You run out of the house already late for work, hop in the car and turn the key in the ignition ... only to hear a "click click" noise instead of the comforting hum of the engine. Obviously something's not right. Is it the battery (easy fix), the alternator (more complicated), or both? Whatever it is, it's not the end of the world. Take a deep breath, because you got this.
Dead Battery or Something Else?
There are a couple of signs to look for. If the overhead light doesn't turn on when you open the door, that's an early signal. When you turn the key, and absolutely nothing happens, or the motor makes a sluggish noise, and fails to start, that's another clue. Put the two together, and chances are really good that you're going to need a jump or a tow.
Car Won't Start? Here's What to Do
- First, check the connectors to be sure they are tight. In some cases, your battery isn't actually dead, it's just not properly connected. If they are loose, tighten them up and try to start your car again.
- Call Uber for a jump.
- Phone a friend and jump it yourself.
- Have your car towed to a mechanic or an auto shop and have the battery tested and/or replaced.
Jumper Cables: What You Need to Know
If you have a road kit in your car, take out the jumper cables and inspect them to see if they easily fit onto your car battery. It's best to find out before you need them than once you're stranded with a dead battery.
- Gauge + Width: Jumper cables marked "10 Gauge" will not generate enough power to jump your car. When purchasing, you need 6 gauge or lower (the lower the number the faster it will charge).
- Length + Clamp: A good length for jumper cables is 12'. Anything more and you've got a bunch of excess cord laying around and getting in the way, anything less and you run the risk of not being able to reach an assisting car's battery. Choose one with clamps that look like it will best fit on your car battery and not easily slip off. Rubber coated handles are also a nice touch: they'll keep you from any possible shocks.
How to Jump a Car
First, pull another car up close to yours so that jumper cables will easily stretch from one car to the other, then shut off the engine. Be sure both cars engage their emergency brakes before getting started.
Pop the hood and locate the battery. In newer cars the battery has a plastic cover that will be labeled as the battery. Remove the cover and set it out of the way. (If you can't find your battery, check your car manual.)
Some battery terminals might have a protective covering too. If so, remove those, then inspect the terminals for corrosion. If needed, use a wire brush to clean the area around the cables and terminals.
Connect the positive (+) red clamp to the positive terminal on the dead battery. Then, connect the other end of the red clamp to the positive terminal on the other car's battery.
Next, connect the negative (-) black clamp to the negative terminal of the other car's battery.
Connect the other end of the negative black clamp to a piece of grounded metal on the car with the dead battery. Look for a bracket or bolt that is at least 12" away from the battery. A bolt on the hood of the car is usually a good, easy option.
Start the engine on the assisting car and lightly rev it (press on the gas) so it will send a charge to the dead battery. Let the assisting car charge the dead car battery for 5 minutes or so.
Once you get the dead car running, disconnect the cables in the reverse order that you connected them: First disconnect the negative black cables, then disconnect the positive red cables. DO NOT let the cables touch while you are doing this.
How Long Should You Run Your Car to Charge the Battery?
Run your car with the engine revved (foot pressed lightly on the gas while in park) for a minute or two before pulling out of your parking spot, then drive around for at least 20 minutes before turning the car off again.
Can I Start My Car Without Jumper Cables?
Yes! If you have a manual transmission, you can get your car to start with a few different methods:
Hill Start: Position it at the top of a hill and let it go down (just be sure there's a driver at the wheel). Make sure everything that uses battery power in your car is off: lights, radio, and heat and/or air conditioner. Turn the key to the 'on' position. Press the clutch, put the car in second gear, and release the brakes. Once the car hits 5-10 MPH, release the clutch. The car will slow down as the engine engages and the car will start.
Push Start: Send up your bat signal, gather your squad, and ask someone to give you a push. Turn your key to the 'on' position. Press the clutch, put the car in second gear, and release the brakes. Once the car hits 5-10 MPH, release the clutch, give the engine a little bit of gas and hope the car starts.
Rope Start: Yes, you can actually start your (manual transmission, open differential) car with a rope! Check out how this guy does it.
Lithium-Ion Jump Starter: Finally, an alternate option for folks with automatic transmissions! For a bit more than the price of a decent set of jumper cables, you can purchase a handy tool like this that plugs into your cigarette lighter and charges your car battery. Dead cell phone? It can charge that, too.
- When positioning the cars for the initial jump, be sure the cars do not touch each other. This could cause an electrical arc that could damage the cars.
- Make sure both cars are turned off while attaching the cables.
- Never try to jump a car if the battery is leaking, cracked or damaged in any other way. It's best to just replace the battery altogether.
- Keep track of your cables and make sure nothing falls into the engine and gets caught up in moving parts.
- If your dead battery doesn't start after 3 or 4 tries, stop trying. You don't want to damage the car's electrical system.
How to Test the Alternator
- Perform a battery test. After you get the car running, with the hood still open, remove the negative cable from the battery. If your car stalls or dies, it's likely that you need a new alternator.
- Have an expert test it. Once you get your car running, take it to a mechanic who will tell you if your alternator is busted.
- Call an auto parts store to see if they offer testing services. If you need a new one, you'll likely have to pay a mechanic, but if you can find an auto parts store that tests alternators, they won't usually charge an initial diagnostic fee.
- The car dies while you're driving it around, shortly after it's been jumped.
Next up: if you don't already know how, learn how to change a tire!