How to change your own batteries


vwAt some point over the summer, my car started having issues. The engine wasn’t turning over as efficiently as I would have liked. The battery was dying. Or, with my luck, the alternator was failing. The last time I drove it, I sat in the Safeway parking lot with frozen foods thawing in the trunk, just praying for the thing to start. Thankfully, it did. So when I got home, I parked it on the curb and resolved to never drive it again.

And that was fine. I didn’t need it. I can ride my bike everywhere I need to go in town, and, in those rare instances when I really need a car, we do have a second one. The dust collecting on that old relic became a point of pride- it reflected the sense of independence I gained when I stopped driving everywhere.

This went on until a strange fellow knocked on our door and asked if I would be interested in selling the car. I hadn’t really given the idea any serious thought. The Jetta was just a thing I had, and I was content to let it rot on the side of the road in front of my house. It was there if I ever decided that I needed a car, never mind the fact that it didn’t actually run anymore.

I talked about the possibility of selling my car with a friend whose judgement I trust, and he pointed something out to me: a 2000 VW Jetta is never going to increase in value. It is not a signed Babe Ruth baseball. As it sits, it will decompose and any money that I could have gotten for it will slowly fade away. If I left it there unused, it was only going to cost me money. This made sense to me and forced me to realize that I was stupidly expecting to get back what I had paid for the car on account of a new engine (that had been installed 50,000 miles ago). My logic was faulty.

So I decided that, if the opportunity arose, I would sell it. The fellow who had come to my door inquiring was put off by the price tag and the fact that it wouldn’t start. I couldn’t blame him. These were problems that had to be fixed.

Changing the asking price of a car you are not advertising for sale is easy. Making it run again is a bit more difficult. I thought about it for a few months (these things take time), and did exactly nothing. The universe got tired of waiting.

This afternoon, my father-in-law was kind enough to give me a couple of toolboxes full of old tools. I was thrilled. For the first time in my life, I own a set of ratchets and drill. Once I beheld the greatness of this gift, I knew I needed a project. With my new tools, switching out the battery on the car would be an ideal project.

I watched a YouTube video that told me how to do it. Removing the battery was fairly straightforward, but there were a lot of steps: there was a housing that had to be removed, some hoses that had to be unclamped, and some structural pieces that had to be removed. With a little bit of work, I had the thing out in twenty minutes. I went to the auto parts store and bought a new battery. I was downright giddy as I pulled into the driveway, ready to complete this project that had mocked me for so long.

I put the battery in and attempted to connect it. I started with the ground, as it was the one I was most comfortable with; it just sounds less dangerous. But the cursed thing wouldn’t fit. I used a couple of screwdrivers and a pliers to stretch it out enough to fit around the battery pole. Once it was kind of on there, I pounded it home with the handle of the screwdriver. It still didn’t fit. The connectors, clearly, were not the right size for the battery.

I drove back to the store and explained my dilemma. The fellow there looked at me like I was crazy, but entertained my quandry. He went back and started fitting various connectors to the battery I had purchased until he found one that fit. Which happened fairly quickly.

I took it back home and ripped open the package. As I stood hunched over the hood of my car, it started to rain. I swore a lot. The connectors, though they would fit my battery, would not fit my car. I got angry and reattached the ground connector and beat on it until it kind of fit. Then I moved over to the positive connector. As soon as it touched the post, sparks flew and I jumped back, fleeing for cover. Wrong order.

I detached the ground and started over with the positive cable first. This, logically, made more sense, as putting both cables on the battery completes the circuit. and when you’re completing a circuit, you want to be holding the ground, not the live wire. This is something a more manly man would have known from the womb. Fearfully, I attached the positive cable only to learn that it was too big.

The impossibility of what I was seeing was pushing me to the point of insanity. What kind of awful Frankenstein repair had someone done on my car in the past? Why would they make the connectors the wrong sizes? It just didn’t make sense.

And, finally, that was what made the most sense. This situation made no sense, which simply meant I was doing something wrong. After recalling the fireworks that had crossed my line of vision only a few moments prior, I paused to consider what was happening. A battery is a mostly standard-sized thing. As such, battery posts are probably pretty standard. I have one clamp that is too small and one that is too big for a standardized thing. Assuming that my clamps are also a standard size (reasonable assumption), this means that my battery is in backwards.

Dear reader, you probably figured this out a few paragraphs ago. Bravo to you. You get a gold star. Treat yourself to an artisan beer.

The important point here is that I did pretty much everything wrong. What should have taken me half an hour took me two. But, in the end, I tried something new, learned a lot, and fixed the problem. My car now starts. It runs.

How did I get to this point? A couple of years ago, I had a dead battery and decided to switch the batteries out myself. When I opened the hood, I saw the complexity of the issue and panicked. I ended up calling a tow truck and having the car taken to a shop. For a battery change. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that in recent months, I’ve really gotten into DIY solutions. So, in many ways, learning how to install and run Linux on my laptop led to this car repair. At some point, I lost the fear of breaking something irreparably. It’s all just crap. None of it really matters. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to figure it out yourself (barring danger to yourself, others, etc.).

Go out there. Fail. Look forward to failing. Just pay attention to your mistakes and realize when a screw up is just a victory in disguise. Have a good Monday. Go out and do awesome things.


3 thoughts on “How to change your own batteries

  1. I’m a bit of a cheapskate so I’ve always been DIY guy. When I’m looking at doing something, I’ll price out doing it myself compared to a quote from a pro. If I can screw it up once and have to redo the job but still be money ahead, I will give it shot.

    1. That’s good practice. There’s certainly something to be said for letting a professional do a job to save time and money, but the stuff I’ve learned while messing up has been invaluable. Done anything DIY recently that turned out to be really cool or interesting?

  2. You are lucky not to blow up. đŸ™‚ I have had similar times with batteries and I have done plenty of them. Something about the corrosion around it makes things not always go the way it is supposed to. May I also recommend watching more than one You Tube video, since one person may give you the one tip that will save you. And yes the swearing always makes things go together just that much easier.

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