Car prices are about the scariest thing I can think of in this Halloween week. It looks like we’re all going to have to settle in and get comfortable with the idea that we can’t get the cars we actually want unless we’re willing to pay well above the list price. And for those of you who can’t be with the one you love so you’re babying along the one you’re with, I can tell you some parts are hard to get, too.
But the question of what has suddenly eaten the supply chain is too horrifying for me to address here. Instead, I want to focus on some everyday frights my customers have given me recently.
The other day one of my customers called to puzzle out why his car had sputtered to a stop. “Does it have any gas in it?” I asked. Experience is teaching me to ask this question.
“Of course it does,” he told me. “A full tank. I just took my boat out of the water and thought I’d use up what was left of my summer supply.”
Yikes. If that’s something you’re thinking about doing, don’t. Gas that’s been hanging around on your boat for a few months can have several things wrong with it. Depending on how carefully you’ve handled it, it might have taken on debris or water. And gas actually has a shelf life of about three months. After that, it loses volatility — its ability to combust. That 10 percent of your gas that’s ethanol oxidizes quickly. And it’s hydrophilic, that is, it absorbs humidity, and even inside a gas can there can be enough condensation to contaminate the fuel over time.
Some people simply don’t bother to fill their gas tanks — not even with old stuff they’ve taken off their boats. Those are the ones who call me needing a tow. “My car just gave out, right on the highway,” they say.
I ask my back-to-basics question: “Is there any gas in it?”
“I think so. I’ve been watching my odometer.”
“Well, my gas gauge is broken.”
Uh-oh. A gas gauge is a handy device that tells you how much gas is in your tank. And it’s so much cheaper and less embarrassing to spend five minutes at the pump than it is to spend a couple of hours having your car towed to the shop.
A few things can go wrong with gas gauges — it could be a problem with the fuse for your instrument panel, the wiring, or the float assembly inside your tank. But all of those things can be fixed without too much trouble.
Jump starting a car can be trickier than you think. I’m replacing an alternator right now that was blown when someone connected jumper cables the wrong way. Doing that can actually be scary — sparks will fly.
In theory, jump starting a car is easy, as long as you have cables and a nice neighbor with a charged battery. Start with the positive clip — it’s red, and marked “+” or “POS,” or it’s just bigger. Connect it to the positive terminal on your dead battery first, then connect the other positive clip to the positive post on the battery that will boost you. One of the black clips goes to your neighbor’s negative post, and the other black clip to an unpainted metal part of your car as a ground.
But you do have to do a few other things right. Like make sure both engines are off before you start. Accessories, too. And make sure the cables aren’t dangling into your engine compartment, ready to be sucked into moving parts. And check your manual so you know you’re connecting the cables in the right order.
If you’re not sure what you’re doing, I’d feel better if you’d get an experienced helper to keep you from zapping things beyond repair. Better yet, treat yourself to a mini jump box. There are lots of these portable jump starters on the market now. They’re rechargeable, and some have accessories like an air compressor or flashlight. Many of them are small enough to fit in your glove box, and, in a pinch, you can use them to charge up your phone.
It does scare me a little that this last feature is the one you’re probably most interested in.