It happens to everybody at some point. Your car battery is dead and needs an emergency jump start. The leading cause of drained car batteries is the vehicle sitting idle for too long.
Luckily, the solution is simple: jump-start the battery. This process is unfamiliar to some and intimidating to others, but rest assured that it’s easy and safe. Rely on this comprehensive guide to highlight everything you need to know about how to jump-start a car.
Signs You Need to Jump-Start Your Car
Before you do anything else, you need to confirm that a dead car battery is the source of your problem. Lots of things can cause a car not to start. Luckily, there are some tell-tale signs that battery is the issue:
- Dashboard Light – Many modern vehicles have dashboard indicators to warn you when the charge in the battery is too low. Check the dash for any new lights, and consult your owner’s manual if you’re unsure what to look for.
- Clicking Sound – Your car battery provides power to the starter motor, which starts your car. If the battery doesn’t provide enough energy, you will hear a clicking sound from the engine when you turn your key in the ignition.
- No Electrics – The battery powers your car’s electric system that comes on even when it’s not running: things like the radio or the dome lights. If you can’t get these things to turn on as expected, it’s a clear sign that the battery needs to be jumped.
Why You Might Need to Jump-Start a Car
You could have a dead battery for multiple reasons, even if the car or the battery is new. We already mentioned that sitting idle can drain the battery because some systems draw small amounts of power even when the vehicle is off. Cold weather is another potential issue because batteries lose strength as the temperature drops. Here are some other circumstances that could leave you with a dead battery:
- Human Error – If you forget to shut a door all the way or leave your headlights on by accident, it could drain all the power out of your battery. Be alert for warning signs from your vehicle that something needs your attention before you lock the doors and walk away.
- Bad Wiring – Aftermarket electronics systems like a new stereo or extra vehicle lighting can draw too much power from the battery if they’re not wired up correctly. You may need a bigger one if the wiring is OK but still has battery issues.
- Broken Alternator – The alternator is what recharges your car battery while you’re driving. Like every engine part, it wears out over time and requires replacement. If battery problems become a recurring issue, investigate the alternator.
- Corroded Battery – Time and extreme weather will cause corrosion to form on battery terminals, which makes it harder for them to function as intended. All batteries need replacement (typically after 4-5 years) because of corrosion and other inevitable consequences of age.
When not to Jump Start a Car
If your car will not start and you’re sure the battery is the problem, there are a few situations where you should not attempt to jump-start your car. The first is when you drive an electric or hybrid vehicle. These models have complicated electrical systems and battery arrays that either need to be jump-started or require a detailed, non-standard approach.
Plus, if something goes wrong, it could cause severe damage to the electrical systems these vehicles need to drive. Therefore, it’s always best to have a professional address power problems in a hybrid or electric model.
The other instance where you shouldn’t try to jump-start your car is when the location of the vehicle becomes a safety hazard, like when it’s on the side of the highway. If you put yourself or others at risk trying to get the car started, enlist the help of a professional.
How to Jump-Start a Car Step By Step
The instructions below are for the traditional methods for jump-starting one car battery off another. However, the easiest way to jump-start a car is to use a battery pack built for a specific purpose. You charge it on a wall outlet and keep it in your car whenever needed. Then, you hook the pack to your battery to initiate the jump start. It takes the hassle out of finding another vehicle and getting them positioned correctly. Barring that option, here’s how to jump-start a car the old-fashioned way:
- Find Another Driver – It could be a family member, roommate, neighbor, or stranger. One way or another, you will need to find someone else with a vehicle with a battery you can use for a jump start.
- Position the cars – Position the vehicles so that the jumper cables can stretch from one battery to another. The typical way is to line the cars from hood to hood, but the circumstances may require a different position. Before you do anything, though, make sure that someone has a set of jumper cables.
- Prepare the Vehicles – Both vehicles need to be in park or neutral and turn the ignition off. The jump start could take 10-15 minutes total, so be sure you’re in a spot that gives you enough time to work. If necessary, you may want to push your vehicle somewhere safer or more convenient to work from.
- Hook Up the Jumper Cables – People often get confused about how to use jumper cables, but it’s a simple process that’s the same for almost all vehicles. Attach one of the red clips to the positive terminal (it will have a + sign or say POS) on your battery and the other red clip to the positive terminal on the battery in the other car. Then attach the black clip to the negative terminal on the battery in the other vehicle. Finally, attach the last black clip to a piece of unpainted metal under the hood of your car and away from the battery – most people use a metal strut to hold the hood open.
- Start the Working Vehicle – Start the vehicle normally and let it run for about five minutes. If you see sparks or hear sounds from either engine, turn off the vehicle, unhook the jumper cables, and repeat the previous step.
- Start Your Vehicle – After letting power from the other vehicle travel through the jumper cables and into your battery for a few minutes, it should have enough charge to start your car. If it doesn’t start, shut your vehicle off and let the other vehicle run for five more minutes. If it still won’t start, your battery likely needs replacement.
- Charge the Battery – Once your car starts, let it run for a while so the alternator can charge the battery. If possible, go out for a drive of 10-20 minutes. Then head to an auto parts store or a trusted mechanic to get your battery checked out. It might need replacement even if the jump start worked. Most auto parts stores will now replace the battery for you.
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