Curbside Breakdown: The Case of the Unnecessary Tow (Updated – With A Fresh Battery)

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(Update at end of post)  I struggle to remember the last time one of my cars needed a tow. Yes, I had Stephanie pull the ’66 F-100 home with a tow rope hooked to the Forester when the fiber cam gear broke at the dump. And I needed a tow once on the ’77 Dodge Chinook before I was initiated into the cult of Mopar ballast resistors. But in terms of our front-line passenger cars, it would have to go back some twenty-two years, when the ’85 Cherokee’s transfer case stopped transferring.

And yet, here is our barely one-year old Acura TSX up in the air. And I have only myself to blame, in more ways than one.

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The other morning I took Stephanie out to the airport. On the way back (thankfully), just as I reached this train crossing right before the intersection, I saw a train approach and the crossing came down. It was a container train, on UP’s main line. And it was doing about 30 mph or so; accelerating as it came out of Eugene.

It’s been a lifelong habit of mine to hate sitting with the engine idling, whether it’s at a road construction stop, a serious traffic tie-up, waiting for someone at the curb, or…a long freight train. I was listening to some nice jazz on Sirius, so I instinctively turned the key to kill the engine, and turned it to what I thought was “Accessory” to keep the music on.( I don’t drive the Acura often).

How long did it take for that freight to roll by? I’m guessing three to four minutes. When the signal arm went up, I turned the key to start the engine, and…it won’t start! All the dash lights flashed on and off in a strobe-like manner, but nothing more. It was so utterly unexpected; like getting hit by a lightning bolt. I simply couldn’t believe this was for real. The idea of the battery going dead in three or four minutes simply wasn’t conceivable, so I assumed it must have been some weird electronic screw-up, maybe from the sequence of my key actions, or?

I turned it totally off, got out and back in, to try to reset everything. Nothing doing. So I put it in Neutral and started pushing it to the side, as I was holding up traffic. Someone got out and helped me ease to the side.

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I sat there trying to collect my thoughts. Is it a dead battery or an electronic glitch? It occurred to me that that my seat warmer was on Low, and that I remembered seeing the light for it on while the train went by. So maybe I had it in On; but still. A seat warmer can kill a battery in 3-4 minutes? On a fairly new car? Well, it is actually a 2013, which sat for about a year at the dealer, and they had to jump it to get it started there. So maybe the battery is a bit less than perfectly healthy. But still?

So I called my younger son, who is in current (temporary) possession of a rather ratty Mercedes E430 (W210). I told him to get my big jumper cables and come. When he arrived, I had him point his nose up to the Acura, and I opened the hood of the Mercedes. No battery anywhere to be seen!

Pulled out his owner’s manual, to find that’s it’s under the rear seat, presumably in order to fit that big V8 in there. Will the cables reach? Not initially; so we pushed the Mercedes right up to kiss the Acura. Then they did, they just barely reached. I go to start the Acura…nothing; just the same blinking lights. I wiggled all the connectors and tried again…nothing. OK, so much for that theory. It must be an electronic glitch; I was almost relieved to come to that conclusion.

So I called Acura Road Side Assistance, and they called up a tow truck. And I called the Acura dealer, and told them it was coming in. The Service Adviser suggested it was a dead battery, as “all those electronics” have a heavy drain, and one should never use Accessory to keep them on for any length of time. Three or four minutes? Come on.

“Anyway, I jumped it, and I’ve jumped hundreds of cars in my life.” Silence.

The tow truck dropped it off and I got a ride home from their shuttle. A couple hours later she called: “We did a complete electronic/electric check; everything is ok. The battery was low and needed charging. You can come get it now”.

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So I did. No charge ($) for anything, and a car wash to boot. When I got home, I opened the hood again and took another look at that battery; damn, that thing is small. Tiny, even. Yea, I guess a bun warmer might take that down, especially if it wasn’t in the best of shape. Resistance heating is a major drain. But three or four minutes?

And why didn’t the jump work? I don’t know. I know the polarity was right, but for what it’s worth, with the kind of connectors on these modern batteries, it can be tough to get a good connection. If I hadn’t doubted that it was a dead battery, I would have spent more time fiddling with the cable connectors. But because I had serious doubts as to that being the cause, I didn’t.

Lesson learned. Keep the engine on, or if need be, make sure it’s really turned to Off, or at least confirm it’s truly in Accessory. Operator Error. And a waste of the better part of a day.

Update: I decided that original battery was undoubtedly weakened by having sat for most of a year. Rather than get in to it with Acura about a warranty replacement, I just went to Costco and got an Interstate (made by Johnson Controls) 42 month battery with 25% greater capacity for $69.99.  If I lived in a really cold climate, I might have looked into a new battery pan to take a bigger battery, but I think this will do the job, hopefully for some time. And realistically, leaving the key in ON with the seat warmers on is not a great idea, even if a few minutes shouldn’t have killed the battery.