By Rosie Wolf Williams
WHEN YOU turn the key in your car’s ignition, usually the engine roars to life. But sometimes you hear nothing, or a strained clicking
noise. Your battery is dead, or very low.
Jumper cables and a friendly fellow
motorist used to be the only solution in such
situations, but today you have choices. Heavy-duty jumper cables are still widely used, but
suitcase-style booster packs that don’t require
a second vehicle to jump-start a marooned
vehicle are also popular.
In recent years, manufacturers have gone
a step further, producing self-contained
jump-starters that are about the size of a
smartphone. Each device has its place,
depending on the type of vehicle you drive
and your lifestyle.
No longer cranky
Cleveland electrical engineer Ralph
Mueller created the familiar toothy red and
black alligator clips in 1908. He attached them
to sturdy cables and patented the set for automotive use in 1912, after Delco automotive
parts founder Charles Kettering developed
the electric starter for gasoline-powered
Cadillacs. Dangerous hand-cranking became
a thing of the past, and jumper cables became
a standard piece of equipment for motorists.
Cables were readily available in hardware
stores for around $1.95, and in 1941 the U.S.
War Department put in orders for jumper
cables to accompany government vehicles.
You can still find conventional sets of
jumper cables on auto supply shelves, and
they are very similar to the original versions
that Mueller created. But even properly connected, traditional jumper cables can allow
surges and harm your car, especially newer
cars, warns Pat Goss, master automotive technician, owner of Goss’ Garage and co-host of
the PBS television series Motor Week.
The result is similar to the effect of a
power surge on your home computer. When
both cars are running, the alternator output is
controlled by the stronger of the two batteries.
When the first cable is disconnected, a feedback surge of up to 900 volts can move
through the donor car’s system.
“You can do everything correct, and you
can still damage the electrical system on one
or both of the cars,” says Goss. “It usually
doesn’t destroy anything, but it weakens
things. Then later on—maybe three, four, six
months later—after many duty cycles, the
weakened component fails. People have used
them for years thinking they have never had
a problem with them. They have had a prob-
lem, but didn’t know it.”
Goss says that having a simple set of
jumper cables is better than having nothing at
all. “It would be better to damage the alterna-
tor or something like that than to place
yourself at risk,” he says, but he believes that
a self-contained booster pack is ideal.
Suitcase of juice
Suitcase-style boosters, which
became widely available in the mid-
1990s, can start a battery without a second
vehicle, and often include other helpful features, such as a small air compressor and
lights. The downside of these devices includes
their bulky size and weight, the use of a sealed
lead-acid car battery and the booster’s need to
be charged regularly at home.
Enter the new lithium-ion jump-starters.
Introduced to the market in 2013, they are
compact; strong enough to start passenger
cars, trucks and SUVs; and can be recharged
using the vehicle’s power system. They not
only eliminate the need for a second car, but
also promise a foolproof boost, because if you
accidently hook up the leads in reverse, this
type of battery system will not harm you.
The all-in-one power bank also gives you
backup power for USB-powered devices,
such as a cellphone or tablet, keeping you on
the road and in touch. Dan Sheehan, CEO of
automotive accessory company Winplus
North America, a Costco supplier, explains,
“Our mobile lifestyle has grown over the last
five to 10 years,” “Many smartphones do not
last a whole day without a charge.”
Charging forward while staying on the
go—we can jump on that. C
Rosie Wolf Williams ( alwaysrosie.com) is a
freelance writer based in Vermont.
The Costco Connection
You’ll find emergency kits with jumper
cables, battery booster packs and a lithium-ion battery booster, as well as a host of
other automotive accessories and supplies,
at the warehouses and Costco.com.
© MAISEI RAMAN / SHUTTERSTOCK
; Combining errands can
help you save gas, but it
can also extend your battery
life. Frequent short trips
could cause inconsistent charge levels, or a
; Use a battery terminal brush to keep your
battery’s cables clean and free of corrosion.
; Make sure the battery is secure in its holding
case. Vibrating can damage the battery plates,
and excessive dirt could cause it to lose charge.
; Make sure the jumper cables are in good
condition, with no exposed or damaged wires.
; After jump-starting your car, drive or allow
the car to run for approximately 15 to 30 minutes
to recharge the battery.—RWW
Lithium-ion jump-starters are the
latest evolution in