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What To Do If Your Car Won't Start In The Cold

Forbes logo Forbes 12/19/2016 Jim Gorzelany, Contributor
© Provided by Forbes Media LLC

If you live in the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley, or New England regions, you may have noticed that the weather outside is indeed frightful, with what the National Weather Service calls, ”dangerously cold temperatures.” And there’s a good chance your car either didn’t start or, at the least, balked at the prospect of running.

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Frigid temperatures can be cold-blooded murder on a car’s battery, and if it’s not up to the muster of cranking a morbidly frigid engine to life, there are but three options. You can always stay home, which is the most amenable course of action unless, say, you have more to do on a given day besides binge-watching TV shows while sipping hot cocoa. You can call a tow truck, which is arguably the easiest way out, though you may have to wait for hours until an overburdened technician can come to the rescue.

The third option is to take matters into your own hand and jump-start the vehicle, assuming you have a set of jumper cables at the ready and a willing participant with a car that’s already running.

Here’s the best way to resurrect a frozen car or truck without causing harm to either yourself or your moribund ride:

  • 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.

If, on the plus side, you managed to start your car this morning, or have yet to be hit with the really cold weather, congratulations in that you’ve bought yourself some time to get ready for the next arctic blast that’s sure to come. Take this golden opportunity to have a technician inspect your car’s belts, hoses, and essential mechanical components to make sure your ride won’t leave you stranded when the temperatures dip. If your car is at least three years old or it’s been that long since you last changed the battery, replacing this key component with a new one is cheap insurance against a winter breakdown.

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.

Also, it’s a good time to replace your car’s windshield wipers and top off the windshield washer tank with de-icer fluid that can withstand below-zero temps without freezing. Ensure that the tires are in good condition (replace them if the tread is thinner than the distance from the top of Lincoln’s head to the edge of a penny) and are inflated to the manufacturer’s recommendations. According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, tire pressure can drop by as much as two pounds per square inch for every 10 degree F drop in temperature, and poorly inflated tires will adversely affect a vehicle’s traction and handling. Drivers living deep within the Snow Belt should consider installing a set of snow tires.

And expect the unexpected by packing an emergency kit in the trunk that’s equipped with a set of battery-jumper cables, a good-quality snow/ice scraper and an extra jug of washer fluid. A portable shovel and a bag of kitty litter (to throw under the wheels for added traction) can come in handy if a vehicle becomes stuck in the snow. It’s also a good idea to stow a blanket, heavy gloves and a set of boots, a flashlight, a first-aid kit and some energy bars to cover any worst-case scenarios.

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