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Many Americans are driving less due to the pandemic, often leaving their car parked for days or even weeks. As a car sits, the battery drains. This is especially true for relatively new vehicles with various electronic systems that consume energy even when the car is parked. Consequently, many motorists have needed a jump-start recently.
In fact, AAA has seen a 10 percent rise in jump-start service calls this past year, with a striking 56 percent increase for jump-starts at residences.
Jump-starting a car used to be a simple affair, but since cars have become more complex there are new risks, and you should be cautious if you jump-start on your own. Plus, you might want to think twice about asking a stranger for help.
“When a vehicle battery dies, the most common solution is to jump-start the battery using jumper cables and another vehicle. However, if proper steps are not taken, there is no guarantee this method won’t cause damage to the vehicle,” says David Bennett, AAA’s manager for repair systems. “For example, attempting to jump-start a damaged or frozen battery could cause significant damage to the vehicle and worse, individuals around the vehicle.”
John Banta, Consumer Reports’ lead battery tester, warns that you could fry a key electronic component by not following the proper procedures, and there are the time-old concerns about sparks and battery acid. It’s best to ask a professional for help.
“Due to the complexity of the electrical system in vehicles, appropriate tools and procedures are crucial to prevent hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars in repairs,” says Ricky Hendan, senior tech training and research analyst at AAA.
AAA service technicians are trained on battery technology and vehicle types. Plus they can access an online database for the appropriate procedure based on the make, model, and engine. In cases where they can’t start the old battery, some carry replacements with them.
But some cars will need a trip to a dealer for a battery replacement because they require special computer resetting, says David Trezza, senior test project leader at Consumer Reports. If AAA can’t put a battery in, it can tow you to the dealer.
If you must jump-start your vehicle on your own, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic, John Ibbotson, recommends following the owner’s manual to the letter. “These manuals spell out step-by-step instructions on the proper way to jump-start the car,” he says. “If in doubt, seek help.”
Remember that jumper cables usually have a set of clamps, one marked red for positive and the other black for negative. And battery terminals are usually marked with a + for the positive terminal and a – for negative. You might need to wipe off some grime to see them if your battery is dirty.
Common Steps to Jump-Start a Car
Park the car you’ll use for jump-starting next to the one with the dead battery, positioned close enough so that the cables will reach. The vehicles shouldn’t touch one another.
Turn off the ignition on both cars.
First, clamp one end of the positive cable to the dead battery’s positive clamp.
Now have a helper connect the other end of that cable to the other battery’s positive clamp.
Next, connect the negative cable to the negative terminal on the good battery.
Finally, connect the other end of the negative cable to a ground on the vehicle with the dead battery. This can be the engine block or another metal surface away from the battery. Be careful not to touch the two ends of the cable together while doing this.
Start the rescue car that is providing the electricity.
Start the car with the weak battery. If it doesn’t start, check your connections and tighten or clean as needed.
If it does start, let the problem car run for at least 20 minutes to allow the battery to recharge before shutting it off.
If it still doesn’t start, there may be another problem. Call a local service station for help.
Disconnect the cables in the reverse order.
How to Avoid a Dead Battery
Cars need to be driven regularly to allow the alternator to maintain the battery’s charge level. If you need to park your car for an extended period, consider using a trickle charger or battery maintainer. These devices can replenish a drained battery. The better models can replenish the battery and potentially extend its service life.
Car batteries typically last three to five years, according to AAA, depending on use and temperatures. Hot weather is far worse on battery life than cold weather.
“Routine inspection is as important for the battery as it is for the rest of the car,” says CR’s Banta.
To avoid being stranded, you should be diligent about servicing and replacing your car’s battery, Banta says. He recommends having the battery load tested annually after it’s 2 years old if you live in a warmer climate and 4 if you live in a colder climate. Doing so tests its ability to hold voltage while being used, and the results will let you know when it’s time to start shopping for a replacement.
It’s better to careful about maintaining and replacing your battery than stretching every last start from it and risking being stranded.
Some auto parts stores, like AutoZone, will test your battery free of charge and install a replacement if needed.