Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Stuck In the Desert

I recently experienced one of my nightmares related to my travels in the wild outback of the southwest deserts. I got stuck. My car's battery died. This happened as I was gearing up for a nice hike up Cave Mountain. I was very lucky because I was within about 1.5 miles of the interstate highway (if I wanted to trek across the soft desert sand - which is dangerously annoying because it tends to give way letting you drop from 3 to 8 inches below the surface. I was also about 1 mile, and within view, of a cell tower. What luck. So I called up a friend (yeah Wes!) and he helped me find the closest tow service. I only needed a jump start, but still, it was really really expensive. The first pic is of my car sitting there on the powerline road - dead.

When I returned, I used my favorite forum for Acura MDX owners, acuramdx.org, to learn that the OEM battery traditionally lasts 2-3 years. So I should feel very lucky that mine lasted 3.5 years and 83,000 miles. Cool! I also learned that the best replacement battery is the Optima. They make the red top line for engine starting, and the yellow top line for deep cycling, which is popular with the young kids and their massive car stereos. Here's a pic of my new battery, the Optima 34R Red Top. It looks like a six-pack. It's a sealed lead acid gel type and can be mounted in any orientation and is very insensitive to vibration. It has terrific energy storage and is an inch shorter than the OEM battery (a 24 group). Optima includes several mounting adapters. I used the height adapter that attaches to the bottom of the battery allowing it to sit perfectly in the taller 24-size well in my car. It took me an hour to replace the battery. Most of that time was turning the small nuts on the mounting brackets, because I had to use a crescent wrench since they're metric and my socket set is English.

With my shiny new battery, I still wasn't properly prepared to return to the outback. I bought myself a portable jump starter. I took my time learning about the important metrics in this growing market. There are a LOT of products out there, with the prime manufacturer being Vector (they even make the ones branded as Black & Decker and Husky). More and more of these products are now including extras such as integrated air compressors and AC inverters. I chose to avoid those sinply because I already carry 2 air compressors and 2 AC inverters, and those features add bulk to the jump starter - making it take up more valuable volume in my SUV. I learned that the important metric is CCA = Cold Cranking Amps. Many of the products advertise a huge "peak amps" value - but be warned: this is not CCA. If it were, they'd proudly say it. As Wikipedia says, CCA is the amount of current the battery can provide at 0 deg F for 30 seconds. By comparison, those peak amps they advertise are very short peaks - like milliseconds. Clearly, CCA is more important in cold climates where the starter has more trouble turning a cold engine with cold engine oil. I chose to buy the Coleman Powermate Waterproof Jump Start System PMJ8660 (see pic at right). Nothing fancy and has 315 CCA. I've already used it with a 12v air compressor to pump up a couple of my tires. I like that the little light is on a flexible arm allowing me to point it at a dead battery at night, instead of most units that have the light integral to the casing - which might require me to tip the heavy jump starter to get much use from the light.

Of course, if I had bought a jump starter before-hand, I could have avoided hundreds and hundreds of dollars charged by the pirateering tow service. My bad. I failed to use the same level of safety and backups that I use for my tires. At least now I'm better prepared than before - so the experience has caused me to improve my overall preparedness.

Needless to say, I didn't get in the planned hike.

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