Can't jumpstart my car!
January 16, 2012 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Why can't I jump start my 2004 Ford Focus?

It's been really cold up here and now, I can't seem to start my 2004 Ford Focus. It's probably the battery, but when I try to jump start it, nothing happens. So maybe it isn't the battery, but rather the battery connectors, cables or even the starter?

So here are the symptoms:

  • I don't think the battery has been changed since it was built

  • the battery's hydrometer (i.e. the colored "eye") is showing a red dot. According to Ford's TSB 06-4-2, the battery charge is 40% or less

  • When I connect a multimeter to the battery, the reading is about 12 volts. While I know there's a difference between 12.1 and, say, 12.4, at least I know that the voltage isn't really, really low either.

  • When I turn the key, there is no cranking, but I do hear a rapid click, click, click, click in succession. Could this be the starter being activated?

  • When I turn the key, I also hear a short hum for about a second. Could this be the alternator?

  • Headlights shine brightly when I turn them on, but flash in sync with the clicking of the starter when I turn the key

  • It seems that these symptoms seem to contradict what could be the problem. For example, if it is the battery, why are the headlights shining brightly? If it is the starter, why do I hear the click, click, click?

    So maybe it's the cables/connection?

    And none of this answers why I can't jump start the car - if the battery is at 12 V, even if it is pretty discharged, shouldn't I be able to jump start it?

    Could I be making insufficient connections? Because of how the battery posts are placed and the size of my cables, the connection is not made directly on the round part (like you see in all the how-to diagrams), but rather as close as I can, but on the metal parts of the post nonetheless.

    And for what it's worth, when I make the final connection (i.e. the black clamp to the ground on the dead car, I see a little spark)

    So - should I technically be able to jump start this dead car, or if the problem is indeed with the cables or starter, does this explain why I cannot jump start it?

    posted by bitteroldman to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
    It's probably your alternator.
    posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 12:11 PM on January 16, 2012

    When my battery went flat (2004 focus as well), even my radio wouldn't come on, so if your radio is working and you're able to turn lights on etc, I'd guess it wouldn't be your battery.
    posted by Scottie_Bob at 12:15 PM on January 16, 2012

    I agree with Rodrigo - it sounds like the problem isn't with the battery or starter, it's the alternator.
    posted by Telpethoron at 12:19 PM on January 16, 2012

    My truck goes click click click click when it's not getting enough charge from the battery, and the lights paling when you turn the key sounds like it doesn't have enough to go around.

    If the battery is good, the connection from it could be bad. Take off the cables and clean the battery leads, then put them back on and make sure there's a good, secure connection.

    Instead of looking at the volt meter, turn the ignition key enough to get power in your cab but not enough to turn the engine over. What does the battery meter on the dash say? That'll tell you whether that 12v is getting from your battery to the car.

    A bad connection fits all of your criteria. Doesn't mean it's your problem, but it's a cheap, easy, and fruitful place to begin.
    posted by Stagger Lee at 12:20 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Can't see how it could possibly be the alternator. You don't need a functioning alternator to start your car, or even to run it for a while.

    2004 model year, original battery? My vote is definitely for the battery. Those things are only good for a few years. A marginal battery can give you 12 volts across no load (i.e. voltmeter) all day; that doesn't mean it can deliver enough current to start your car.
    posted by kindall at 12:23 PM on January 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

    If it was the alternator it would start right away when you jump it. The alternator may be bad but the symptoms point to a bad battery/bad connection. If it is the original OEM battery you have gotten an amazing life out of it. they usually last about 3-4 years.

    Its probably a combination of a bad battery and a bad connection somewhere, maybe on your battery, maybe on the starter. The click is the solenoid in the starter trying to throw out the starter gear that engages the ring gear on the flywheel and failing because it doesn't have enough voltage (or a relay somewhere in the wiring that activates the solenoid). Your battery is almost certainly bad and has a shallow charge (which is one step along the failure mode of lead acid batteries). In this condition it will produce some voltage (and 12 volts is actually pretty low-it should be 14.4 for a full charge good condition battery) but not much amperage. If you leave your lights on for long I bet they will start to dim. (the following assumes you have the tools and know what you are doing, if you don't skip to the jumping advice) I would take out the battery clean the terminals (in the car and on the battery) really, really good then hook it back up and see what happens. If that doesn't work then go buy a new one and install it, I bet it starts right up. When you try to jump it, keep the running car revved up so it produces a lot of power from its alternator and leave it hooked up for a minute or so before you try. If you get it started(using either method), immediately take it to a shop that test the battery and alternator in the car (like sears or some such).
    posted by bartonlong at 12:25 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

    The most common reason one can't jump a car is that most jumper cables are absolute crap. You need cables that have thick wires and that have strong springs in the ends so the claws dig in to the battery clamps, and they should be no longer than absolutely necessary. This is more true when the recipient car has a very flat battery, and more true when it's cold.

    If your battery is really 8-9 years old, it's shot whether or not you can manage to get it charged once more. Look on the battery itself for labels that show the purchase date. If it's 5+ years old, replace it without a second thought.

    I think the responses that say the battery is probably fine are probably wrong. Concluding it's the alternator doesn't match the facts you've presented at all. I'm really baffled by that.

    (on preview, SL is right that you should check the cables too.)
    posted by fritley at 12:25 PM on January 16, 2012

    If you're reading just 12V on your battery, you're at less than 25% charge. That's right about the range where you'll get crappy electrics, but no start.

    How old is the battery in the vehicle you're trying to jump from? I've been in a situation where I was trying to jump a crappy old battery from a different car with a crappy old battery, and it just wouldn't work. So it's possible that you need new batteries all around.

    The hum you hear when you turn the key might be the fuel pump priming. Does it happen when you put the key in, or as you're actually turning it?
    posted by god hates math at 12:28 PM on January 16, 2012

    I once left the dome light on for quite some time in my 2000 Ford Windstar while cleaning the interior. When I went to start it, lights came on, radio came on, but when I'd turn the key to start it, all I got was a very fast click-click-click-click-click which continued until I released the key. In my case, jumping it took care of the problem; I let it idle for quite some time to top it up, and it was fine after that. I asked my mechanic about it later, and he said that the fast click sound was the starter motor solenoid trying to engage, but there wasn't enough juice in the battery to turn the engine over.

    When you're attempting to jump your dead car, is the good car running at a fast idle? Sometimes it's necessary to make the connections and let the "donor" car run for a bit, and put a little charge back into the weak battery, and then, with the donor car still running, attempt to start the dead car. May also want to remove the battery cables and scrub both the terminal posts and the cable clamps with a wire brush to remove any corrosion, and then reattach and tighten the cable clamps.

    Your battery's probably shot though; as others have said, if it's more than 5 years old, I'd plan on replacing it.
    posted by xedrik at 12:32 PM on January 16, 2012

    For 50 bucks they'll sell you portable battery chargers that can plug into the wall. I prefer that over boosting, because the output will give you an idea what state your battery is in and whether your charger is making a proper connection to it.
    posted by Stagger Lee at 12:34 PM on January 16, 2012

    My vote is battery. It's 8 years old. Voltage is not your concern when trying to start a car, current is the concern. Car batteries do their work by pumping out several hundred amps to turn the car over. The click click click is the starter not getting nearly enough amps.

    Take the battery to a local auto parts store (usually free and takes under 5 minutes), let them put on the tester and show that it's shot. Replace it and go about your day.
    posted by Mister Fabulous at 12:36 PM on January 16, 2012

    The "click click click" indicates that you are not getting enough juice to turn over the starter motor. The likely culprit here is a bad connection. How clean are the posts on this battery? How good are your jumper cables? If there is corrosion on the posts, carefully clean them with sandpaper. Make sure posts on donor vehicle are clean too. Hook up the cables. Leave the thing set for a couple of minutes to build a little charge in your battery. Now try starting.

    That aside, yes you probably need a new battery. But if you can jump start the car, you can drive it to the store and have them replace the battery, rather than monkeying with it yourself.
    posted by cosmicbandito at 12:39 PM on January 16, 2012

    Disconnect the cables from the battery. Scuff the hell out of the contacts, both on the cable and on the battery. Re-connect the cables. Try jumping again.

    Your battery is old and dead. It's cold outside. And you probably have poor connection between the battery and the cables.

    While you're at the parts store getting a new battery, get a battery terminal brush and scuff the cable ends even more.
    posted by notsnot at 1:08 PM on January 16, 2012

    If a cell in the battery goes bad it won't jump start. Been there, done that, it was the battery. It's probably the battery this time too.
    posted by COD at 1:16 PM on January 16, 2012

    I don't know anything about cars or batteries but ~7 years ago I drove a Ford Taurus and no one could jump it when my battery went dead. I think the AAA guy said something about not enough power...or something. My friends and I thought it was weird because none of us had ever not been able to jump start a car.
    posted by fromageball at 3:49 PM on January 16, 2012

    Battery. Our '03 Saturn did the exact same thing when the battery died. The tow truck couldn't even jump it. The battery is part of the electrical circuit as much as any wire or connection in there, and if it gets to the point where it can't hold up enough conductivity through it, it won't jump start. There's enough juice in there to run light duty electrics such as the lights or the radio, but when it comes time to push 200 amps through the starter, it can't handle it. Take the battery in for a test at the parts store.
    posted by azpenguin at 4:54 PM on January 16, 2012

    My Ford Focus (2001) has done the same thing 2 winters in a row. Each time I got AAA out,convinced it was the alternator, but each time it was the battery. In my case it turned out the alarm system was draining and eventually killing the battery, so my problems have hopefully stopped now that that is out!
    posted by girl scientist at 5:10 PM on January 16, 2012

    Pull out the battery -- even I can manage it in a 2002 Focus, except it's heavy -- and take it over to an AutoZone or similar. They can measure it and usually can do a complementary charge, and tell if you it won't hold a charge. But probably with a battery this old you'll need a new one ... which you can pick up at the same store if you want to.

    (And yes, the clicking is the solenoid if it isn't the battery ... been there, done that.)
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:16 PM on January 16, 2012

    Thanks everyone for your input.
    I will try replacing the battery this weekend and report back!
    posted by bitteroldman at 6:06 PM on January 16, 2012

    You may have to let the vehicle supplying the jump run for awhile before the battery has enough juice to start the car. It really sounds like the battery has a bad cell or short between the plates from age. Auto parts stores will have a load tester to test this. Or, you can kind of see the drop if you put a multimeter on the battery while you crank the car.

    The alternator doesn't have much to do with starting the car, and doesn't even supply current until the engine crank turns.
    posted by narcoleptic at 6:17 PM on January 16, 2012

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