for what it is doing correctly; in other words, identify where the problem is not, and focus your efforts elsewhere. Whatever components or subsystems necessary for the properly working parts to function are probably okay. The degree of fault can often tell you what part of it is to blame.

Example: The radio works fine on the AM band, but not on the FM band.

What to do: Eliminate from the list of possible causes, anything in the radio necessary for the AM band's function. Whatever the source of the problem is, it is specific to the FM band and not to the AM band. This eliminates the audio amplifier, speakers, fuse, power supply, and almost all external wiring. Being able to eliminate sections of the system as possible failures reduces the scope of the problem and makes the rest of the troubleshooting procedure more efficient.


Based on your knowledge of how a system works, think of various kinds of failures that would cause this problem (or these phenomena) to occur, and check for those failures (starting with the most likely based on circumstances, history, or knowledge of component weaknesses).

Example: The car's engine is overheating.

What to do: Consider possible causes for overheating, based on what you know of engine operation. Either the engine is generating too much heat, or not getting rid of the heat well enough (most likely the latter). Brainstorm some possible causes: a loose fan belt, clogged radiator, bad water pump, low coolant level, etc. Investigate each one of those possibilities before investigating alternatives.