Car Sitting for Months: How Often Do You Need to Start It?

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Battery terminal
Battery terminal | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

With the move toward car sharing on the rise and a push for mass transit and fewer cars on the road taking root, people in cities are driving their cars less, opting to park them for extended periods of time instead. Sure, car sales have been spectacular as of late, but overall interest in driving continues to decline as congested roadways and inclement weather conditions cause throngs of Americans to become further disenchanted with driving. As millennials continue to forego suburban sprawls in favor of urban environments, an interest in ride sharing, hailing, bicycling, and public transit continues to rise, as many people keep a car around just for things like road trips.

But things don’t always go according to plan. After not driving a car for what appears to be a brief period of time, it’s dismaying when it won’t simply start up one morning. While there’s debate over how often someone should start their car — ranging anywhere between one week to a full month — a few factors should be considered prior to putting a car on a dedicated “start-up schedule.”

Jumper cables
Jumper cables | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

A while back The Chicago Tribune did a piece on winter parking tips, noting that while many people shut off electrical accessories like the heat, radio, and interior lights to prevent draining a battery, “killing the electrical loads is not necessary, as they are bypassed during starting.” The publication also said that if you don’t have access to a garage, try parking with the hood as close to a building as possible in order to better shield the nose from sub-arctic wind chills. Being that occupied buildings are typically warmer than say a wide open parking lot, chances are that the radiant heat emitting from the structure could also help keep that battery from going belly-up.

Since cold weather tends to drain batteries faster than anything else, we turned to a CBS station in Minneapolis that covered the topic of starting cars in order to keep batteries full of juice. Paul Hagen, owner of Hagen’s Auto Body, explained to the news source that when it’s cold outside, the chemical reactions going on inside a battery are a lot slower and produce less power. Also, when oil gets really cold it tends to congeal, making it even harder for the engine to turn over, thus drawing more power out of a battery.

If your car doesn’t crank up right away, Hagen suggests turning off accessories like the heat and the radio, and then turn the engine over for 10 to 15 seconds, but don’t keep cranking it past that point. If you don’t have any luck getting it started, let the vehicle sit for a couple minutes, then pump the gas pedal one time and try it again. Just remember that if a battery isn’t fully charged, it stands the chance of freezing, which is one of the leading causes behind stranded motorists in northern climates.

Braille carbon fiber car battery
Braille carbon fiber car battery | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

A fairly in-depth article conducted by insurance provider Allstate touches upon the subject as well, saying that if in storage for extended periods of time you should “never forget the vehicle’s power source: the battery.” Even in warmer climates, the risk of not being able to get a car to start after a few weeks increases with each passing day.

Preventative measures typically involve removing the unit entirely, and putting it somewhere safe like a garage or in a basement, or keeping it in its tray and hoping for the best. Regardless of which direction you may go, we strongly suggest getting a trickle charger or battery tender with an automatic shut-off feature or float mode, which ensures that the battery doesn’t get overcharged. Just be sure to disconnect the trickle charger prior to trying to start the vehicle, and leave it running for a minute or two to allow the engine oil to reach optimum operating temperatures so that it may properly lubricate everything.

But not everyone has the ability to park their car in a garage, slap a trickle charger on the battery, and walk away. Some of us don’t have the privilege of outdoor electrical plugs and safe storage areas, and must decide whether to leave the vehicle’s battery under the hood, or remove its tie-downs and haul it inside.

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Haynes The Iconic Repair Manual Publishers Celebrate Their 50th Anniversary | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

While we are fans of taking batteries indoors for safe keeping in order to eliminate any risk associated with sub-arctic wind chills, we also advocate for a quick disconnect of the negative terminal that should work in a pinch. This should only be done outside of winter months or if you live in a mild climate, and is not a permanent solution, as batteries will still drain if left unattended over time. Just be sure to disconnect the negative terminal and avoid the more dangerous positive one, because a nasty burn or worse may occur if the end of that metal ratchet hits a frame rail or the other battery node.

So regardless of whether you choose to keep your battery in the car or disconnected and in the house, we recommend turning over the engine and taking your ride out for a stint at least once a week in harsher cold conditions just to play it safe.

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