Car Advice: How To Jump-Start Your Hybrid Car Without Jump-Starting Your Heart

April 27, 2010
Angular Front Exterior View - 2004 Toyota Prius 5dr HB (Natl)

Angular Front Exterior View - 2004 Toyota Prius 5dr HB (Natl)

This past weekend, I had what our President might call a "teachable moment"--an unexpected need for a jump-start in a car I hadn't had to jump, ever.

After a long weekend at the beach, I washed up our 2004 Toyota Prius and packed it full for the ride home. I even cleaned the inside of the windows for perfect visibility.

Then I pushed the Start button to power down the windows and keep the car cool until we locked up the house.

No click. No move. Just a flash of every light on the dash like a bad CRT scan, then all went dark--except the "check engine" light and a dim overhead lamp that identified the problem.

Wait, had I left the hatch open all morning, and drained the battery? As far as I could tell, I had. The car hadn't given us any warning--and it had only been 45 minutes--but clearly, something had drained the smaller start battery that runs alongside the Prius' hybrid battery pack.

Within 40 minutes, we were running again and on the Interstate home--but not before I re-learned the basics about jump-starting a hybrid car:

1) Keep your jumper cables handy. You'll just hate unpacking a weekend's worth of beach gear and sand to get to your set of cables. Keep them accessible, unless you're a fan of roadside stops and the precise geometry of loading and unloading a 19-inch TV into a Prius. Four times.

2) Know your positives and negatives. It's true in life, like it's true in cars--you'll save everyone time by knowing where your positive and negative hot buttons are. Some vehicles have both poles; some one pole and lots of bare metal. Some cars have the battery beneath the back seat, even. On our Prius, there's a positive pole and an information gap. The owner's manual suggests finding unpainted metal--and the closest unpainted metal to the battery post is the expensive, WARNING: HIGH VOLTAGE stickered hybrid motor.

3) Don't be afraid to ask for help. You need another car with fresh juice--and maybe someone's jumped more cars than you have in your short life. I always ask guys in their 50s who drive SUVs--the Hank Hills of the world--since they're far more likely to know exactly what to do, than princesses in Bimmers.

4) Respect the voltage. Follow the jump procedures explicitly. Connect the positive lead on the disabled car to positive on the juice donor, keep the other clamps out of touch with other metal, then hook up negative to negative (or ground) while both cars are turned off. Turn on the car with power, then after a few minutes, try to start the disabled car. If you don't follow the rules, you could end up in some afterschool-special video, or in the emergency room, or worse.

5) If you're unsure or not comfortable, or it doesn't work, call roadside assistance. In the end, our neighbor's car wouldn't jump-start our Prius. We dialed up Toyota's roadside assistance, which had a truck on site in 30 minutes. Some services like AAA will swap out car batteries; our driver had a jump box, a charged portable battery that delivers the best restarting power. Long jumper cables can have too much resistance; the jump box acts more like a capacitor, discharging its power rapidly into the depleted battery. One note: it might sound like a good idea to buy one of these for your own personal use, but our white knight pointed out most people wouldn't keep them charged frequently enough to be of use on the rare occasion of a dead battery.

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