Tuesday February 25, 2014
Winter should be winding down by now in the Northern Hemisphere, but that's very cold comfort indeed when you're sitting in the middle of a snow storm with a dead battery and a car that just won't start. Last month, when we covered the potential fallout from a dead battery, we promised to provide a rundown on how to deal with a dead car battery, and there are really two main solutions (aside from calling roadside assistance), both of which require a little forethought.
If you're really into the whole preparedness thing, then you probably have your battery checked (or check it yourself) on a regular basis. For the rest of us, it's nice to have a little insurance policy in the form of a jump box, a charger, or both. Jump boxes are essentially just sealed car batteries with built-in jumper cables, but they can be real life savers, and not just in the colder winter months. Whether your battery has died from "natural causes" in the middle of a snow storm, or you just forgot to turn your headlights off after a particularly hectic day of work, a fully charged will save you the trouble of trying to find someone who is willing to provide a jump start.
Since jump boxes are essentially just neatly-packaged car batteries, they can also function as portable power packs for anything that runs off 12V. Most of them come with a built-in 12v accessory socket, and some even have built-in inverters. Although you probably won't be running your fridge off one of these jump box power packs, they do provide a better, safer option than relying on a car inverter during a power outage.
Of course, it's important to remember that a jump box is just a band-aid fix. It can be incredibly hard on your alternator to drive around with a completely dead battery, which is why a battery charger is the better, safer choice in some situations. For instance, if your battery goes dead at home, and you can afford to wait while it charges up, you'll be doing yourself a favor in the long run. You may even want to invest in a charger that has a "boost" or "jump start" setting, which will allow you to use it for a jump start in a pinch. There are a few factors to consider when choosing a jump starter, but owning both a portable unit and a plug-in unit will cover all of the bases.
Regardless of how you choose to deal with a dead battery, it's always important to follow the correct procedures. If your owner's manual includes specific instructions, then it's always a good idea to start there. If not, then there are some general tips that can help you use a jump starter safely
Sunday January 26, 2014
Both extreme hot and cold are tough on batteries, but car batteries tend to start dropping like flies right along with the mercury each winter. The fact that every battery lists its "cold cranking amperage" in addition to a different, higher, cranking amperage, is no mistake. Freezing temperatures slow the chemical reactions inside lead acid batteries to a crawl, which is why it's so common to trudge through the snow to your car on a cold winter morning, stick the key in the ignition, and hear that familiar labored grunt, click, or nothing at all.
A dead battery can be enough of a headache on its own, and we'll be covering a few ways to deal with them next month, but the potential inconveniences that a dead battery can cause often spread far beyond the fact that your car won't start. Every electronic device in your car that has a "keep alive" memory function gets reset right along with your battery, which is why OBD-II vehicles will fail emissions if the battery has died (or been disconnected) recently. In order to save yourself a repeat trip, you can use an ELM327 scanner that hooks up to your phone (or a more conventional OBD-II scanner or code reader) to verify that all of your readiness monitors have ran since the battery died.
Of course, most head units also rely on the battery for a "keep alive" function, which means you lose all of your presets when the battery dies. And as if that wasn't annoying enough, some car radios come with a built-in security "feature" that locks them up tight whenever they lose battery power. Of course, that means your simple dead battery problem might lock you out of your stereo until you put in the right car radio code.
If that happens, and you don't already have the code written down somewhere, there are a handful of different ways to find a car radio code. Your local dealer might be able to help you, it's sometimes possible to obtain the right code from the manufacturer of the head unit, and there are also paid services out there that will provide you with the right code for a fee.
In case all of that fails, you might find yourself in need of a replacement head unit. Of course, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most head units that come with a security code "feature" are OEM, which means that replacing your bricked radio is almost certainly going to result in an upgrade. There are a ton of different head unit options available, and you might want to start with our head unit buyer's guide, or even our newbie's guide to car audio if you're new to all of this car audio stuff.
If you're not sure what size your head unit is, you may find out rundowns on 1 DIN, 1.5 DIN, and 2 DIN helpful.
In other cases, where your head unit is built into climate controls or doesn't conform to the normal 1/1.5/2 DIN dimensions, you may need some type of an adapter kit to make everything work. Of course, you can always ditch the head unit altogether and just use your iPod without a head unit, although you'll probably have to buy a new amplifier (and possibly other hardware) to make it work.
Thursday December 12, 2013
For decades, the prevailing wisdom has been that you should always allow your car to idle and warm up before hitting the road. While modern fuel injection systems and emission controls have rendered the imperative to warm up your engine a thing of the past, this issue is still a contentious one. On the one side, you have groups like the Idling Gets You Nowhere campaign and the Hinkle Charitable Foundation arguing against ever idling from an environmental standpoint, and on the other side you have folks who have to deal with sub-zero temperatures all winter. While a car that is idled will undeniably produce more emissions than one that is simply driven, the fact is that it's both undeniably unsafe and downright uncomfortable to drive a car without idling it first once the mercury has dropped far enough.
You may also enjoy: 8 Ways to Kill the Chill
Is It Necessary to Idle a Car Before Driving It?
In most cases, and with most vehicles, idling to warm the engine up isn't strictly necessary. Older vehicles that lack fuel injection and modern emissions controls are the main exception to this rule, so you're typically going to be just fine to jump in any modern car, crank it over, wait ten or twenty seconds, and go. Other exceptions include situations where you're dealing with especially cold temperatures, in which case a block heater is a much better way to prevent engine damage than simply idling an engine that's been sitting in sub-zero temperatures all night.
Of course, all the block heaters and environmental hand-wringing in the world can't change the fact that it's both unsafe and uncomfortable to jump in a freezing car and just hit the road. Although a block heater will heat up the engine to a certain degree, it won't do anything to warm up the interior of the car or defrost the windows. To deal with those issues, you either need to idle your car or rig up some kind of portable heater (ideally on a timer or with a thermostat).
How Much Does Idling a Car Cost?
If you're going to take some of the chill off by idling your car (either via a remote car starter or by actually trudging out into the freezing cold), you might be curious about how much it's actually going to cost. While it's impossible to give a single figure that will work for everyone, due to all of the different factors that will affect how much gas you actually burn, the Argonne National Laboratory performed a study on three different engines, including a 1.8L Honda Civic, a 2.5L Ford Fusion, and a 3.6L Chevrolet Malibu.
For each of these engines, idling for 10 minutes will consume roughly:
- 1.8L Honda Civic: .026 gal
- 2.5L Ford Fusion: .082 gal
- 3.6L Chevrolet Malibu: .14 gal
According to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report, the current national average for regular gasoline is about $3.25/gal, which means that idling your car for ten minutes is going to cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $0.08 - 0.45. Since fuel usage during idling tracks linearly with time (according to the ANL report), you can use those numbers to guestimate your costs if you idle for a longer or shorter period of time.
Of course, it's also important to remember that it's actually illegal to leave an idling car unattended in some states.
Is It Cheaper to Use a Space Heater to Warm up a Car?
According to the latest figures from the US Energy Information Administration, the national average price of electricity per KWh was about $0.125 in September. That figure will probably be somewhat higher as the winter drags on, but it's close enough to give us a general idea of how much it costs to run a space heater.
Let's say you find a 1000W plug-in car heater, and you run an extension cord out to it (either ganged to your block heater, or through other means), and you want to use it to heat up your car and defrost the windshields. Even if you leave it running for a whole hour, it's still only going to cost you about 13 cents (give or take, depending on where you live.) So, unless you're driving a car that has an engine in the 1 liter range, it's actually cheaper to run a space heater for an hour than it is to idle for ten minutes.
For more information about remote starting and getting warm in cold weather, check out:
Image courtesy of ffg, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)
Tuesday November 19, 2013
You may have seen Volvo's most recent promo piece, which features Jean-Claude Van Damme promoting "Volvo Dynamic Steering" technology in a pretty unique manner. If you haven't already seen it, the video basically consists of the Muscles from Brussels performing his trademark splits -- while standing on the sideview mirrors of two Volvo semi trucks. The kicker? They're driving backward. It's worth a look, so if you haven't seen it, check it out.
If you've ever driven a big truck (or even something like a large motorhome), you're probably familiar with the sort of road fatigue that can set in due to the constant steering corrections that you have to make. When you're driving something that big, you can end up fighting everything from crosswinds to the road surface itself, which is where Volvo's "dynamic steering" system comes in. Volvo Dynamic Steering is a feature of new Volvo trucks that is essentially an evolution of things like electronic steering, old-style lanekeeping assistance systems, and other related technologies that's capable of automatically making the sorts of small corrections that can keep a vehicle on the straight and narrow.
There has been a lot of commotion about whether the Van Damme "epic split" video is fake or not, primarily because it's just so hard to believe that two vehicles could maintain such a precise distance between one another -- let alone while driving backwards. In a teaser video, Van Damme (for comic effect) even asks, "We're going to drive forwards, of course?" to which the director of the video replies, "No, we will drive backwards."
This is obviously meant to drive home the ridiculousness of the situation. Even if you haven't ever driven something on the scale of one of these Volvo trucks, anyone who has ever backed a vehicle up with a trailer attached knows that the trailer can almost seem to have "a mind of its own." Of course, we're not dealing with super human drivers here -- we're dealing with technology, and advanced driver assistance systems have experienced revolutionary advances over the last several years.
We have cars that will essentially drive on the highway for you via adaptive cruise control, cars that can stop for you via automatic braking, cars that park themselves, cars that know the speed limit and stick to it, and pretty soon we'll have cars that combine all that stuff and obviate any need for a driver in the first place.
So, do you buy it? I'm willing to give Volvo (and Van Damme) the benefit of the doubt on this one, although I have to assume that he was at least wearing a (cleverly hidden or digitally scrubbed) safety harness. Either way, you have to admit that it is a pretty epic split.
Image courtesy of Volvo Trucks