Categories: Car Maintenance

How to Use a Portable Jump Starter

Getting stranded in a dark parking lot or on the side of the road—a common trope in horror movies—can be terrifying. Roadside assistance and cell service aren’t always available. If you want to avoid being the star of a scary story, some basic preparation is necessary.

In addition to knowing how to change a tire and having emergency items in your vehicle, it’s a good idea to purchase and know how to use a portable jump starter (aka emergency battery booster or jump box). With a charged jump starter in your trunk, you’ll never have to worry about getting stranded with a dead battery.

Normally, when jump starting a vehicle, you would need to connect your dead battery to the working battery of a separate vehicle. But it can be frightening and risky to depend on the charity of a stranger to jump your car. First of all, not many people will stop; second of all, they may have ulterior motives.

With a portable jump starter kit, however, you can get your car running again without relying on a stranger’s help. To close out National Preparedness Month, let’s discuss how to use a portable jump starter.

Things to Look for in a Portable Jump Starter

In addition to jump starting a dead battery, portable battery jump starters also come with USB connections to charge all of your devices, important for emergencies and keeping the kids entertained. Some are even equipped with built-in air compressors to fill up tires that are low on air.

Here are some additional features to look out for:

  • Radios
  • Emergency Lights
  • 12-Volt Outlets/Receptacles
  • USB Chargers
  • Air Compressors
  • Inverters

Today’s jump starters function as compact charging stations for batteries, phones, laptops, and anything else that requires a charge. Keep in mind that this will drain the battery power. Remember to periodically charge your portable jump starter.

Is Your Battery Dead?

There are many signs of a weak battery—dim lights, electrical component issues, battery warning light—but if your engine won’t turn on at all, your battery is probably dead. This often happens when headlights or the ignition switch is left on while the car is not running.

The tell-tale sign that you have a dead battery is if the car makes a clicking noise when you turn the ignition, but it won’t start.

To make sure the battery is the culprit, inspect the headlights. If the headlights are dim or don’t turn on at all, the battery is probably dead. Bright headlights usually signify that something else is the problem.

If your radio, lights, windows, and other electrical components work perfectly, then the problem is usually with the starter, not the battery.

Still, dead batteries have some charge. If the dashboard lights don’t flicker or come on at all, your problem might be with the ignition switch.

It’s pretty easy to tell if you have a dead alternator versus a dead battery. Try jump starting the car and if the car dies again soon after, it’s probably the alternator.

Battery Chargers vs. Portable Jump Starters

It’s important to know the difference between battery chargers and portable jump starters. Vehicle battery chargers normally plug into a household outlet (110-120 volt AC) in order to recharge a battery. They normally take several hours to two days to get a full charge.

Although the alternator in your vehicle has the job of charging your battery, sometimes an additional battery charger is necessary. This can be important to have if you use your vehicle sporadically or only during certain times of the year. While pretty useless in the event of a roadside breakdown, they are able to charge up your battery when you get home, saving you money and inconvenience down the road.

Unlike a charger, portable jump starters (aka battery boosters, emergency boosters, battery jumpers, and jump boxes) can be used anywhere. They don’t need to be plugged into an outlet. They also don’t re-charge your battery, but rather provide the necessary amperage to crank the engine and start the vehicle. Once the engine is on, the alternator will charge the battery and power the electrical system.

We recommend having a portable jump starter so you can make it to your destination safely, but a plug-in type at home to fully recharge it. If you are only going to have one, get a portable unit; however, an at-home plug-in unit can be useful and cost effective.

How to Use a Portable Jump Starter

First, make sure your portable jump starter is fully charged.

Jump starters rely on a battery as their power source. As a result, they must be periodically recharged. Always recharge your portable jump starter/battery booster pack after each use and at least once every 6 months. These jump starter batteries will lose their charge more quickly if left in the car during hot and cold weather. We recommend charging your battery booster packs before going on a long trip.

Usually an indicator light on the jump starter tells you when a recharge is necessary. Simply insert the power adapter into an outlet and charge the battery until the light indicates a complete charge. Check the manufacturer instructions for specifics, including what the light indicator colors mean (usually red/orange for charging and green for completed charge).

What you need to use a portable jump starter:

  • Protective Clothing
  • Eye Protection
  • Owner’s Manual
  • Car Battery
  • Portable Jump Starter (aka Jump Box)
  • Jumper Cables (usually permanently connected to the jump starter)

WARNING: Jump starting a car can be very dangerous. If you are not 100% certain what you are doing, call roadside assistance or a towing service. And always read your owner’s manual first!

The steps for jump starting a car using a portable jump starter are very similar to using traditional jumper cables and a second car:

  1. Always read the owner’s manual! In the highly unlikely event that your vehicle has a positive ground (very rare), the jump starting instructions will be different. Also, some manufacturers do not allow jump-starts.
  2. Wear protective clothing and eye protection.
  3. Turn the car off and remove the keys from the ignition.
  4. Remove jewelry and never put your face near the battery.
  5. Make sure the vehicle is not near any flammable liquids or gases, including what may be on your hands.
  6. Keep the charger as far away from the battery as the lengths of the cables allow.
  7. Look up your battery charger’s voltage in the owner’s manual. Make sure it matches the jump starter’s output voltage. This is normally a 12-volt supply.
  8. Identify the positive (look for the “P,” “POS,” or “+” symbol) and negative terminals (look for the “N,” “NEG,” or “-“ symbol) on your car battery. Remove any excessive corrosion before attaching the cables.
  9. Identify the positive and negative clamps/clips on the portable jump starter. The positive charger clamp is red and the negative charger clamp is black.
  10. Make sure the jump starter is “off” before attempting to connect the jumper clamps to the vehicle’s battery.
  11. Do not allow positive and negative clamps to come into contact with each other.
  12. With both the car and jump starter turned off, connect the jumper cables to the appropriate terminals.
    • First connect the red clamp to the positive terminal on the battery.
    • Then, connect the black clamp to a clean, unpainted, and non-moving metal part. Choose an area on the car’s frame or engine block, far away from the battery, carburetor and fuel lines. Never use fuel lines, engine rocker covers, or the intake manifold as grounding points!
    • Make sure the clamps are solidly connected so they don’t get shaken loose.
  13. Once the jumper cables are firmly in place, you can turn on the portable jump starter.
  14. Now, you can try to turn the car on.
  15. Do not crank the engine for more than 5 seconds. If the car won’t turn on after the first attempt, wait around 2-3 minutes to try again. You may need a new battery if the car won’t start after 4 or 5 attempts.
  16. If you have to readjust the jumper clamps, turn the car and jump starter off first. Only then should you try to improve the connection.
  17. After the engine starts, turn the jump starter off.
  18. Then, remove the negative (black) clamp followed by the positive (red) clamp. Now, safely store the portable jump starter.
  19. You can remove those embarrassing protective glasses now.
  20. After the clamps have been removed, allow the vehicle to idle for several minutes before taking off. Now you can go home to safety.
  21. When you arrive back home, it’s important to recharge the jump starter as soon as you can. Most portable jump starters will plug directly into an AC outlet. Recharge the unit for at least 3 hours. Some units will require 12-24 hours for a complete charge.
  22. It’s also a good idea to have your vehicle battery checked by a local battery centers to see if a new battery is necessary and how long your battery can probably last.

Again, always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for proper use.

How to charge a vehicle with a plug-in battery charger:

  1. Always read the owner’s manual and manufacturer instructions first!
  2. Turn the car off.
  3. Make sure the battery charger is off and unplugged.
  4. Connect the red clamp to the positive terminal.
  5. Connect the black clamp to a grounded metal, the car’s frame or engine block.
  6. Once both clamps are connected, plug in the charger to an outlet.
  7. Turn on the plug-in vehicle battery charger.
  8. The battery will start charging. Leave the charger on overnight.
  9. In the morning, turn off the charger.
  10. Turn on the car to see if it works.
  11. If the car still won’t turn on, you may need to replace the battery.

When charging your battery, make sure it isn’t at too high a rate. Always read the manufacturer instructions for proper use. If the battery is overheating, stop charging until it has had time to cool off. Overheating the battery can be dangerous and damaging.

Be extra careful and make sure the jumper cables are connected to the right areas! There is a risk of electrocution and battery explosions. Red = positive. Black = negative.

Related Resources:


If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to speak with one of our car experts at Auto Simple:

Chattanooga, TN – (423) 551-3600

Cleveland, TN – (423) 472-2000

Dayton, TN – (423) 775-4600

Dalton, GA – (706) 217-2277

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