It’s so frustrating: you’re ready to hit the road, but when you turn the key in the ignition, you quickly realize you won’t be going anywhere fast. Maybe the engine cranks but doesn’t start, or maybe nothing happens at all. You might have a dead car battery. However, before you head to the nearest auto part store for a new one, it’s a good idea to consider a few alternatives.

Sometimes, what seems like a dead battery is actually a different issue entirely. So here are five options to consider when you believed your car battery is dead.

Listen and look

The sounds and signals your car makes (or doesn’t make) are clues as to what’s going on under the hood. If there’s no sound and no lights, that’s a good indicator that a dead battery isn’t giving your starter motor any power.

Before you run out to buy a new one, pop the hood to look at the condition of the battery. Does it look corroded and worn out? Most batteries last three to five years, according to the Automobile Association of America (AAA), so if your battery is old, you’ll probably need to replace it.

If the cranking sound your car makes when you turn the key is labored or slow, it could be a problem with the battery or the starter. If the engine cranks normally but doesn’t start, you might have a fuel or spark problem. Check your user manual to figure out how to check the spark plugs and fuel injector.

If you hear a grinding noise, the problem likely isn’t a dead battery. Get your car to a mechanic, because continuing to crank the engine could cause further damage.

Check the battery

A multimeter is a small diagnostic tool used to measure electrical properties. You can usually pick one up for around $20 anywhere auto parts are sold and test the battery to see if you’re at or close to 12.4V.

No multimeter? Follow the instructions in your vehicle’s manual to jump start your car and take it to an auto parts store. Many offer free battery testing and free installation when you purchase a new battery.

If the jump start fails to start your car, try giving the terminals on your car battery a good cleaning with baking soda, water and an old toothbrush. After rinsing off the baking soda solution, use a little bit of petroleum jelly to lubricate the terminals before reattaching the cables to their correct terminals. Then try jumping it again.

If the car starts but stalls out again right away, it could be your alternator or another issue. Call roadside assistance or have your car towed to a mechanic who can diagnose and fix the problem.

Extend the life of your new car battery

Once you’ve replaced your battery and the car is starting up and running, these tips can help prevent a bad battery from leaving you stranded in the future.

  • Don’t leave the lights or stereo on when the vehicle isn’t running. This drains your battery quickly, so turn your stereo, headlights, and interior lights off every time you exit your car.
  • Be conscious of extreme weather. Starting the engine is stressful on your car’s battery in cold weather, so if you live in a place with freezing winters, consider insulating your battery or at least parking it in the warmth of the sun. Hot weather can also affect battery life, as high temperatures under the hood accelerate corrosion inside of the battery and decrease battery capacity. During the summer, store your car in a garage or covered parking whenever possible.
  • Keep the top clean. Check on the condition of your battery every once in a while. Corrosion can build up between and around the battery’s connectors, causing it not to operate properly. If you notice corrosion, follow the directions above to scrub it away.

Replacing a car battery is a relatively inexpensive repair, but it still helps to take care of your battery to avoid the frustration of being stuck with a car that won’t start.

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