With winter’s icy hand slapping a third or more of the nation across the face, stinging with wind chills in negative double digits from the central states to the eastern seaboard, it’s a safe bet that many motorists are becoming stuck with a car that just wouldn’t start.
Arctic temperatures truly test the muster of a car’s battery, with a too-cold engine literally sucking the life out of it as it attempts to crank itself awake from its frigid hibernation. The following advice may come too late for many drivers who are adversely affected by the current cold wave (who no doubt regret not going out to shop for a new battery or jumper cables last week) but we’ll offer it up anyway.
While you could certainly call a tow truck, when temperatures dip near or below zero you may have to wait several hours before a technician is able to come to the rescue. A quicker plan of action is to try jump-starting the car, assuming you have a set of jumper cables at the ready and a willing participant with a car that’s already up running. Here’s how to do it:
Park the running car as closely to the one with the dead battery as possible, preferably head-to-head, and switch off the ignition. (If it’s garaged you may have to push the car with the dead battery out and into position.)
The battery usually resides under a removable plastic cover and is located to one side of the engine; on some cars you may have to remove this cover to get at the terminals, while other models may have specific jump-starting points–check your owner’s manual for specifics.
Connect the positive (“+”) jumper cable to the positive terminal on the good battery and then the positive terminal on the dead battery, followed by the negative (“=”) connections.
Start the engine of the running car, and run it for 1-2 minutes while revving the engine to higher rpm.
Attempt to start the car with the dead battery; if you get no response at first go back and ensure the cables are firmly attached to the terminals.
If the car doesn’t start after several tries, you’ll have no recourse other than to call for service.
Even if your ride begrudgingly started this morning, consider replacing the battery today if it’s at least four years old as a precautionary measure to avoid being stranded tomorrow.
When shopping for a new battery, you’ll want to look for the proper “group size” as specified in the car’s owner’s manual (your local auto parts store will also have this information at hand); this code specifies a battery’s external dimensions and ensures it will fit in the allotted space. Pick a battery that delivers at least (or more than) the recommended “cold cranking amps,” which is a measure of a battery’s capacity to start an engine at zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, check the battery’s date of manufacture, which is usually noted by a code, with a letter noting the month (with “A” being January, “B” being February, and so on), followed by a number representing the last digit in the year, and avoid buying a battery that’s been sitting on a shelf for more than six months.
If you’re replacing the battery yourself, be sure to wear gloves and safety glasses and proceed with caution. Car batteries are filled with acid and can give off hazardous hydrogen gas if mishandled. And always ensure the old battery will be properly recycled. Most repair shops and auto parts stores will accept them for this purpose, as will local recycling centers.