Intermittent battery problem. Should I buy a new battery?
January 25, 2015 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Twice in the last 6 weeks, our car wouldn't start without a jump. Rest of time it's fine. Should I buy a new battery or is it something else?

We have a 2013 Honda Civic that we bought as a certified pre-owned a little over a year ago. About 6 weeks ago my wife tried to start it and nothing happened. She didn't check lights or do any other battery tests. A friend with cables jumped the car and since then, the car has been fine. This morning she was in the car for about 15 minutes with the engine off but radio on and when she went to start it, nothing. Another jump and for rest of day car has been fine.

I assume I need a new battery but curious why car was seemingly fine for 6 weeks. Could this be some strange intermittent drain on the battery that I need to track down or should I simply start with buying a new battery and see what happens?
posted by gfrobe to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What's your location? If these non-starts coincide with cold weather, then it could be a battery issue, but it also could be a starter motor issue or a slow drain. Or alternator. Or something else - it's not possible to conclude with the information given.

I have had cars give every sign of a bad battery issue but a faulty starter motor produced such a high drain upon trying to start that it very quickly drained the battery and only adding a second one (for a jump start) allowed the car to crank fast enough for the engine to fire.

What happened when it didn't start - no lights at all on the dash? Slow cranking? (Whiirrrr........whirrrrrrrrr) or fast cranking and no firing up of the engine? Or a click and no cranking at all? How long had the car been sitting since it was last driven each time? Was it a short or long trip before each occasion (ie had the battery ample time to have charged on the last trip?).
posted by Brockles at 6:00 PM on January 25, 2015

Could just be cold weather or it could be something intermittent which is draining the battery. Check to see if you can determine the age of the battery - if it's older than 3 years replace it.

If it's not the battery, be prepared, intermittent battery issues can be a pain to diagnose (and to live with). We had a stuck AC valve which would drain the battery in a night, but would only stick once a month or so...took forever to figure out. We bought a portable jump starter (basically a battery in a plastic housing) that saved us a few times...
posted by NoDef at 6:04 PM on January 25, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for replies. We're in Northeast but weather today was in 40s so not too bad. Car is driven every day and we've had some very cold mornings in last 6 weeks and car has started fine. Unfortunately, my wife is unable to say whether there were dashboard lights, etc. (she didn't check) but did say there was no crank and not even a click.
posted by gfrobe at 6:15 PM on January 25, 2015

I wouldn't expect to see a failing battery on a car 2 years old. I would suggest pulling the battery out and taking it to an auto parts store such as Auto Zone; they can test the battery for free.
posted by coldhotel at 6:17 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely have the battery and alternator tested at Autozone or similar (no need to take it out of the car).

Does the car have an aftermarket alarm system?
posted by Seeking Direction at 6:19 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Battery should last more than two years, that suggests there is more of a problem than the battery itself. Starting when really cold also suggests the battery is OK. The fact that the battery would run the radio indicates that it is not a total failure of the battery. If you can check the water (electrolyte) level in the battery, do so. Pull the terminals off, and ensure that they are clean - sandpaper or use the purpose-made tool to clean both the post and the inside mating surface on the lead, corrosion here can allow small current drain, but not a big one like the starter. These would be my first two checks. Also make sure that no interior lights are being left on overnight.

If you can buy/borrow one of those jumpstart battery packs, that will take the pressure off having to make a diagnosis right now.

Problem with taking it in to be checked is that you have started the car, and driven it, so the battery has been charged up by the drive, and this might cloud the real culprit.
posted by GeeEmm at 6:35 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sounds to me like a (relatively cheap ~$100) alternator belt. When they get old and slippery they have a hard time charging the battery. Next most expensive is dead battery and then maybe alternator or starter which can be up to approx $300, but I'm guessing belt since it seems to be charging some.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:02 PM on January 25, 2015

I had a similar problem: it was dirty battery terminals. Pull everything, give it a good scrape and clean, and put some conductive grease on the posts before putting everything back.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:24 PM on January 25, 2015

This shouldn't be happening with a two-year old battery. Since the car is only two years old and certified pre-owned, your first stop should be at the dealership. They need to diagnose the problem and if it is the battery, they should be the ones paying for it. If your battery is flaking on you this early, it's defective and on Honda to replace. If it's not the battery, you want Honda mechanics working to get to the bottom of it. This car is still under warranty, is it not? If it's an intermittent problem that they might not be able to track down right away, getting it in there now begins the paper trail that will become very useful should this become a chronic problem. Taking it to a different mechanic just creates added complications and gives Honda an excuse not to pay for stuff they don't want to pay for.
posted by Leatherstocking at 7:28 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Given the weather forecast I would just put a new battery into this car. Why wait or question? Just do it. You can address other issues later, but if you want your car to start, replace the battery.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:47 PM on January 25, 2015

I'd guess alternator. Best to get it checked so you don't replace the wrong thing.
posted by quince at 8:33 PM on January 25, 2015

Sometimes, car batteries just take a dump and die. Doesn't matter how old they are. You just have to buy new. A mechanic can quickly test if the alternator is working. But it's just very likely you need a new one.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:47 PM on January 25, 2015

Clean the terminals, yes. Especially if they're visibly corroded.

It's unlikely for a two year old battery do die intermittently; however, weirder things have happened. When a battery is intermittent, one of the plates inside is sloshing around, shorting out and not shorting out. Again, unlikely.

The starter, however, might be the problem. With extra juice from a jump, it can go from no-worky- to worky. If you can *see* the starter, try whacking it with a hammer and pry bar when you're having a problem - have one person crank the engine while the other person operates the hammer. If it starts then, you've got a positive diagnosis.

Regarding some people saying alternator: it's possible, but belt slippage is unlikely. If the alternator is noisy, sure, replace it. Best bet for ruling out the alternator is a battery/charging system test. Most little shops can handle this.
posted by notsnot at 9:21 PM on January 25, 2015

I'd bet on the battery being a red herring. My two left field suggestions would be starter solenoid(so bad starter, pretty much, like brockles was getting at) and a flaky security system with a bad connection somewhere that has more resistance than it should.

Both of those situations could, and would be bypassed by giving the system way more current(from two batteries) and a higher voltage of a running vehicle with an alternator charging the battery.

Even if you're not getting clicking when you try and crank, i bet trying to crank is dropping it below some threshold where it will even make any visible(or audible) attempt.

As for why it's intermittent, i bet it's either a temperature or available current issue. A perfectly charged, just driven for a while battery can put out at least a bit more power than one that's been sitting. Especially if, as brockles said, whatever is going on here is demanding way more than the normal amount of current.

I've dealt with variations of this theme in everything from my parents car that was barely older than yours(at the time) and my car from the 60s.

Also nthing that you should be at the dealer, if this was certified pre owned. there's no way it isn't still under the warranty after two years, right? if the battery, starter, and alternator(which i also doubt for some reason) check out they should be the ones to hunt down this electrical gremlin.

The one time i saw this happen on a super new car like this, the entire security computer and wiring harness(just the snake to the security computer) needed to be replaced because of defective terminals/wiring and corrosion. It was an intermittent contact/too much resistance on the starter interlock bit of it. I've also been on my back whacking the side of a starter with a screwdriver handle "magically" making this problem go away on other cars. Ugh.
posted by emptythought at 3:34 AM on January 26, 2015

Definitely take it somewhere and have the charging and starter systems checked. My bet is your alternator is starting to fail.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:55 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dealership. The car is under warranty. Let them diagnose and fix it. Like the others said, there's no way to know without more information whether it's the battery or something else. The dealership should be able to determine that it's *not* the battery and go from there.
posted by cnc at 8:33 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

The reasons my Scion xA has done this include:
Dead battery
Starter not properly grounded (the ground IS the return path for the circuit)
Dead Starter (because of last problem) (alternator=starter=starter motor, BTW)
Loose wire behind ignition switch

It /could/ have been caused by
Faulty ignition switch (on the steering column; literally a $10 repair)
posted by IAmBroom at 2:01 PM on January 26, 2015

« Older Fitbit and the Modern Negro   |   how to help someone out of an abusive situation. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.