Does anyone know what's up with my car battery?
January 4, 2010 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone know what's up with my car battery?

I'm pretty sure the car won't start because of a battery issue. Here's what's up:

Sunday, 12:30pm: Car won't start...I get the click-click-click like the battery is dead.

Sunday, 4:30pm. I try it again, and it starts. Hoorah!

Monday, 6:30am. No problem. Starts like a dream.

Monday, 8:30am. We're back to the no-start problem.

I realize I need a new battery, but is there a way (besides a jump...this is impractical right now for a few reasons) to get it started besides hoping and waiting?

If it helps, the car is a 2003 Ford Focus. 75,000 miles, never had a new battery. I live in Detroit, and it's really cold here, and I'm guessing that has something to do with it. (But what's weird about the cold is that it was colder at 6:30 this morning than it was at 8:30.)

Thank you!
posted by st starseed to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
Question. When it doesn't start, does it pathetically crank and fail, or does it do nothing?

The former is a weak battery. The latter is either a bad starting solenoid, or a bad connection.

Also: Check battery terminals, make sure there's a clean, tight connection.
posted by eriko at 6:13 AM on January 4, 2010

Definitely check the terminals/connections. I had this problem recently, and even after I replaced the battery, the car wouldn't start! It's b/c one of the connections was all crusty or something. A friend used some diet coke to clean it until I could take it to get replaced.
posted by leesh at 6:18 AM on January 4, 2010

Sunday, 12:30pm: Car won't start...I get the click-click-click like the battery is dead.

Sunday, 4:30pm. I try it again, and it starts. Hoorah!

What happened between 12:30 and 4:30? Did you jump start the car or attach a battery charger? Batteries don't charge themselves.

It could easily be that you need a new battery, judging from the age of the car, but an intermittent bad connection might be a better explanation for the symptoms you're seeing.
posted by jon1270 at 6:32 AM on January 4, 2010

There was a period of a few days after my battery blew up (smoke and everything) where I was connecting one of those external battery chargers and starting off of that. Your alternator *can* power everything once the car is started, however you'll severely shorten it's life and probably have to replace it in a matter of months. If it isn't the connections or solenoid, it's a lot cheaper just to get a new battery now rather than have to buy the charger, battery, and alternator.
posted by jwells at 6:39 AM on January 4, 2010

9 years and 75,000 miles is way over spec for how long a battery normally lasts - 4-6 years is a more average figure. If your battery isn't already dead, it's long overdue. There's no point doing any troubleshooting steps before putting in a new battery since you'll have to do this very soon anyway, so start there.
posted by 0xFCAF at 6:43 AM on January 4, 2010

Check the starter. Sometimes water can get in there and freeze between the coils causing the click-click sound but nothing turning over. A good thing to do, instead of replacing it, is just to tap it with a wrench, or another long object that keeps your body away from the fan.

You can usually tap it and then go start the car, but, you can also have someone crank the car while you tap it if you need immediate satisfaction. This is super-duper common and happened to me on a 3 month old Toyota.

You should be hitting the starter with just the weight of the wrench. For example, just let it fall from your hand. You aren't trying to beat anything, just un-seize the starter motor.
posted by mrmod at 6:53 AM on January 4, 2010

Like 0xFCAF says, your battery is old enough that it's time to expect to have to replace it anyway, so that'd be the first thing to do IMHO. In addition to simply gettng weaker, one way that lead-acids can fail is to get a short across one cell— crud builds up at the bottom of each cell and if it gets deep enough to reach the bottom of the plates, that cell shorts and becomes unusable. So although it's not the most likely scenario, you could just have an intermittently bad battery. Maybe a slight bump shorts/unshorts that cell.

The dodgy/corroded connection / flaky starter motor / sticky starter motor brush theories sound very plausible to me also. Do you feel handy enough to poke at the wiring with a voltmeter?
posted by hattifattener at 9:15 AM on January 4, 2010

If it's the factory installed battery, you have gotten way more life out of it than normal. Factory batteries, as stated above, last 4-6 years, regardless of usage. I wouldn't bother doing anything else other than making sure your battery connections are tight and that there are no signs of corrosion. Outside of leaving it hooked up to a battery charger, (and the obvious replacement of the battery), jump starting is about all you can do. And with the age of the battery, it's just a matter of time before the battery gets so weak that even a jump-start won't help. You need to get a new battery.
posted by peewinkle at 9:47 AM on January 4, 2010

Does your car have a flywheel? I had a car with a flywheel that had missing teeth. It would click and not start, then randomly start. Try bouncing the car bumper, it may move the flywheel enough for the starter to engage. It was an expensive repair.
posted by theora55 at 9:52 AM on January 4, 2010

Car batteries last about 5 years. This one's fading out. It doesn't go from full charge to zero, though. So, you get intermittent half-failure and weirdness, which tells you to get a new battery.
posted by Citrus at 10:20 AM on January 4, 2010

The fact that sometimes it starts easily and other times not indicates that the problem is not the battery but an electrical connection.

If you car is a manual transmission, the clutch must be depressed to start the car. If the clutch switch is bad, the car will not start. Hold the key in the start position and pump the clutch hard to the floor several times. If the car starts, the clutch switch is flakey and needs to be replaced.

If you car is an automatic, then there is a similar switch that requires the shifter to be in park or neutral. Try the same test holding the key in the start position while you wiggle the shifter from park to neutral and back. If the car starts, you need to replace the neutral safety switch in the shifter.

If neither of these is a problem it is probably a faulty starter motor. Either the brushes could be worn or the solenoid could be fried. You can replace it with a rebuilt starter. The solenoid and motor are replaced as a unit.
posted by JackFlash at 11:43 AM on January 4, 2010

Corrosion between the battery post and the clamp seems to be the most likely cause. Cleaning the external posts may help a bit, but you probably will want to remove the clamps and brush all contacting surfaces with a wire brush (the local auto parts store will sell a battery post brush for about $5) until they're shiny. Reconnect everything and all should be well if that was the problem. You should do this semi-regularly if that's the case - every time you change your oil as a suggestion?

If you want to get fancy about it, you can verify this problem with a voltmeter (maybe $20 at somewhere like Radio Shack if you don't already have one). Connect the voltmeter leads to the battery posts. You should see 11-13 volts DC. Now connect the leads to the clamps. Is the voltage lower? If so, corrosion is your likely problem. If you see 10 volts or less (in multiples of 2) on the battery you probably have a dead cell - replace the battery if that's the case.

Other issues could be a cause - starter maybe, old battery maybe (it's about time to replace it anyway based on the stated age), but this really does sound like corrosion if it starts inconsistently with temperature not a factor.
posted by owls at 12:03 PM on January 4, 2010

Your battery could be weak or your starter could be failing. There could be some corrosion on the starter motor windings or brushes that intermittently prevents the motor from spinning. When it gets stuck, the old battery might not be strong enough to overcome the sticky starter.

But, whatever the situation with the starter is, you need a new battery. I'd condemn it due to age before I go any further.
posted by Jon-o at 2:19 PM on January 4, 2010

This happened to me about 2 months ago (manual 2003-ish Hyundai Elantra hatchback), when I was working for a mechanic. He said to replace the battery first as it was the most likely cause due to its age, and then wait and see if it happened again.

It has started effortlessly ever since.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:15 PM on January 4, 2010

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