The Little Car That Couldn't
October 8, 2020 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything I can do to help my 2007 Honda Fit from dying frequently?

I have a 2007 Honda Fit ("The Cardis"), which is a good car in all ways except the ongoing issue of it not starting. I know that part of the issue is that I don't have a long commute even in a normal time and being work from home in this time is only making the issue worse.

-Sport Model
-Aftermarket AstroStart that was on the car when I bought it in 2009 (system usually turned off via toggle switch inside the car)
-Completely up to date on maintenance at the local dealership
-Just over 77,000 miles
-Block heater installed in 2009 and replaced in January 2020
-Battery replaced with larger 375 CCA size (the largest the dealership says will fit on the battery tray) in January 2019
-Alternator has been verified as working well repeatedly

In a normal year, this is only an issue during about 5 months of the year when my part of the US is ridiculously cold. During this time, about once every 2-3 weeks the car battery weakens to the point where attempting to start is the end of the battery power. I usually have the AstroStart system turned off inside the car since the timeframe in which it would be useful is also the time it's most likely to kill the car. The dealership (condescendingly) said the issue is that I don't drive it long enough to charge the battery.

Which, I mean, yes, I understand that functionally I am the little old lady who keeps her car in the garage all the time but also I live in a town where driving from one to the other is usually only 15 minutes, so it's not surprising that my Monday through Friday commute is only about 10 minutes long and other people with similar commutes don't have this same issue. The recommendation was that I should drive it around just to use it, but to be slightly more environmentally friendly (I think) when we're having highs under 0°F I use my block heater every night to make the start easier and use a trickle charger to top up the battery about every 1-2 weeks. This seems to mostly do the trick.

However, in this time of COVID, I have been lucky to be working from home and not needing to drive my car much. Since I'm only driving the car about every 2-3 weeks, in normal summer weather I'm finding that the battery is dead every time I want to drive it with such regularity that I just plan for having to trickle charge it before I'm going to go out. This happened today, with the extra annoyance that the battery is apparently at the point where while nothing about the car responds to the key (no lights, not even weak ones), the instant I try to charge it the car alarm goes off and turning my key in the ignition does nothing to stop it. As best as I can guess, I'm going to need to let the battery die more before trying again.

Otherwise this is still a great car, a Honda with only 77,000 miles, so I really don't want to replace it, especially in this economy. I've read people online talking about removing or altering the battery tray to fit a larger battery, but I have moderately limited car skills (change air cabin filter, yes! Add oil, yes! Change oil, not so much). I've also thought about looking up how to disconnect the AstroStart from the battery entirely in case that system is draining the battery from being so old.

Please, car experts of MeFi, what should I try to reduce this issue?
posted by past unusual to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

I've had this issue with cars before, and replacing the battery completely alleviates them.

I've also had dealers tell me my battery was "Fine" - and yet, it would die after not being used a few days.

A new battery from costco is under $150, and you can install it yourself.

So yeah, I'd just focus on a new battery to start with, and work from there.
posted by bbqturtle at 9:05 AM on October 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Something's draining the battery far more than it should while the car is parked. In summer, a car shouldn't go from working to won't-even-unlock in a few weeks unless there's a load on the battery. But you knew that.

Maybe check that there are no lights accidentally staying on? A glovebox light or inside trunk light that's not being turned off by the limit switch could cause a flat battery.
posted by scruss at 9:09 AM on October 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Thank you, bbqturtle. I promise not to Chatfilter, but just to clarify, I've been replacing the battery about every other year the entire time I've had the car and I am still having this issue.

That's a good thought, scruss. I do have one headlight that at one point stopped working and they said it wasn't the bulb because when they wiggled it, it started working again. Is there a way to find the issue if it's hiding in electrical systems?

Again, I'm not knowledgable about cars, but I am good at following clear instructions so any links to something I should be trying myself given a reasonable expenditure (maybe under $100) of tools I would try. Or are there clear instructions I could give to condescending dealership mechanics?
posted by past unusual at 9:14 AM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've also thought about looking up how to disconnect the AstroStart from the battery entirely in case that system is draining the battery

That sounds like a sensible bit of troubleshooting. You could also try disconnecting any other accessories that might be powered while the engine's off - radio, alarm? I'd have a look at the list of fuses in the car's manual as a start - there may well be an "accessory" fuse you can pull out (or even individual fuses).

A basic multimeter (<$20) might be a useful tool if you wanted to investigate further - you could use that to measure the battery voltage, and (with care) to measure the current being drawn from the battery with the engine off.
posted by offog at 9:28 AM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Fit is notorious for having an undersized battery. Before we got rid of ours, it needed a new one every couple years too.

You might try keeping it on a battery desulfator (Battery Minder makes nice models), or even upgrading to a larger battery.

But yeah, it's a known problem with the Honda Fit.
posted by exogenous at 9:31 AM on October 8, 2020

An experiment might be to disconnect the battery for a week you are not driving, and then reconnect it. If it works just fine then, you have a parasitic load draining the battery normally. If it doesn't work, you have a flaky battery that is not holding a charge.
posted by nickggully at 9:37 AM on October 8, 2020 [11 favorites]

are there clear instructions I could give to condescending dealership mechanics?

Yes. Don't go to dealerships. They don't like dealing with older cars and often don't want weird problems. They want easy, bash the work out, routine stuff because the mechanics are paid on the volume fo work they can put out. They won't make any money on a car that takes time to diagnose.

I agree something is draining the battery far more than it should. But that will be tricky to find other than the method of looking at the car in the dark and seeing if a glovebox or trunk light is still on. A phantom draw is often tricky to find once the obvious stuff is ruled out.

It is definitely possible that 15 minutes driving at lower rpm (presumably stop start driving) is a high load on the battery and it may need topping off more. This is not necessarily condescending to point out.

I am the little old lady who keeps her car in the garage all the time

Does the garage have power? I'd have an (independent local) garage give the car a quick once over and double check for any weirdness and and then have them install a fly lead ( for a Battery Tender and just leave it on that all the time. They make quick connect plugs and you can just pop the hood and connect it and leave it on the whole time. That way the fix is $60 ( and maybe 10 seconds each time you put the car away.
posted by Brockles at 9:40 AM on October 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

I had a 2005 civic that had a problem like this. I ultimately traced it to an aftermarket stereo that was draining the battery. Since I’m lazy, I just pulled the stereo’s fuse, thereby solving the battery problem.

You’ll want to identify the leech and go from there.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:48 AM on October 8, 2020

Get the cheapest ammeter you can find. Clamp it around the negative battery cable. Even after the car is off, you'll see there's still a draw. After a few minutes, this will drop somewhat as the car goes from naptime to full hibernation. But if it's anything more than a couple milliamps, you've got a parasitic draw.

Start pulling fuses. (you'll have to start over and let it hibernate if you open any doors, etc.) See where the draw is.
posted by notsnot at 10:19 AM on October 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

You already have the trickle charger, so leave it connected all the time. Problem will be solved and your battery will last more than two years.
posted by flimflam at 12:25 PM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

One other possibility, although if you had the battery replaced by the dealer in the last 24 months it's not very likely, is corrosion on the battery terminals or the posts. This is what gave me some problems after leaving the car sitting for several months, except it was really time to replace that battery anyway.

You can get these little wire brushes (like this, not recommending that specific one although mine looks identical) that will get the battery posts and the contact areas on the cables very shiny and clean of any oxidation or corrosion. But as others have said, it sounds like something is draining the battery when the car is off.

Until you've figured out the cause and if you're worried about getting stuck somewhere without being able to use the trickle charger, you might want to get a lithium-ion booster battery/power bank. Absolute lifesaver and I should have bought one years ago. Pop the hood, connect the wires (mine beeps at you if you have them the wrong way round) and start the car. I got this one, which is about the size of a brick and holds a good 10 starts on a full charge but there are endless options available. It's probably a good idea to get one with a similar amperage to what your existing battery is meant to put out.
posted by figurant at 12:26 PM on October 8, 2020

I have been amazed at how quickly the battery in a rarely driven/short trip vehicle can die. We have a Honda Element with an engine that's about 50% bigger than the Fit, used about 5-7K miles per year of almost all city trips. And the battery dies almost every year. Oh, sure, it will start the car when it's fully topped up after a long drive, but just let it sit for a week and it won't. We have no aftermarket anything, no heater. I was so sure that there was something wrong with the alternator that I took it to our expert trustworthy saint of a mechanic and they basically said, batteries suck. We've actually had better luck with making a point to drive it on at least one 10+ mile trip a month, and we'll leave it running if possible while parked. Just to make sure that it gets a solid 20 minutes of charging. Costco is willing to give us a credit for most of the cost of the battery, so why not? The last time around I did try buying a higher-end model of the same CCA from AutoZone, so we'll see if that helps at all.
posted by wnissen at 5:34 PM on October 8, 2020

One sneaky battery draw that I've had in the past is a phone charging cord that was bunk, that was an easy fix once I realized it.
posted by Grandysaur at 10:22 PM on October 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

I had a similar issue with my previous Honda (a 2006 Civic). I was also driving very infrequently, so I wondered if that could be the problem.

Well, it turns out it wasn't. It probably made it worse, but the real problem was some small, obscure electrical problem that was causing a slow drain. My memory is fuzzy on the exact details, but I do remember that the problem wasn't visible - it wasn't something as simple like the glove compartment light staying on.

I replaced the battery before I figured out what the real problem was. This only worked temporarily, and ended up corrupting the battery. Contrary to some of the previous advice, I wouldn't replace the battery now. The battery you bought should be fine; since it's not, there's some other problem with the car. I would focus on trying to figure that out first.

I eventually figured it out by taking it in to the dealership. I don't know whether that would work out for you, but I do think you need an experienced Honda mechanic, probably.

After figuring out the problem and fixing it: No more dead battery, even though my driving habits didn't change much at all. I haven't had to replace a battery in years.

(Though I have traded cars since then.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:32 PM on October 8, 2020

I would look long and hard at the AstroStart... a remote car starter has to be ready to receive a radio signal from a key fob or a smart phone at any time, so by definition it needs to be drawing some standby current to be ready to receive that signal and spring in to action. You mentioned that there's a toggle switch to disable it, but we don't know if that switch truly isolates it from the battery or just prevents it from being able to start the car by disconnecting the link to the starter circuit. Often, remote starters are integrated with aftermarket car alarms and "starter interrrupts" for security, so properly disabling the AstroStart may be more involved than just unplugging it, a jumper wire or splice may need to be made to restore the factory wiring. Not a huge deal, but probably beyond your DIY ability.

You could try a battery disconnect switch as a work around. You might be able to install this yourself. It attaches to the terminal on the battery and, as the name suggests, disconnects it from the rest of the car, eliminating all standby current draw. The only catch (aside from the hassle of having to open the hood and flip the switch when you want to drive the car) is that some cars are unhappy with the power being interrupted (the engine computer loses its learned calibrations and the car may run a bit off for a while, the alarm may go off and need to be silenced, etc.) I think it's worth a try though. They aren't too expensive.

Having said that, keeping the car plugged into a good quality battery maintainer is probably the best solution.

One final thing, batteries can be damaged by allowing them to deeply discharge. So, you may be looking at a multi-step problem to solve here- eliminating or working around a standby current draw and then replacing the battery which was (possibly) damaged as a consequence of it.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 5:57 AM on October 9, 2020

Thank you all for the great information. I'm going to order a multimeter and test to see if I can find whatever the drain is. It's a hatchback with no light in the glove compartment, so I'm pretty confident it isn't either of those things. But it could definitely be the radio or maybe something with the buggy headlight. If that doesn't turn anything up, I'll ask the dealership about how much it would cost to disconnect the AstroStart.

Also, as a parallel method: our garage is a little small for fitting both cars in normal use (and is prone to mice building nests in things that are sitting), but it has been on my to do list to try fitting the cars now that they don't need to be moving in and out as much (and resetting up the mouse catcher has been on SO of Past Unusual's to do list as well).

If I do figure out the vampire, I'll be sure to update as an exciting conclusion to the saga.
posted by past unusual at 10:32 AM on October 9, 2020

Just to reiterate - a regular multimeter won't do what you need to do in this case. (not that a multimeter isn't handy to have around.) You need, specifically, a clamp ammeter.
posted by notsnot at 5:24 AM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

To reiterate another point, if this car isn’t under warranty why are you going (back!) to a dealership for service? They’ve let you down multiple times at a pretty penny in cost. You’re the one ordering a meter and asking the Internet about something any decent mechanic would solve in an hour. Your dealership sucks. Most dealership service shops suck, and they charge more than almost anyone else for that sucky service. You might as well throw less money at an equallly clueless and dishonest national chain shop. Dealers hire the lowest skilled mechanics this side of jiffy lube, and pay them not much better.

Find yourself an independent small mechanic shop where you see other Hondas on the lot and that has reviews that stress honesty. You’ll never look back. This is not rocket science, it’s grunt work. You should never trust that dealer with anything else again. They don’t care about your problem.

And in my experience this is all rather especially true of Honda stealerships, although they’re all bad and that’s the business model.
I’ll spare you the story of how two different Honda dealers tried to rip off my elderly relative in exactly the same way. Like they have a book.

Unless an item is under warranty — and I do hope you got those new batteries for free since it’s a rare battery that isn’t warrantied for 3-5 years.

You wouldn’t have needed to write this question if any mechanic you’ve yet seen was worth a shit. You should just ask for recommendations for a good Honda guy in your area.

Not. Rocket. Science.
posted by spitbull at 12:51 AM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Addendum: this would be a complex problem potentially on a car with extensive complex electronics like a BMW. A Honda fit is one step north of a riding lawnmower. There’s not much to check for a short or a random discharge.

And it has nothing to do with the small battery. But if you do end up buying yet another I have two words for you: Bosch AGM. Branded batteries from auto manufacturers are usually cheap rebadged crap.

And I’d have that remote start unit pulled and thrown away entirely. They are junk when new and the source of many problems. I’ve never figured out why people want those, unless you live in the arctic.
posted by spitbull at 1:08 AM on October 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Unless things have changed since we had this problem a few years ago, nobody makes an AGM battery that will fit this car (at least without a little work). I wish they did.
posted by exogenous at 7:08 AM on October 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Wow that sucks. I did some research and you can go up to a 51R battery and if you remove the lip from the battery tray, it will fit. This is apparently a common cold weather mod for the 1.5l Fit. Bosch does make an AGM in 51R size.
posted by spitbull at 12:56 PM on October 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

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