Check out our guide on how to charge your car battery and learn how to avoid a dead one along with what you should do. Most people have dealt with a dead car battery at some point in their life. You forget to turn the lights off in a brightly lit parking lot, or the kids mess with the interior light before you get them home and you come back to a dead car battery. Several other things can cause a car battery to die or appear dead, and we’ll go over the common problems later.
Each part of your car plays a vital role in getting you where you need to go and protecting you during the journey. However, we tend to overlook some car parts when we perform routine maintenance. Your car’s battery is a critical part of the vehicle and often the most overlooked component.
Changing the oil and rotating the tires is easier to keep up with because someone else does the work most of the time. They used to clean and service your battery when they changed your oil, but that adds another $15 or so to the bill, so most people tell them to skip it. If you have this option where you get your oil changed, let them do it, or you learn how to service it.
Charging Your Car Battery Safely
Few things can be more frustrating than turning the key in your car and getting no response or hearing a clicking sound letting you know the car isn’t going to start. However, you can probably fix this problem yourself or get someone to aid you if you need to jump start the vehicle. That’s assuming you have the necessary tools or find a friend to help you.
Before you try to charge your battery, check the battery using our troubleshooting steps from the next section. You may just need to wiggle or tighten a cable to get the vehicle to start. You need to test the battery and clean the connections if the battery is putting out between 12 and 13 volts of power. This is usually a 10-minute fix if you have the tools on hand. We’ve included a list of tools below as well.
If your battery is dead due to a human error like leaving the lights on or somehow draining the battery by using accessories, you can start it quickly using a jump starter that you can carry in your trunk or glove box. The starter we linked here also includes a tester to let you know if your battery has any other issues as well. Once it starts, just drive around for about 20 minutes, and your battery will charge up.
If you’re unsure why the battery died, you should test it before you try to charge it. Using jumper cables or a portable battery jump starter is probably safe to try, but don't try slow charging a battery if you don't know what's wrong with it. You may cause the battery to explode or otherwise ruin it. An auto parts store can test the battery, or you can get your own tester.
If the tests rule out a bad battery and you don't see any evidence of a faulty connection or cable, charging your battery is the next logical step. If the battery is dead which means it produces less than 6 volts when you test it, make sure you use a slow charger. Charging a battery too quickly may cause it to leak or even explode. Make sure you’re using a quality charger as well.
Disconnect and tie the battery cables away from the battery to make sure they don’t flop back over or accidentally touch anything. It’s safe to charge your battery while it’s in the car if you disconnect all the cables. You can charge the battery without unhooking anything, but if something is leeching the power from your battery, it may not charge properly. It's more efficient and safer to unhook the cables.
Once you have the battery and the area around it clear, make sure you hook the positive cable and negative cable to their respective batter posts or terminals. You may hook the negative cable from the charger to a bolt or other grounding point on your engine, but you need to make sure the negative cable it still hooked up to the battery if you go this route. It is slightly safer to do it that way.
It's important to note that during the stages where you remove or replace the battery cables to never let the cables touch if one of them is still attached to the battery. The same goes for your charger’s cables as well. Make sure your charger is unplugged before you hook up anything. It unlikely your car battery or charger can electrocute you but mishandling them may damage the charger or the battery.
Once you’re sure everything is in order, set the battery charger according to the manufacturer’s recommendations for your battery type. Remember to charge it slower if the battery got drained entirely. If you get a good charger like the one we linked above, the charger will do most of the work and charge it slow or fast automatically based on the battery’s needs.
Now you can turn on the charger and let it do its job. Most modern chargers do all the thinking for you and will automatically turn off when the battery is charged up. However, you may want to check on the battery every few hours just to be safe. If you don’t have a charger handy or you need to charge your battery in a parking lot or while far from home, you’ll need help and some jumper cables.
Charging your battery with jumper cables is not ideal, but it may get the job done if you have no other options. You just need a set of jumper cables and a friend or friendly person to help you. If possible, let them hook the jumper cables to their battery just to avoid any issues if something goes wrong. That part or more of a helpful hint than a necessity.
For this method to work, the other vehicle needs to be running, and you must make sure the cables are connected positive to positive and negative to negative. Hooking the cables up incorrectly may damage your vehicle and the one that you’re using to jump start it. Triple check the connections on your vehicle before you let them hook the cables to their battery.
Once the cables get connected, you need to wait a few minutes and make sure everything that uses battery power is turned off on your car. To charge your battery this way means waiting for a few minutes then seeing if your car will crank. If not, wait longer and try it again. The goal is to allow the working vehicle’s alternator to charge your battery through the jumper cables.
In most instances, your car may crank as soon as the cables are connected, and you turn the key. If not, wait three to five minutes and try it again. However, if the repeat the waiting step a few times and your car won’t start, it’s probably a problem with your cables or some other battery issue. That said, wiggle the jumper cables on each battery to make sure they are getting a good grip just in case.
If the jumper cables work, drive your vehicle home and test the battery. Put it on your charger if possible to finish charging it to full capacity. The alternator in your vehicle may fail if you use it to charge a dead battery very often. Alternators supply power to your car while it’s running and trickle it to your battery. They may fail if used to charge dead batteries a lot.
Troubleshooting a Dead Car Battery
Your battery may not be the problem if your car won’t start. It could be a faulty or loose battery cable. Your starter may have given up on you as well. Several things can cause your car not to start and fool you into thinking the battery is dead. Granted, you may not have the tools on hand to solve these problems, but it's handy to know what the problem is when you call for help.
Check your headlights and confirm that they don't light up or the light is dim. It's hard to tell during the day, but at night your lights may appear dim, and the color may change to orange or amber. If you have LED headlights, this part won't apply to you because they may light up even with a weak battery. Don’t use your interior lights as an indicator since it takes almost no power to run them.
Do you know how old the battery is in your car? You should know how old it is because you need to replace the battery when it’s served its time. A car battery usually lasts five to seven years but check with the manufacturer for your specific battery. If your battery is more than five years old, you may solve the problem by replacing it instead of wasting time charging it.
If you don’t know your battery’s age, look for a code engraved on the top of the battery. That phrase should contain four or five letters and numbers. You can ignore most of the figures. The first letter from the left is the month the battery shipped, and the numbers next to the letter indicate the years. For instance, if the code begins with A5, you know the battery shipped in January of 2005.
If you have one, test the battery using a voltmeter to see if it has any power left in it. If the meter shows that the battery is producing at least 12 volts, then the battery is working, and you need to hunt other reasons that may stop your vehicle from cranking. It’s ok for the battery to produce a little over 12 volts as well.
Examine the battery carefully. Look for signs or corrosion around the connections or swelling. Corrosion can invade the cables and connections which may cause them to fail. If your battery is swelling or appears to bulge around the sides or top, don’t try to service it or charge it. You need a new battery and trying to charge it may be dangerous.
Most car parts stores will test your battery for free. Many will install a new battery for free if you buy it from them. If you can get your car to start, your alternator will keep it running, and you can drive it to a parts store and let them check or replace the battery. If you can’t get it to start, remove the battery and take it to them for testing. Rule out a bad battery before you start replacing other parts.
Service Your Battery to Extend Its Life
Ignoring your battery is an excellent way to make sure it dies much sooner than necessary. It's easy to take care of it, and you probably have most of the tools you need in your garage or vehicle. The clamps or bolts used to secure the cable to your battery are made of soft metal, so be careful when removing or tightening them.
A simple tool like this $5 battery terminal cleaner can help keep your battery working correctly and extend its life. Add some anti-corrosion washers, and you’re on your way to preventing most battery problems. Combine those items with some corrosion preventing oil, and you won’t need to worry about corrosion anywhere around the battery connections.
Drive your vehicle at least once or twice a week. We're not talking about a short trip across the street or to the corner store because those trips weaken your battery. A short drive may not allow your alternator to charge the battery properly which can decrease its life. So, at least once a week take a trip around town or anywhere that allows your car to run for about 20 minutes.
Try to remember to unplug any USB devices or other things when you get out of your car for the day. It may not seem like they take much energy, but they weaken the battery and may cause its life to shorten. At the very least, unplug power inverters and such when you start your vehicle. That will increase the life of your battery and your accessories.
The climate in your area may work against your battery as well. Extreme heat shortens the life of batteries. Extreme cold is a little more forgiving but requires more work from your battery to get your vehicle started. Either scenario may mean a battery that should last six years might only last three or four years. Spend the extra money and get a battery designed for these conditions.
As a bare minimum effort, test or have your battery tested a couple of times each year. This step won’t really extend the battery’s life, but it may give you some warning there’s an issue and allow you to replace the battery before it leaves you stranded somewhere. You can test it using a voltmeter, just make sure it’s putting out 12 volts or more or let an auto parts store check it for you.
Get Some Tools for Your Vehicle or Garage
Everyone needs a basic set of tools in their vehicle. You don’t need to pack in an entire mechanic’s shop but having the basics with you may mean the difference between waiting an hour on a tow truck while your ice cream melts or getting home and enjoying ice cream and a movie. Many breakdowns may end up being simple, and you can fix them yourself and be on your way. Your minimum kit should include:
Some of the items on this list aren’t related to battery problems and fall a little outside the scope of this article, but these are all items you should have in your vehicle. None of them are difficult or dangerous to use if you follow basic safety measures and read the instructions. If you travel on dark roads or busy highways a lot, add some road flares or a safety strobe to the list.
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You may not have enough room in your vehicle for all these tools. We understand smaller cars and trucks may not include enough room for you and a set of roadside tools. If you have this issue, we still recommend getting all these tools and storing them in a tool bag in your garage or a home closet. At least that way you can get a friend to take you to get the kit or ask your spouse or kids to bring it.
Some Final Notes
It’s not hard to get your car going if the battery dies, assuming you have the necessary tools or a helpful person to come to your rescue that has them. Follow our advice and do it safely to avoid any risk to your car or yourself. To avoid most battery related issues, just follow the manufacturer's instructions on servicing it and replace it when necessary.