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"My Car Won't Start!" Here's What to Do

January 2020 | By Youssef Sleiman

You turn the key and hear nothing but clicks. Step No. 1: Don’t panic.

First, breathe.
You can do this, and we’re going to walk you through it.

You were on a schedule, and now your car isn’t cooperating. Nobody likes this feeling you’ve got right now — and that’s good news. We can use that later.

For your safety, take a moment to steady your breath and heartbeat. Stress narrows your focus and ruins your creative thinking. But you need both right now.

Meet Joe Semens, a long-time car guy working at Interstate Batteries. He grew up with his hands in an engine block, and he taught car battery clinics as an engineer in our Innovation Lab for more than 10 years. Now, his expertise guides Interstate’s recommendations so that everyone can install the right battery in every vehicle make and model.

Yes, Joe knows his way around engines. Today, he’s here to help you.

Let’s get you going again.

    What To Do If Your Car Won’t Start

  1. Call whoever is expecting you. Tell them your car is delaying you.
  2. Worry will splinter your attention, unless you settle it. You need all your focus right now.

    So call whoever’s waiting. And bring your mind back to restarting your engine.

    For your own safety, stop thinking about the job interviewer you were going to meet. They understand dead batteries happen to even the most competent candidates.

    Ask for a Free Battery Check at Any of These 150,000 Locations

    Why wait for a battery to die? Get it tested.
    Put in your city or ZIP code, and we’ll show you dozens of locations nearby.

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    Stop thinking about the meeting your co-workers are waiting on. They understand how dead batteries can surprise anyone.

    Stop thinking about the restaurant line and your spouse waiting for dinner. Your caring companion can deal with the reservations and even rally your friends for help.

    Plus, if the person on the other end of the line offers a jump-start, take it. They’ll arrive in a while.

    And you have things to do in the meantime that’ll help you speed things along.

  3. Turn everything off. Yes, everything.
  4. DO NOT TRY THE IGNITION AGAIN. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already turn the key once. Instead, shut everything down.

    “All the electronics should be off, right away. Radio, heater, everything you can turn off needs to be off. Then you negate those variables,” Joe said. “Don’t leave any circuit open if you can possibly think about it.”

    Turning everything off makes it easier for another car to start yours.

    You may also uncover a light switch still on, a glove box light still dimly glowing or whatever else may have killed the battery, if it wasn’t the weather.

    It’s also going to protect your car from any new glitches or problems.

    “You don’t want any voltage surges finding their way into circuits where they are not intended,” he said. “Those spikes can burn out some very expensive vehicle electronics. It’s best if you just shut everything down.”

  5. Call for help.
  6. You likely have professional roadside assistance, but you may have forgotten about it.

    Almost 60% of Americans have auto insurance with Allstate, GEICO, Progressive, State Farm or USAA, according to industry researchers at Lending Tree — and all five of them offer roadside assistance. You may also have roadside assistance with a club membership to AAA, AARP or any of a dozen options. So, dig through your wallet.

    Plus, if you’re parked at an apartment building or in an office building, their management office likely can jump-start your car.

    You also have friends, all willing to help. They just might not be available right now. Call the folks you can count on. And if the person expecting you was able to offer help, they’re coming, too.

    Car expert Joe Semens smiles beside a model car.

    Interstate expert and decades Joe Semens taught car battery clinics for 10 years with Interstate Batteries, offering automotive techs the expert advice for electronics, engineering and handling batteries. He’s seen quite a few car hoods up — and he’s one of the best people to help when your car won’t start. | Photo: Youssef Sleiman

  7. Raise the hood and leave it open.
  8. This is a universal sign for help, almost as powerful as your emergency lights. Plus, it doesn’t use your battery.

    Take another slow breath. Joe advises you to get familiar with your engine before you try to jump-start it. Because not every battery is in an obvious place.

    “Look for where the battery is. Find out where the terminals are. Find the owner’s manual,” Joe said. “Some are in the trunk or buried under spare tires, then you’re stuck calling a service man.” 

     

    There’s a repair shop near you. Let’s find one now.

    Interstate Batteries has a network of more than 150,000 auto repair shops, garages and more. First-rate batteries go well with high-quality service, all in a shop in your community.

     One of them is nearby right now. Wondering who it is?

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    If the battery’s not under the hood, you may still find a red-capped battery post. This is a remote terminal, wired to the battery and available for just this purpose.

    Corrosion can stop a good battery from starting a car. If you find corrosion around negative terminal, carefully brush it off or knock it loose with a wrench or tire iron from your trunk. (Do not blow on it! You can get it in your eye. And that’s not good.) Then, insert your key and if the electronics seem vibrant and responsive, try starting it.

  9. Get your owner’s manual. It’s online or in the glove box.
  10. While the hood is up, Joe suggests you consult the owner’s manual for your vehicle. It’ll explain how to access the battery if it’s someplace uncommon or any other details you should know before you jump-start your specific vehicle.

    Odds are your owner’s manual is in the glove box. If it’s not, you can find yours online. Here’s a handy list of online owner manuals from CarProUSA. Many of them ask you for your vehicle’s VIN, just to make sure you get the one for exactly your car. Study it.

    Now, you’re ready. Just wait for help. 

    Lab Manager Jeff Barron smiles beside battery testing equipment.
    Innovation Lab Manager Jeff Barron keeps our standards for quality products high — as well as advising all of Interstate on the latest in automotive tech. He’s jumped a few cars, for sure. | Photo: Youssef Sleiman

  11. Jump-start your car.
  12. By now, help has arrived. Take off any jewelry that could conduct electricity. Don’t smoke when you’re near the engine or battery.

    And Joe hopes they came with a jumper pack. That’s the best scenario.

    What’s more likely, though, is a friend driving up with jumper cables. If it’s possible, hold out for a jumper pack. Interstate’s battery experts agree: It’s worth the wait to protect your engine.

    Jumper packs, jump-starters or booster batteries, are a compact, rechargeable battery that can jump-start your car. No vehicle required. And they come with step-by-step instructions. It’s safer, simpler and you don’t have to figure out how to position the cars close enough to do a jump. (When you get the chance, drop by an Interstate All Battery Center to pick up one.)

    On top of that, they provide a gentler jump-start than using another car as the source of power.

    “The issue you can run into is any kind of voltage spike from the source vehicle can cause component issues with one or both vehicles,” said Jeff Barron, Interstate Batteries Lab Manager. “There are so many different control modules on a vehicle now that control heated and cooled seats, navigation systems, audio equipment, computer-controlled alternators, etc. that can be damaged by one jump-start from another vehicle.”

    Jump packs supply enough amperage to start the car successfully and only about 13 volts, which is low enough to protect your car from any voltage spikes.

    “Jump-starting a vehicle using a source car should be done as a last resort,” he said.

    A diagram shows the correct sequence of cable connections between a source car and a dead car.

    Here’s the rundown on how to jump-start your car with another car, from our battery experts’ official jump-starting guide:

    1. Start with the positive cables, usually the reds. Dead battery first, then good battery.
    2. Next goes the negatives. Good battery first, then clamp the other end to the dead car’s frame.
    3. Start your engines, good battery first. Rev the good engine to charge the dead battery a little before starting it. It won’t fully charge the battery, but you’ll increase the chance of starting it this time.
    4. Remove the cables, negatives before positives.

    This is a lot of cable handling, so stay extra careful. Don't let the clamps touch each other or any metal while you’re clamping and unclamping.


Now your car is started and ready.

But you’re not done.

    As Soon as You Jump-start Your Car, Do These 4 Things — and Ignore This Myth.

    Every driver needs to jump-start a car. Even Joe had to jump one of his recently. He has a vintage collector car, a 1984 Corvette, “and the battery goes flat a lot.”

    “You’re going to have to do this every three to five years,” Joe said.

    Now is the best time to prepare.

    • Make a kit of all the tools you just used.
    • Now that the engine is running and the emergency is over, you need to take a few steps now to prepare for the next time.

      Grab your nearest empty bag and fill it with whatever you just used in this emergency. Here are a few things you might put into your new “jump-start” kit.

      • Your vehicle’s owner manual
      • Your roadside assistance membership card
      • Any wrenches or screwdrivers you used to get to the battery
      • Gloves and rags, whatever protected your hands
      • A note to yourself to look up these instructions and any other reminders

    • Determine what killed your battery.
    • “What caused the battery to not start the car? Because yesterday, presumably, it did,” he said. “So, what happened between yesterday and today?”

      Where can you get a fresh battery? We got you covered.

      Reliable technicians across North America go to Interstate Batteries for the best automotive batteries around. And there’s one somewhere around you.

      Enter your ZIP code and find a repair shop with our batteries nearby. 

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      Remember when you were shutting everything off? Now that your engine’s on, look for anything obvious that may have been your culprit. And remember, it’s okay if you’re not sure. You don’t need to find the answer.

      You only need to gather clues you can tell your local repair shop.

    • Go to a repair shop.
    • Don’t skip this step. Otherwise, you may get stranded again far sooner than you think.

      “To be safe, you should probably get the battery checked at your favorite repair shop or someone like your local Firestone to at least get a bill of health on the battery. And they can do a system check to make sure,” Joe said. “The minimum the shop will do is a multipoint inspection.

      Drive to a repair shop. We can recommend a few near you. When you arrive, tell the service advisor behind the desk everything you know about what might have stopped your car from starting.

      A dead battery is the most likely culprit. Replacing the battery isn’t your only option. It’s just the best one.

      Car expert Joe Semens smiles beside a model car with the hood up.

    • Put a reminder on your phone to get a jumper pack.
    • “If you’re in an apartment and you’re on your own, get a jumper pack,” he said. “Anytime you try to hook up and jump off another vehicle, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Get a jumper pack. It’s the safest thing you can do.”

      Joe himself keeps a car battery, two chargers and a set of cables near the front door. Especially during winter, when batteries tend to die. You might not have a reason to keep a spare car battery, but Joe recommends getting a jump pack and keeping it charged so a dead battery doesn’t stop you for more than a few seconds.

      Then dead batteries don’t stop you. Instead, you can move on and replace it as soon as it’s convenient for you.

      But make no mistake. You will need to replace a battery after jump-starting it.

    • Driving for 20 minutes after a jump doesn’t give you much battery life back. That’s a myth.
    • It’s tempting to believe the train of logic.

      If the alternator charges the battery, shouldn’t 30 minutes with the alternator be enough to bring a dead battery back to 100 percent?

      No, that’s not how it works. In a different article, we go deep on the science behind why driving won’t bring a dead battery back to life.

      For now, Joe has the short answer.

      “It’s got a permanent weakness inside now. Either the age or heat has broken its ability to hold a charge,” he said. “You may have a week or so before you have to replace it.”

 

Only 47% of Americans are extremely confident they could jump-start a car, according to a 2018 study of car maintenance know-how from Cooper Tires.

Now, you’re more capable than more than half the drivers on the road.

So, put that knowledge to good use when you can. Watch for someone with their car hood up. And when you need a new battery, we can recommend a great repair shop near you.

 

 

 

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