BILLINGS — Telling winter-wise northerners they don’t know how to jump-start a dead car battery is practically sacrilege.
But that’s true for roughly 90 percent of local drivers, according to Larry Williams, service manager at The Brake Shop at 2111 Fourth Ave. N.
Their sin: forgetting about all the computer sensors and complex electronics that permeate modern cars and trucks.
“Never leave your car running when you jump-start someone else’s vehicle, unless you don’t like your car,” Williams said.
If the computer in your Good Samaritan vehicle senses the need for power from any of its electronic gadgets, it will respond.
“It pulses power to the device, and that surge of power from the other vehicle can fry your electronics,” Williams said.
So, turn off the car before you hook up jumper cables, he said.
The Brake Shop started out as a battery store and now is a full-service repair shop that doubled the number of service bays this year.
Montana State University Billings patrolman Adam Davis won’t use a patrol car to start a student’s car. Instead Davis carries a jump kit, a small portable battery with jumper cables, to help the academically stranded. On Thursday, Davis jump-started four cars, a few more than usual.
After one of MSUB’s three patrol cars refused to start reliably for several days, Davis brought the battery into Williams for testing. On Friday morning, Williams showed him the test results.
“You battery’s fine. It apparently just got drained when someone left a dome light or another device on,” Williams said.
“You guys rock,” Davis said, happy to be free of the cost of a new battery.
Like the cold, automobile battery sales have been brisk at BatteriesPlus at 1145 Central Ave.
“Since Monday, I’m sure we sold several hundred batteries,” said Kim Lechner, who has managed the store since it opened nearly 14 years ago.
The store doesn’t have service bays, so installing batteries means employees take turns working outside in the cold. Changing a battery can take as little as 10 to 15 minutes.
But some car manufacturers are putting batteries in trunks, under tires or even fenders. Changing a battery in one of those vehicles can take an hour, and some cars just need a heated garage, he said.
“We had a VW bug where you have to take a tire off to get to the battery. They are wrapped in plastic and that all breaks at 20 degrees below zero, so we refused the job,” Lechner said.
Drivers who jump-start their battery and then drive a few blocks to get it tested will get falsely low readings because a short drive doesn’t fully charge the battery.
A battery should last five years and replacing it is important to avoid other repairs, Lechner said.
Acid in old batteries can corrode the terminals, along with the strap holding the battery in place and even the cables that connect with the battery posts.
“If they are part of the wiring harnesses, it could cost $300 or more to replace,” he said.
Despite the dozens of brands of batteries for sale, three or four companies make them all, Williams said. If you have to buy a new battery, buy one with enough cold-cranking amps to start your vehicle. Trucks with lots of accessories, like snowplows or winches, need more amps.
By Sunday, the subzero temperatures across Montana should rise into the low teens again. But Lechner doesn’t expect business at BatteriesPlus to slow down soon.
“We’ll be selling batteries fast through next week because some people won’t deal with it until it warms up,” he said.