Ladyguide: Jump-Starting a Car

I’m a firm believer that all women who own or drive a car should have a working familiarity with the parts of their car, and that includes being able to perform some basic maintenance and emergency procedures. A woman who can wield her own lug wrench is dependent on no man or sketchy tow truck driver. Today, I’m going to focus on one of the most common things any driver will have to deal with: a dead battery. So put down your AAA card, pop open your hood, and let’s get to it. There are a lot of how-to guides on jump-starting a car, but most of them assume a basic knowledge of car parts. I’m going to walk you through all that stuff that those other guides assume you already know. Please keep in mind that I am not a mechanic or a professional battery-jumper, just a lady who thinks other ladies should know how to do this stuff. Please don’t get hurt.

First things first. Before we get started, and before your battery dies, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with a couple of things about your car. These are things that are helpful to know, even if your car isn’t giving you that stutter-stutter-death rattle when you turn the key. Go to your car and figure out the following:

  • How to open your hood. If you don’t already know how to pop your hood – now, when nothing is broken and you’re all calm and not in a panic – is a great time to find out. Most hood release levers are generally in the same place. Go sit in your driver’s seat and start looking down around your knees and feet. There should be a little button or lever, cleverly labeled “hood release.” If you can’t find it, consult your manual. Do not be afraid of the manual. It will not mock you for looking up things like “hood release.” Go ahead and pull the lever (or push the button). You should hear a springy-sounding “pop” and your hood should raise up an inch or two. Now, go around to the front of the car and run your hand between the now-popped hood and where it used to be closed. Somewhere along there, you’ll feel a release latch, lever, or button. When you press, push, or pull this, your hood will release fully. Lift up the hood and look for the arm that holds the hood open; this is usually right up front when you’ve opened the hood, and there will be a corresponding hole in the underside of the hood where you put the arm. Congratulations, your hood is now open!
  • Find your battery. Car batteries generally look something like this (the square thing in the middle):
    Car battery. Image courtesy Morguefile.

    Sometimes they don’t, though. Generally, your battery is a rectangular cube (I know there’s a better word for that, but geometry was a long time ago, and you’re all smart people) with two posts. If you can’t find it, again: consult your manual.

OK, now you have that fundamental necessary knowledge, let’s keep going. If you don’t already have some, go buy a set of jumper cables. Keep them in your trunk at all times. You can find jumper cables at any auto parts store or anywhere that sells car batteries (like Sears or the Mart That Shall Not Be Named). Jumper cables look like this:

Jumper cables. Image courtesy Morguefile.

None of the rest of this tutorial is going to be helpful unless you have jumper cables. A well-prepared lady always has jumper cables.I find that the ones with really long cables are helpful, in case you find yourself in a situation where it’s difficult for another car to get their engine up close and personal with yours.

So, now you know how to open your hood, where your battery is, and you have acquired some jumper cables. Now you’re prepared for a dead battery. How do you know if you have a dead battery? When you turn your key in the ignition, nothing happens, except maybe a few useless clicks and sputters and a string of curses that would make a longshoreman blush. (Oh, is that just me? Hmm. Those things aways seem to go together.) Your battery can die for any number of reasons, but the most common ones are that you left your headlights on or your battery is really old.

Once you’ve determined that your battery is dead, the first thing you need to do is enlist the help of someone whose battery is alive and healthy and not dead. Safety first here, please. Although I have generally been lucky enough to encounter only nice people with good intentions when I need a jump, a little caution is never a bad thing, like taking a cell phone picture of the license plate of the person who’s helping you and texting it to a friend. Just be aware of your surroundings. (And if you stop to help someone who needs a jump, understand that they may be wary of you, although I’ve helped many women jump start their cars, and they’ve all expressed relief that another woman stopped to help them. Unfortunately, such is the way of our world.)

So now you have: a dead battery, jumper cables, and another car with a working battery. Let’s get jumping!

  1. Have the person with the working battery turn off their car and pop their hood. The two cars should be close enough that the jumper cables can reach from one battery to the other.
  2. Take your jumper cables, and grab one end of the red cable. Connect this to the positive terminal of the dead battery. The positive terminal, with any luck, will be the post on the battery that is red, or has a red cable leading to it, or has a big + sign on it. Failing all of that, the positive terminal is almost always the bigger of the two. If in doubt: CONSULT YOUR MANUAL. Get as much metal-on-metal contact as you can with the clamp of the cable on the terminal.
  3. Connect the other end of the red cable to the positive terminal of the working battery. Again, get a good, solid connection.
  4. Connect one end of the black cable to the negative terminal of the working battery.
  5. Connect the other end of the black cable to a metal surface in the engine of the car with the dead battery, somewhere that is not on the battery. Look for a clean metal surface that hasn’t been painted. This is what we call “grounding,” and it prevents pretty but dangerous sparks.
  6. Have both drivers get into their drivers’ seats and make sure no curious passers-by are hanging out by the engines. Have the driver with the working battery start their car.
  7. Wait a couple of minutes, then start the car with the dead battery. If all has been successful, the car will start. If it doesn’t start, then you have an issue other than a dead battery, like a dead starter, and you’ll want to fish out that AAA card.
  8. Let both cars run for a few minutes.
  9. It’s time to disconnect your cables. Do this in the opposite of the order that you put them on (ground negative off first, then negative on the live battery, then positive on the live battery, then positive on the now-not-dead battery). Take extra care not to let the cables touch any part of either engine, and do not cross the cables or let the clamps touch each other. Just remember Ghostbusters: don’t cross the streams! You have juice running through those cables until they’re fully disconnected (and for a little bit afterwards), and if they touch each other, there’s a chance of getting zapped.
  10. Once everything is disconnected, thank your Good Samaritan, and see about getting your battery charged. Yes, driving for a while will restore a charge to a battery, but if your battery needs replacing, you’re going to run into the same problem again soon. Any place that sells and installs batteries will be able to charge and/or replace your battery. It will cost money, but sometimes you need to spend some cash to avoid being stuck on the side of the road again.

9 replies on “Ladyguide: Jump-Starting a Car”

thank you for this post and not assuming we are dumb just b/c we need super-basic instructions. and as you said, long cables are important. don’t cheap out and buy the shortest ones at the store! my FIL had to call AAA b/c his car-with-dead-battery was in his garage, and his short jumper cables couldn’t reach the other car owner’s engine from inside the garage.

I have Triple A, but I still keep jumper cables and an emergency auto kit in my car trunk at all times. Sometimes you don’t/can’t wait 30-60 minutes for help to arrive.

Great post, and please instruct us on more basic car mechanics. Maybe Perseph Mag should rerun the tire changing post.

I jump started my old car so many times. Happily I now have a car that has neat features like dinging if I leave the headlights on as I exit the vehicle.

Also this happened to me once & might be relevant:
A friend was going to give me a ride to the metro, but when we got to her car the battery was dead. Darnit. So we found a nice guy to provide the other car for jumping it, got everything hooked up, turned on his car, turned on her car and it went HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK!!!!!!

Turns out in some cars when you unlock the door with the battery dead and start the car, the security system takes that as a break-in because it wasn’t on when you used the key in the door. Of course with the key in the ignition you can’t put the key in the door to get the car to stop honking. It will stop if you have your 2nd key and use it to open the door, or if you wait 60-90 seconds (approximately an eternity if your car happens to be honking in an enclosed concrete garage).

1) Great post! 2) If you find yourself repeatedly jumping your car, replacing your battery, generally having issues with this shit, it’s probably your alternator. 3) Helpful hints for college students: a lot of campus safety departments have a jump starter pack so when your car dies in the winter and you are parked in the student lot and there isn’t even a way for your friend’s jumper cables to reach your car, and no, don’t try pushing your car backwards in neutral, you will just get snow down your boots and be sad, call the campus police.

This is fantastic, POM. My dad made me learn how to change a tire, jump the battery and change the oil before I could even borrow my parent’s car the first time. I am so grateful for this.

One thing I’d add is to make sure the battery posts aren’t corroded (covered in crusty white crap) because that can interfere with the connection. Cool science: Coke will eat through the corrosion. But don’t attach a jumper cable to a wet battery post, dry it off first.

My dad taught me all the basic car maintenance stuff before I even had my driver’s license, and I’m forever grateful. Change the oil, change a tire, jump the battery; hell, I replaced an entire exhaust system on my first car (with supervision, clearly). Not to mention, I’m constantly teaching people how to drive stick. Everyone should know how to drive a manual transmission.

Yes! My parents never insisted I learn how to change a tire etc, but both of their cars were standards, and so I had to learn to drive standard from the beginning. Even though I haven’t driven in years (yay for living in a major city and being a student) I think it’s important to be able to drive standard in case it was unexpectedly necessary.

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