Updated: May 27, 2015
Best Car Battery ChargersI recently talked to a teenager whose car wouldn't start due to a dead battery. He was complaining about having to buy a new battery, but I told him he was lucky for this to be his first car repair -- probably the cheapest and easiest fix you'll ever have when it comes to car maintenance. And it's true. When car batteries run correctly, we never think about them. We know we turn the key, the battery cranks the starter, the engine turns over, and off we go. Ahhhh... but when things are bad, we suddenly realize how much we love and need that battery cranking power. How about going out for work Monday morning and the battery is dead? Or in that parking lot late night before Christmas, you turn the key and .. nothing. Car batteries have a fixed lifespan, even with proper care and maintenance. Most new batteries will perform flawlessly for 5 years or more, some up to 10. But eventually, old batteries die and need to be replaced. What causes a dead car battery? In most cases, it comes from leaving the headlights on for an extended period of time while the motor is off. This will pretty quickly drain power from the battery.
A lot of newer cars have sensors that automatically turn the headlights off and on which avoids this problem, but it still happens a lot -- ask any tow truck driver. Buildup of corrosion on the battery terminals can also sometimes be the culprit, keeping the wires from making proper contact. Having a faulty alternator (the alternator turns the engine power into elecrticity to power the electrical devices of your car when the car is running, and it keeps the battery charged) or other electrical connection problems can also lead to a dead battery. Your regular car maintenance should include routine tests of the battery -- replace it when needed, don't try putting it off. The real question is, though, what do you do when you have battery problems? Your first step is to get your car started again, and there are two ways to do this. The first is to use a car battery charger to recharge the battery. The second option is to use jumper cables and temporarily start your car using the power of another car's good battery. Once your car is started, assuming there are no electrical problems or alternator trouble, your battery will get recharged as you drive around or keep the motor running.
How do car battery chargers work? Why do you need a car battery charger?OK, so let's talk about car battery chargers first. A car battery charger comes in handy in many situations -- and not just involving car. Maybe you have a lawn tractor with a 12V battery that sits all winter long in the shed. Or a boat that sit parked 9 months out of the year? Any motorized device (ATV, lawn mowers, etc) that uses a battery to get it started can end up with a dead battery and in need of a battery charger. Most car battery chargers plug into a regular electrical outlet (say on the wall of your garage) and then connect to the battery terminals via two cables. Some slowly charge the battery while others act like an instant jump start. Some popular models include those made by Black and Decker, like the VEC1095ABD Smart Battery 25/10/2 Amp Battery Charger. This little unit runs about $75. It has to be plugged into an electrical outlet, and you then connect the jumper style clamps to the dead battery (it even warns you if you connect the leads incorrectly and is designed to be spark resistant). There are 3 different charging rates you can choose from (2/10/25 amps), but for car batteries, you can usually get enough charge within just 1-3 minutes to be able to start the car (a complete charge can take up to 2.5 hours). A few other companies make similar chargers, but to be honest we've been so satisfied with the B&D brand (and have heard almost unanimous good reports in our research) that we recommend you just go with a Black and Decker model. You can expect to pay from $35 to $130 depending on the model you pick (see all Black and Decker models here). If you want to look at other models, try Sears and the DieHard brand they sell - we've seen battery chargers there for about $45 to $65. The Black and Decker Simple Start 12V Battery Booster is another pretty cool product. It works like a portable spare battery in your glove box or under your seat. It plugs into your cigarette lighter and charges your car battery in about 10-20 minutes (a light will come on to tell you when it is ready) - no need to open the hood or use jumper cables. It can also be used to power devices like cellphones and laptops -- you'll just need to plug it back in at home to recharge IT once it gets drained.
Jumper Cables to Start a Dead Battery - Do you need a new car battery? Jumper Cable InstructionsSo we've covered the chargers - but assuming you are stuck out on the road somewhere, you probably need jumper cables to get your car started again. Most people know they should carry a set of jumper cables in their trunk -- fortunately, about 1/4 of the people out there actually follow this rule, so you can usually find someone with jumper cables if you don't have any. Of course, calling AAA or a tow truck will also get you jumper cables and restarted, but that normally takes a lot longer. Jumper cables are sometimes also called booster cables - same thing. A good high quality set of jumper cables will set you back about $30-$40 -- you might find something for $20, but scrape together that extra $10 bucks and get a really solid set. A lot of people get confused about connecting jumper cables, and often make the mistake of connecting all 4 clamps to the batteries, often leading to sparks and yelps of fright. A lot of jumper cable will have a little instruction tag on the cords when you buy them -- DON'T RIP THIS OFF AND THROW IT AWAY! If you follow the instructions for using jumper cables, you should be fine. The first step is positioning the cars close enough so that the cables will reach between the 2 engine compartments. On most cables, the red clamp is for positive, the black is for negative, but check and be sure. Look at both batteries and find the positive and negative terminals (where the wires connect). Then start making the connections. It helps to have 2 people involved making the connections so loose clamps don't accidentally make contact with metal before you are ready and start sparking.
- Step 1 - connect one positive cable clamp to the positive terminal on the DEAD battery
- Step 2 - connect the other positive clamp (at the opposite end of the jumper cable) to the positive terminal on the good battery
- Step 3 - still at the good battery, connect the other clamp (the negative one) onto the negative terminal on the good battery -- you now have both clamps at one end of the jumper cables attached to the good battery
- Step 4 - connect the final negative clamp to a grounded metal contact point inside the engine compartment of the dead car -- that means clamping it to the engine block, a metal bolt, or some other metal contact on the frame that will ground the connection; DO NOT CONNECT the final clamp to the negative terminal of the dead battery, as this can cause sparks and explosions, even though that is rare.
- Step 5 - start the good car, let it run for a few seconds, then start the dead car. Once the dead car is up and running, KEEP IT RUNNING as you remove the cables in reverse order (remove the ground clamp, remove the good car negative, remove the good car positive, remove the dead car positive)