Jump starting a car refers to recharging a dead (uncharged) car battery just enough to get the starter motor rotating. To jump start a car, you need a second car with a fully charged battery; you then connect the positive terminals of each battery to each other, and the negative terminals to each other (WARNING: read below). Since both batteries should generate the same voltage, the voltage between the two positive terminals or between the two negative terminals should be 0, meaning no electricity will flow. So how does this result in the dead battery being charged?
The answer lies in the side effects of draining a battery. Batteries die not because they lose voltage or the ability to store charge, but because resistance between the terminals increases as the internal electrodes corrode. However, most battery types – especially the lead-acid batteries used in cars – also lose a bit of voltage as they lose charge (this is how battery indicators know when a battery is dying). In the case of car batteries, a fully charged battery will measure about 12.6 volts between the terminals, while a completely dead battery will measure 11.9 volts. Thus, there actually is a voltage between the two batteries which will conveniently cause charge to flow from the full battery to the dead one.
WARNING: Above I mentioned that to charge a battery, you simply connect like-terminals on each battery. Though you can connect the terminals in any order, you never should. Here is the usual order for connecting battery terminals:
- Connect one cable to the positive (red) terminal of the dead battery
- Connect the other end to the positive (red) terminal of the full battery
- Connect the second cable to the negative (black) terminal of the full battery
- Connect the other end to a shiny, non-painted metal surface on the car of the dead battery (eg. the chassis or the engine-block).
There are two reasons for this ordering: first of all, creating a short-circuit could cause the battery to overheat and explode, spewing dangerous acid all over the place – this ordering minimizes the chances of a dangling cord accidentally causing a short-circuit.
Secondly, since before jumping you can never be sure the battery is at fault, there’s a chance that the "dead" battery may actually be full, and you’ll be overcharging one of them. Overcharging a car battery produces hydrogen gas, the explosive gas responsible for the Hindenburg Disaster. Needless to say, because of this possibility you’ll want to try to generate as few sparks as possible, and keep them away from the batteries. This not only explains the ordering, but why you connect to the chassis instead of the negative terminal – the circuit stays complete either way because the negative terminal and the chassis are electrically-connected in all cars (unless a wire broke!).
- Does electricity flow from positive (+) to negative (-) or from negative to positive?
- What’s the difference between “voltage at a point” and “voltage between two points?” Also, what is ‘ground?’
- How is it possible that there’s not a complete circuit to the power plant?
- (Un)Common Questions about Electricity
- Why can the resistor go at the beginning of the circuit OR at the end?