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New Products Can Help Drivers Get the Jump on a Dead Battery

May 31, 2000|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As millions of Americans discover every year, a dead battery translates to a dead car. The AAA alone responded to more than 5.7 million stranded motorists last year who needed a jump to get their vehicles started.

But there are many alternatives to calling a tow truck. Besides the old standby of jumper cables, a number of new products can help prevent dead batteries or provide temporary power to a lifeless battery.

When a battery goes dead, the voltage generally drops from the 12.68 volts it carries when fully charged to below the minimum 11.7 volts required to crank an engine. So it doesn't really take much of a voltage loss to render the battery useless.

As a battery ages, such voltage loss occurs more readily, because the battery is able to store less energy. The lead plates, over time, react less readily with the acid to produce electric current. In other cases, an internal short in the battery may result in the loss of an entire 2-volt cell. (That's where a jump comes in.)

SecureStart, a relatively new high-tech product, packs enough power to start a vehicle with a dead battery and yet is packaged in a trim, 5-pound, yellow plastic case. It sports a built-in flashlight and retains its charge for more than a year.

The device, made by Bolder Technologies, uses a lightweight and compact lead-acid battery that employs extremely thin lead plates coiled up like a jellyroll. This enables the device to deliver a large burst of power, despite weighing less than a tenth as much as an ordinary auto battery. SecureStart hooks up with two short cables that have conventional spring clamps.

It maintains its charge with nine internal AA batteries. The device stores about 1 amp-hour of electrical power, which isn't very much but plenty if you draw it in a burst, says Art Homa, senior vice president for technology and manufacturing at Bolder Technologies. (By comparison, the nine AA batteries that keep it charged contain about 2 amp-hours.)

Homa says the device can crank the engine for about seven seconds. That's plenty if it is operating properly, since a typical engine starts up in about a second. But if you've been laying on the starter motor to coax along a balky engine and that's why you wore down your battery in the first place, SecureStart is probably not going to get you going.

At $99, the device isn't cheap. But it does offer assurance that a dead battery will not strand you. And unlike jumper cables, you won't have to depend on finding a Good Samaritan willing to stop and help you out. SecureStart is sold at many stores, including Sears and Target, and online at Bolder's Web site (http://www.boldertech.com).

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Preventing a dead battery is another smart precaution. PriorityStart, made by Baton Labs of Granada Hills, is designed to disconnect the battery once it senses the voltage dropping below the 11.7-volt threshold.

In many cases, batteries go dead because lights or other devices are left on. Newer cars and trucks also contain so many parasitic electronic systems that batteries can go dead if the vehicle is left parked for a long period.

PriorityStart continually measures the voltage of the battery and mechanically disconnects it before it goes dead, says Larry Hayslett, owner of Baton Labs.

"We stop dead batteries," Hayslett said. "If you have a dead battery, you are vulnerable. You pop up your hood and you disclose a vulnerability."

The device sells for $65 in automotive catalogs or direct from the company's Web site (http://www.prioritystart.com).

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Finally, jumper cables are a cheap fix for a dead battery, but not all jumper cables are created equal. You need extra-long ones made of heavy-gauge wire with solid clamps.

A good set of 20-foot cables--which cost about $30--will enable you to jump-start your car from a vehicle parked behind you, an important safety consideration on busy roads or in parking lots.

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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