My car's winter woes...
February 4, 2015 7:10 PM   Subscribe

I have to jump my car almost every time I drive it in the wintertime. Help! This is not fun at all.

My car is about 9-10 years old, in good condition, and has a battery that is about 2 years old. I have to jump it pretty much every time I drive it-- and even after I've jumped it and driven it around for 30-40 minutes or so, there's a 50-50 chance that I will have to jump it again if I wanted to start the car up again shortly afterwards. I park my car outdoors, and drive my car around twice a week for short distances.

I had the battery and the alternator checked last winter; the mechanic told me there was no problem with either.

This problem goes away entirely with warmer weather. I know this because I had this was an issue last winter, too, and I had no problem with starting the car once the weather got warmer. Furthermore, the battery never, ever died when I lived in a slightly warmer climate. I suppose it does get pretty cold around where I live, but this can't be normal! Do I really need a new battery?

I know almost nothing about cars, so please explain this to me like I'm five years old. Thanks so much!
posted by gemutlichkeit to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total)
I'm not a mechanic either but it certainly sounds like battery/alternator, can you try a different mechanic? Or just spring for a new battery and see what happens?
posted by Cosine at 7:18 PM on February 4, 2015

My mechanic told me that you have to get the battery over 2000 rpms for ten minutes every day or two to keep it charged up in the winter. I don't if thats true but it works for my old car.
posted by SyraCarol at 7:21 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

The alternator and/or battery could have gone south in the year since your mechanic looked at 'em.

I'd bet your battery is dead, or the connections are shitty.
posted by notsnot at 7:23 PM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Or your mechanic is an idiot. The last time I had my car looked at, he showed me the reading on the battery level.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:28 PM on February 4, 2015

This could be battery or alternator, but if it was happening and the two were tested and found to be fine, this could also be starter motor. A bad starter draws hella current and can cause the same symptoms as a flat battery.

Double check the battery (properly - go somewhere else to be safe). I suspect the alternator is fine (or the car would stall a few minutes after you jump started it and die a slow electrical hibernation/death. If the battery is fine I'd suspect the starter.
posted by Brockles at 7:31 PM on February 4, 2015

The chemical reaction that a battery uses to provide electricity runs more slowly during cold weather, and cold weather also reduces the battery's ability to hold a charge. So the battery provides less juice and it is more likely to drain in the cold. If there are plugs nearby, you could use a battery heater .
It's also possible that your alternator (which is the thing that converts the mechanical energy of your car being driven into electrical energy to recharge your battery) is failing, so that in the cold, you're not able to replace the energy it takes to start the engine and keep it running at red lights and so forth. (You will know if your alternator is really dying when you're driving around and whole systems in your car fail one at a time in order of safe operational necessity, starting with interior lights and radio and ending with power steering and braking.
It is *also* totally possible your two-year-old battery is a dud, but even Jiffy Lube has the mechanical chops to tell you how your battery is doing.
posted by gingerest at 7:33 PM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Are you in an area where a block heater is needed / a good idea? Some of the border areas of needing one you get certain cars that just hate cold and investing in something for the -30 snaps is good.

Otherwise get another battery testing. Batteries are cheap compared to your frustration.
posted by Liger at 7:36 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had the battery and the alternator checked last winter

That was a year ago? Do it again.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 7:36 PM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have similar car usage patterns to yours. I find it is easiest to just buy a new battery every couple of years.
posted by yarntheory at 7:48 PM on February 4, 2015

Get a block heater. $100 and negligible energy costs. Plug your car in before you start it overnight or for 4 hours min. Basically you're not driving enough to keep your battery charged for a cold start.

Alternatively buy the biggest strongest battery you can fit in your car but some cars don't have room for a big battery.
posted by fshgrl at 8:11 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

You could put a trickle charger on the battery whenever you're not driving the car. That's really a band-aid until you fix the real problem, but it might get you through the winter.
posted by H21 at 8:11 PM on February 4, 2015

You want a really good battery. One of those like, optima batteries that cost stupidly a lot.

Even in not-that-cold northwest weather i've had newer, but cheapo batteries either be on the edge of wimping out or just wimp out. If i was ever going to live or spend time somewhere like this, i'd shell out the ~$150 for a megabattery like that.

Oreilly's/autozone will test your battery and alternator for free, and also sell you the battery. You can do this and just spend the cost of the battery, although you may need need to pull your own alternator(which they'll lend you tools to do). If that's above your pay grade, i'd still just get it tested at a shop then go buy a battery if the alternators fine.
posted by emptythought at 8:13 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I park my car outdoors, and drive my car around twice a week for short distances.

If that's all you drive, that can be pretty hard on the battery (and the rest of the car), so your driving habits may have contributed to the demise of such a young battery. Echoing previous posters who are telling you to get everything thoroughly checked out by a mechanic, but I'd also recommend that you make sure to take the car out at least once a week for 20-30 miles at a decent speed and get the engine up to normal operating temperature.

You probably need a new battery. If you're looking for a new mechanic, I've found the recommendations on both Yelp and the CarTalk site to be helpful.

Also, with so much short-distance driving, make sure you're changing your oil at least every six months regardless of the mileage driven.
posted by Leatherstocking at 4:09 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't see a location in your profile; how cold are we talking about?

I agree with most of the above: get your battery and alternator checked again, it's entirely possible they've gone south in the year since you last had it looked at, especially if you've ever let the battery discharge completely. Auto batteries hate being drained completely flat and it can dramatically shorten their lifespan; that alone could be causing your problems. If you need your battery replaced, buy the absolute best one you can afford -- especially in a colder climate your sanity is worth it.

Also, yeah, it sounds like your usage pattern is similar to one I had for a while: the car sat mostly unused, only being taken out for short trips once or twice a week. That's hard on a car in general, but sometimes it's just how things go. One thing I'd suggest, if you're not in an area that's cold enough to warrant a block heater, is to just buy a battery tender, which is both smarter than a basic trickle charger, and cheaper and more efficient than a block heater. I paired one of those with a cigarette lighter adapter in the M3 I only drove on occasion. Every time I parked in the garage I took just a moment to grab the lighter plug and hook it up.

Even on the coldest of Chicago winter mornings it was enough to keep the battery charged up and ready to turn over the engine.
posted by jammer at 12:08 PM on February 5, 2015

Unhook the two leads on your battery and brush the battery posts and the inside of the connectors with a wire brush to remove corrosion. Sometimes this is all it takes.
posted by PSB at 11:04 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

To follow up on what worked for me:

I ended up changing the battery; the mechanic looked at it and said that it was dying. It had limited warranty left on it anyway, and it hasn't been an issue since. That said, the weather has also warmed up considerably... Either way, it was worth it to get a new battery. Thanks for your suggestions!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 7:26 PM on March 15, 2015

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