What's wrong with my car and can I fix it myself?
January 26, 2008 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out why my car won't start, and whether I can fix it myself.

Alright. Here's the deal. I own a 1997 Honda Accord, and I live in Wisconsin, which has been cold and snowy lately.

A few weeks back, my car wouldn't start. The battery was drained, presumably because of I hadn't closed the door all the way and the light in the door was on for several days, during which I didn't use the car at all. The extreme cold didn't help.

I tried to jump-start the car from roommate A's car, but it wouldn't work. Cleaned off the battery terminals (which were pretty gross, with a lot of goo) a little bit, tried again, didn't work. Car sat for a few days. Tried to jump it from roommate B's car (because roommate A's battery was hard to get a clamp on) and it worked. Happily, I used my car for a week with no problems.

Then, a few days ago, I tried to start my car, and all I got was clicking. I tried to jump it using roommate B's car, to no avail.

This is the state I'm currently in. Generally, if the battery is dead, there's no activity when I turn the key, and if the battery is low, you can hear engine activity (it'll try to turn over), but in this case, there's just a clicking coming from the dash and a flicker of the dashboard lights. I can turn the electronics on with the key, and they seem to work fine, but I cannot start the engine.

Again, I've tried to jump-start it. I've also checked the fuses, and they all appear to be intact. I'm really hoping this is something I can fix myself, because involving a tow truck will be a huge hassle. I just know that if anyone can point me in the right direction, it's the AskMefi community. Cheers.
posted by joshjs to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total)
Best answer: If all you got was clicking, you need a new battery. Sometimes when batteries get completely discharged, they can't be brought back.
posted by sanka at 11:29 AM on January 26, 2008

It sounds like your battery is dead. Like beyond jumping dead. They only last about 5 years.

If yours is around that age or older, just get a new one at any auto parts store. It'll be charged and ready to go, and I bet it'll fix your problem. Installing it is a snap.
posted by autojack at 11:29 AM on January 26, 2008

Response by poster: I should have mentioned that I installed a new battery about two years ago, so I'm hesitant to think I need to do so again, but if you all think that's the way to go, it's far less of a hassle than getting the car towed somewhere.
posted by joshjs at 11:36 AM on January 26, 2008

Best answer: Your battery is screwed, that's all. The initial jump didn't work because the connection wasn't good enough and/or the jump leads weren't able to carry the current. Next time you need to jump a car that has a completely flat battery, just wait for a while with the wires connected (and the donor car running). This allows enough charge into the flat battery to cope with the spike in current required to turn over and start the car. Otherwise, it simply can't flow the current well enough to do the job.

Once a battery is flat, and it experiences cold temperatures (near freezing) the chances of the batter surviving are pretty damn low. Any time you have a battery issue in winter and the battery is more than a couple of years old, I'd recommend replacing it straight away - it's less hassle and a pretty good bet at preventative maintenance.

Generally, if the battery is dead, there's no activity when I turn the key, and if the battery is low, you can hear engine activity (it'll try to turn over), ...

This is when the battery is 'low'.

but in this case, there's just a clicking coming from the dash and a flicker of the dashboard lights.

This is when the battery is extremely low/near flat. It's just an extension of the same thing.
posted by Brockles at 11:39 AM on January 26, 2008

Best answer: It's been sub-zero weather in Wisconsin, hasn't it? There's a good possibility your dead battery froze solid, which would seriously damage it internals, making it way, way beyond recovery. Install a new one.
posted by exphysicist345 at 11:41 AM on January 26, 2008

Best answer: If you completely discharged the battery, it takes a while to fully recharge (if it ever does again). Car batteries are not "deep cycle" batteries -- they're not meant to be completely discharged and recharged over and over. Completely discharging them can severely shorten their lives.

Next time you get it started, make sure you run the car for a good 45 minutes or so, to get a full charge. Or, pull the battery out and put it on a trickle charger. If that doesn't fix the problem, then the battery is probably toast.
posted by knave at 11:41 AM on January 26, 2008

Just some additional information about freezing temperatures and car batteries. Lead-acid batteries have lead plate electrodes and a sulfuric acid electrolyte fluid. When the battery discharges, the sulfuric acid turns into lead sulfate paste on the electrode plates, leaving behind a less concentrated acid electrolyte. When you charge the battery, the process reverses. The lead sulfate paste changes back to pure lead plates and sulfuric acid.

The sulfuric acid keeps the water in the battery from freezing sort of like anti-freeze in your radiator. When discharged, there is not enough sulfuric acid left to keep the water from freezing. Also when discharged is when the most lead sulfate paste is deposited on the plates. So the freezing water scrapes the paste right off the electrodes. If the paste is not touching the electrodes, it cannot be converted back to sulfuric acid and lead when you try to charge it. The paste just falls to the bottom of the battery and your battery is ruined.
posted by JackFlash at 2:05 PM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

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