You just loaded up your car with groceries—including plenty of frozen stuff—on a sweltering summer day. As usual, the shopping takes longer than expected, so now you’re pushing it to get home, unload the groceries, and get the kids to their piano lessons on time. You stick the key in the ignition, and—oh no! A crazy day just got worse. You hear that dreaded errrr-errrrr-errrr of the engine, but it just won’t start. You try again. Same thing. What now?
Most of us have had the experience of having our car battery die at a very inconvenient time. In this article, we’ll talk about how to tell if your car problem is really triggered by a dead battery and if so, what to do about it.
Why do cars need batteries?
Batteries provide a dose of power to the starter, which can, in turn, crank the engine. It can also keep accessories running in the car even when the engine is off, which is why you can turn on your car’s interior lights before you rev up the engine or turn the car off and sit listening to the radio in the comfort of your vehicle while your kids are finishing their aforementioned piano lessons. (Be careful with this one, though, because batteries aren’t designed to sustain power for very long on their own.)
Why do car batteries die?
Here are a few leading causes of battery failure.
One simple reason for battery failure is that there is something left on that is draining it of power. Maybe one of the kids turned on an overhead light to read in the dark and forgot to turn it off, or perhaps you inadvertently left your headlights on overnight. Either of these oversights can deplete your battery. Fortunately, a jumpstart will usually be enough to get things moving again.
Most batteries last three to five years. If your battery is coming close to the three-year mark, have it tested regularly so it doesn’t die when you least want it to.
Frigid temperatures weaken batteries. At 32°F, your battery is 35% weaker; at 0°, it’s 60% weaker. Utah drivers should be mindful that their batteries may need to be replaced more frequently due to our cold winter temperatures.
What do I do when my car won’t start?
The person in our fictional scenario at the start of this article should attempt to flag someone down to help them jumpstart their car if they feel safe doing so. If this happens to you, you will, hopefully, have jumper cables in your car. If not, learn from this mistake and always keep them in your vehicle!
Remember that both your vehicle and the vehicle of the person helping you should be in park or neutral, and the ignition should be shut off when they/you are hooking up the cables.
The clips of the jumper cables should be placed in the following order:
Red clip—attach one to the positive terminal of your battery
Red clip—attach the other one to the positive terminal of the other car (operational car)
Black clip—attach one to the negative terminal of the other car’s battery
Black clip—attach the last black clip to a non-painted metal component of your car (such as one of the metal struts that holds the hood open)
Once the cables are in place, have the other driver start their vehicle and let their engine run for several minutes. After this, you may try to start your vehicle.
If it starts up, don’t turn off your engine right away. Rather, drive it around for at least 15 minutes so your car has time to recharge. In fact, your best bet after that is to drive straight to an auto repair shop, such as one of the 12 Burt Brothers’ locations in the greater-Salt Lake City area. We can test your battery and, if it’s depleted, replace it for you. If your battery is still strong, we can determine what else might be causing the problem.
How do I know if my battery is the problem?
If you find yourself in that dreaded position where your engine won’t turn over, don’t panic! The battery is very often the problem, and, thankfully, it’s a relatively quick and easy problem to fix.
If the battery is not the issue, you could be dealing with a starter or alternator problem, both of which can require more costly repairs. Here are some symptoms of battery, starter, and alternator failure to help you troubleshoot:
Engine starts to rev but won’t start.
Battery light is illuminated. Many newer cars have battery symbols on the dash that light up when your battery health is waning.
Electricity-powered accessories won’t work, to include radios, wipers, headlights, inside lights, and sliding doors.
The alternator is a rather small and unassuming car part but very important, nonetheless. Batteries can only hold their charge for so long, but the alternator keeps your battery charged when the car is running and also powers the electrical system. Alternators usually only need to be replaced every 8 to 12 years, so there’s a lower chance that your car’s alternator is the problem—particularly if it’s under a decade old.
Here are some symptoms that your alternator is the problem.
Engine cranks but won’t start (similar to a dead battery)
Engine dies again after a jumpstart.
Dim or flickering dash lights.
Battery light is illuminated. The battery light on your dashboard points to a struggling battery, but the problem may be a bad alternator rather than the battery itself.
Burning smell. The interplay of the alternator and the belts in your car could cause friction and heat that lead to the smell of burning rubber.
A car repair shop can quickly evaluate your battery health. If your battery power is strong but it keeps dying anyway, your alternator may be to blame.
The starter gets power from your battery and causes the engine to turn over. The starter is the reason that you don’t have to crank the engine by turning a handle, like they did in the olden days.
If your starter is bad, you will likely notice these things:
Clicking sound when you try to turn the engine (instead of the revving sound you hear when the alternator or battery has gone bad).
Lights on. With a dead battery, it is common for the internal and dash lights to go out, but if the starter is the problem, those lights may remain on, even if the engine can’t be engaged.
Engine won’t turn over with a jump start.
If you experience battery trouble (or what appears to be battery trouble), check in with one of our Utah repair shops. They can address the problem and get you back on the road quickly.
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