Automobile Associations and Block Heaters

There are times when I hate owning a car.

My car’s been having problems this winter. We had a really cold one — from late December through to just a week or so ago, we were having some really nasty cold snaps. Seeing -20 on the thermometer became a regular occurrance. Seeing -30 was far more frequent than we would have liked, one we had the fortune of repeating a several times.

My car has been through cold weather before — Waterloo and Ottawa for a couple of winters, during one of which I had trouble starting the engine (the injectors froze, I think). But I’d never really thought too much about getting a block heater to aid starting the engine when it was cold. Normally it wasn’t an issue, and if the engine was left to warm up a bit, ran just fine.

This winter brought my lack of a block heater to a head, though. Except that I didn’t get one installed. I hesitated, procrastinated, forgot, and avoided all winter. Why? Simple — Chris and I don’t drive very much. And when we do, it’s almost as likely to get a ride from our friends than it is for us to drive. Also, living in Calgary means that you also get chinooks, which is coincidentally when we managed to get the car started.

But not the week I had to go home to Oakville for my father’s funeral. (Uh… I just realized that some of you don’t know this — I haven’t sent a log entry about it. [[Death of David Charles Sowrey|My father passed away on March 7th]], after fighting off various cancers for the past year. Needless to say, it’s been a tough year for my family.)

Anyway, that week in Calgary was cold, and regularly in the low negative 20s. Chris tried to start my car a couple of times, for a variety of reasons/needs, but was unable as the engine was too cold. The battery wasn’t strong enough to power the starter to get the engine to turn over. So the car just sat in the garage, and waited for our return.

Yes, I was kicking myself for not getting a block heater. The last month was quite cold, and the car never started once. The battery finally dropped to the point where starting the engine, even if it was hot, was an impossibility. This necessitated a jump from someone, so I could get the car somewhere.

This really became a problem though, because I haven’t exactly been the most organized person in the last little while. (For obvious reasons I need not elaborate on.) Luckily for me, there was a solution: the AMA. No, not the American Medical Association — the Alberta Motor Association. The local incarnation of CAA. Little beknownst to me, I’ve had a CAA membership for several years now … courtesy of my mother, who had not only myself, but also my sister tacked onto her membership.

The things you learn at Easter dinner.

Armed with the number, I finally decided on Saturday to give the AMA a buzz and get my car up and running again. After an hour wait (the AMA is overworked in this city), a Battery Assist (AMA’s jump service) truck showed up at my apartment. It was a (relatively) warm day — peeking above zero for the first time in weeks. It was a perfect day to spend more money to fix my car again.

The first big hurdle was just getting the truck to my car. The Battery Assist truck is a heavy-duty 1/2 ton, which sits high as a result of its undercarriage. The service guy (whose name escapes me, unfortunately) drove hanging onto the steering wheel while hanging out the door, making sure his roof didn’t get caught on the concrete ceiling. (Apparently, his partner got stuck in a parking garage the week before, and had to let the air out of his tires to get the truck out.)

He barely made it onto Level 3.

We popped the hood on my car, and he slapped on his testing gizmo to check my battery. It’s a little more advanced than my AA battery tester. Among several functions, it can also tell what the Cold Cranking Amps are. (This, apparently, is a measure of how well your battery can start an engine.) My battery read 62. You need a minimum of 160, or something like that. In short, a jump would only get me going. The battery, for all intents and purposes, was dead.

Ironically enough, this was what I had planned to do anyway — replace the battery. I’d figured it was past its due date, and was high time to get a new one. The news from the AMA guy just reinforced that a bit. I muttered a bit about how this probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal if I’d bucked down and got the block heater. The AMA guy agreed, suggesting that it should be something I might want to look into for next winter.

I was offered the opportunity to get my battery replaced by the AMA. For the same price of a Canadian Tire battery, but without the mandatory installation and testing fees that they charge to warranty the battery. I suppose I could have gone to Costco, but if I’d shut the engine off, I’d need another jump to move the car again. And considering I’d get roadside assistance if anything happened, this just seemed like a good deal.

The tech got to work, whipping out his tools and preparing to change my battery. Wonder why he drove a heavy-duty half-ton truck? The back’s full of batteries, old and new. (He never needs to worry about traction in the winter, that’s for sure!)

I think the battery was original, or at the very least hadn’t been changed since I got the car. Either way, it wasn’t easy to remove it. The battery cables were stiff and the nuts didn’t loosen easily, the bolt that held the battery in place was almost rusted shut and was very difficult to move, and the block heater cord kept getting in the way…

…block heater cord? What block heater cord?

Much to my surprise, delight, and utter dismay, the tech held out a cord that looked suspiciously like it was attached to a block heater. He followed it down until it disappeared into the engine block. There’s only one thing I know of that comes out of an engine block that requires a standard three-prong cord.

All you can do at a time like that is laugh. Which is good, because if you can’t laugh at yourself, then you don’t have license to laugh at anyone else.

The battery swapped, tested, and warrantied, I proceeded to go for a drive an ensure all was well. So far, the car’s running better. I guess the cost was worth it — my transportation actually transports again. I even got it cleaned to get the last couple of month’s dirt and dust off (it collects very easily in our parking garage). Of course, it started snowing again that evening.

I hope it really warms up soon. Otherwise, I’ll have to plug in the block heater.

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