Vicious circle
May 7, 2007 9:05 AM   Subscribe

My car dies periodically and the shop tinkers with it (starter, alternator, battery, etc.) but my mechanic has opined that part of the problem may be that I don't drive it enough. Does anyone have any experience with trickle chargers?

I don't drive it in part because it is unreliable; it is unreliable in part because I don't drive it.

Any other suggestions besides the obvious one of driving it more?
posted by Morrigan to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total)
Best answer: Find a new mechanic.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:10 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

You have to be driving it awfully infrequently in order for the charge to die. Like, once every 6 months or more. And even then, a battery with no problems is going to last a few years.
posted by DU at 9:17 AM on May 7, 2007

Have you taken it to the dealer's mechanic? Sounds like your local mechanic may not understand modern automobile systems and still thinks in terms of 'vapor lock' and 'it needs to get on the highway every weekend.'
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:17 AM on May 7, 2007

Do you leave phone or gps or other power-draining items plugged in? My battery died very prematurely because I did this.
posted by wryly at 9:22 AM on May 7, 2007

Best answer: The shotgun approach -- change parts one by one until the problem is resolved, in the hopes that eventually you'll change the bad part -- is the time honored way in which mechanics who can't solve problems still manage to make their boat payments. Good mechanics don't do this.

As WPG suggested, find a mechanic who can determine what the actual problem is and solve it. I had a friend in college who had a Lancia Beta, one of the prettiest/crappiest cars ever made. It was constantly dying. He took it to a variety of big city mechanics, and they changed out most of the electrical system, and it still died. Then, when he was home for the summer in middle-of-no-where South Dakota, he took it to the local shop in the hopes that they might have a different take. The shop had probably never seen a Lancia, much less his particular model, but they were game, and they went through the car and checked out everything. Finally determined that the starter he was using was wound improperly and was drawing to much current, and this current surge was hosing the other electrical components. Put in a different starter and he was good to go.

Point being: you need to take it to someone who knows how to solve problems, not just turn wrenches. Not all mechanics are created equally. Ask around for a recommendation of a good problem solver. The local NAPA parts store is usually a good place to start asking, as it often supplies independent shops.

Good luck.
posted by mosk at 9:50 AM on May 7, 2007

Er..."drawing too much..."
posted by mosk at 9:53 AM on May 7, 2007

We have a Jaguar in our garage that we rarely drive, and it's on a trickle charger. AFAIK, the energy expenses are minimal and it's always rarin' to go when we do take it out for a ride. I think trickle chargers are awesome.
posted by Lynsey at 9:59 AM on May 7, 2007

What do you mean by "dies periodically"? Do you mean some days it just won't start, or you're driving and it dies at a stop light?

I had a Honda Accord that would randomly die while I was driving it. After going through a ton of replacements for parts that were fine, we eventually discovered the wire harness for the computer under the front passenger seat floor was corroded by water leaking in (the carpet was often wet) and occasionally it would short causing the car to die. Replacing the wires solved the problem.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:03 AM on May 7, 2007

It may be helpful if you told us what make/model of car it was as well. There may be well-known issues.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:04 AM on May 7, 2007

Response by poster: If it helps:
It's a PT Cruiser; by "dies periodically" I mean that some times it just won't start, not that it would die at a light; the mechanic is at the Chrysler dealer (the second I've had there); I turn *everything* (radio, etc.) off before turning the car off and no accessories are plugged in; and I may go a week without driving when it is running.
posted by Morrigan at 10:13 AM on May 7, 2007

Also, it might be worth your time to research car 'lemon laws' in your state. If your dealer is just swapping out parts and telling you to drive it more, it sounds like you may qualify for some kind of exchange.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:22 AM on May 7, 2007

Not driving it has nothing to do with your problems. If you've had your battery replaced in the last three years or so and haven't let it run down (left your lights on, etc) it's not that. Seconding the consensus, your mechanic (surprisingly) doesn't know what's wrong.

What needs to be done is a step-by-step check of the entire electrical system looking for ground leaks or shorts. Having a mechanic do this is probably more expensive than replacing the car, however. If you're technically minded, you can at least give it an honest go with a $20 multimiter from rat Radio Shack and *carefully* measure the quiescent current draw across your electrical system with the car off.
posted by Skorgu at 10:33 AM on May 7, 2007

Response by poster: dda, I've checked the laws and unfortunately, this doesn't qualify in my state.
posted by Morrigan at 10:51 AM on May 7, 2007

If the battery goes dead from just sitting, there is no way this would harm the alternator or starter. You shouldn't be taking your car to the mechanic because of dead battery, buy a battery charger. It will cost less than getting your car towed once.
posted by yohko at 11:12 AM on May 7, 2007

Best answer: Take your car to a good, non-dealer mechanic. Car Talk may have some reccomendations for mechanics in your area, under "Mechanic Files". It could be something as simple as a loose wire somewhere. When you take the car in, all the terminals may get tightened but they don't replace all the wire - that is an honest-to-god problem that our local Ford dealership didn't catch but my mechanically-minded dad did.
posted by muddgirl at 11:24 AM on May 7, 2007


I had a PT Cruiser that died periodically, and luckily we solved the problem after only 3 trips to the mechanic (though it is largely the reason I now own a Toyota).

Do you have fog lamps? Does your car die more often on cold or hot days? If so, the temperature change may be causing a short circuit in the steering column that turns the lights on when you're not there. For me it was the fog lamps on hot days.

This is, apparently, a known issue with PT Cruisers, but since A+B+C=X and X is less than the cost of a recall, they haven't done one.

I loved my PT Cruiser, but I'm incredibly bitter that Chrysler didn't build it better -- I may never buy another Chrysler again for all the hassles that car brought me and the thousands of dollars it cost me and missed work days it caused.

Not just the fog lamps turning on spontaneously when it was hot, but the power steering going spectacularly belly-up on numerous occasions, eventually requiring a replacement of the entire system (oh, it's just after the 36k mile warranty, too bad!), and 3 (yes, three) starters. All in less than 5 years.
posted by chimaera at 11:26 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Does the engine "turn over' but not start, or are you greeted by silence when you turn the key? Those are two very different scenarios.

Regardless, I generally agree with the above responses: you need a mechanic who uses his brain and not just your wallet to systematically isolate the fault.
posted by Kevin S at 11:41 AM on May 7, 2007

You have to be driving it awfully infrequently in order for the charge to die. Like, once every 6 months or more.

That should be true, but often is not. It's very possible to plug things in that draw dark current. It's somewhat less likely but just as possible for the car to do it w/o additional items plugged in. If it's used there's also always the possibility a former owner made some under-dash mod you're unfamiliar with.

If you can live with losing your radio presets you might consider getting a kill switch put on the battery terminal. Cheaper than a trickle-charger and doesn't require plugging into anything. If the battery still loses charge after a few weeks of sitting then you have a bad battery or it's not getting much charge when you do drive it.

You could also pick up a solar charger that plugs into your cig lighter plug if you don't have access to a plug for a trickle charger. It's not as cheap as the cutoff but you won't lose your WAMU preset :)

If you decide you want to go the battery terminal route you can drop me an email - it's a 5 minutes job and I might consider doing it in exchange for a pint at the 4 Provinces....
posted by phearlez at 11:48 AM on May 7, 2007

Response by poster: Kevin, it doesn't turn over but may or may not emit a simple click. I swear that once druing this last go-round I saw the word "done" flash on the odometer. No idea what that was.
posted by Morrigan at 11:49 AM on May 7, 2007

Response by poster: phearlez, you are very kind and I may get in touch with you once I review my situation fully. And the 4Ps is always a good idea. :)
posted by Morrigan at 11:52 AM on May 7, 2007

Oh - for an alternate mechanic let me suggest PBC Auto. A bit west of you but not horridly so. Joey is a very competent mechanic and I've always found them very responsive to my goals - they're not the kind to push every bit of possible work if you're just looking to keep a car running, for example.
posted by phearlez at 12:00 PM on May 7, 2007

I swear that once druing this last go-round I saw the word "done" flash on the odometer.
To get the codes, move the key from Run to Off to Run to Off to Run within five seconds. It does not always work the first time. (Run is JUST before Start). The code will show up in the odometer - thank your lucky stars for this, since the codes used to get blinked on the engine light. Alan Borgolotto noted that “if you do it too quickly it doesnt work (got to wait to see the odometer light up” and that if you have no codes, the odometer will say “done.”
posted by phearlez at 12:08 PM on May 7, 2007

I like the idea of kill switch (or manually disconnect when not in use) as an inexpensive means of determining if prob is with battery, or a drain elsewhere. I once had similar symptoms which turned out to be that the motor for the power antenna was stuck "on". With or without trying the kill switch method, a good mechanic should be able to find the prob without too much trouble; this isn't brain surgery. Good luck.
posted by Kevin S at 12:27 PM on May 7, 2007

Here's at thread on PT Crusier forum which discusses this very issue. You might find your answer there.
posted by Neiltupper at 12:54 PM on May 7, 2007

I've got a winter beater and got tired of taking the battery out and trickle charging it over the summer so I bought a solar trickle charger for about 30 bucks. My beater has been unused for a couple of months and I started it up this weekend. I checked the battery and it was still at full charge. If you buy a solar trickle charger make sure that it has a circuit to prevent overcharging your battery as mine does.

That said batteries don't normally drain that much over a couple months and in my particular case the biggest problem is my summer car killing off the battery during the cold Wisconsin winter. You probably have something else wrong that's causing a constant draw or weak charging.
posted by substrate at 2:08 PM on May 7, 2007

the same thing was happening to my car last winter. I thought the battery kept dying from the cold weather but when I inspected it further there was a short and the battery in the trunk was staying on when the car was off. My cheap fix was to pull the bulb out. Haven't had a problem since. You most definitely have a short somewhere in the system. Check all the bulbs first. I second getting a kill switch for your battery as a cheap solution. What I did was just pull off the negative terminal when I wasn't going to be driving it the next day. But that became quite a hassle.
posted by any major dude at 5:20 PM on May 7, 2007

For $5-$10 you could buy an el-cheapo voltmeter (actually volt/ohm/amp meter) which will let you do two things:
  1. If the car doesn't start, you can check whether the battery's actually dead or whether there's some other problem like a loose connection to the starter. (Can you still check modern batteries with a hydrometer?)
  2. You can measure the amount of current actually being drawn from the battery when your car is "off", which will give you a hint about whether something's draining power (although of course if it's an intermittent fault, like chimaera's steering column, then you'd have to catch it at the right time.)

posted by hattifattener at 6:46 PM on May 7, 2007

My boyfriend has an old BMW that periodically dies on him. Sometimes it'll start, sometimes it won't. More likely not to start when left under the sun. Anyway - after changing, changing, and then again changing various parts, a mechanic finally zoned in on the problem: a chip. Computer chip. Shoot, I didn't even know cars had computer chips.
posted by Xere at 9:06 PM on May 7, 2007

Response by poster: Okay; I've had the dealership print out the service history of the car and taken it and the car from the dealership right into a highly regarded garage in my area. Thanks for all the input, everyone. It enabled me to tell the mechanic about the problem in a more informed manner. I'll report back.
posted by Morrigan at 8:19 PM on May 8, 2007

Morrigan, if it comes to it I was in an auto parts store and they sell these things for $30. It's a big old cutoff with a blade switch like Doc Frankenstein used to juice up the monster. It would take a wrench and 5 minutes to install, if that.

Good luck.
posted by phearlez at 10:36 PM on May 9, 2007

Response by poster: I've been hesitating to follow up in the fear that it would jinx things. I took the car to a highly recommended independent mechanic in my area and was told that two of the battery cells were bad and one was iffy. (The dealer had repeatedly said the battery was fine.) They took care of this for a reasonable amount and I haven't had the problem since. Thanks, everyone.
posted by Morrigan at 11:12 AM on December 3, 2007

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