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I recently bought a used car, and it didn't come with any jumper cables, so I'm going to buy some. I briefly looked around at a store and online, and there seems to be a wide variety of prices and specifications. These are the particular specs I've seen variation in:

  • Length of cables
  • Gauge (thickness) of wire
  • Material of clip
  • Type of insulation

Are there any significant practical differences between different materials used in jumper cables? How can I determine what gauge wire I need? Is there anything else I should consider when selecting a set?

Note: I'm not looking for specific recommendations, I'm just trying to get a sense for what types of specs I should look at and how I can determine what specs are needed for a particular vehicle.

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2 Answers 2

The biggest thing to look at for me is the gauge of the wire. The reason I bring this up is, the higher the gauge (numerically) the thinner the wire. Thinner wire will require your jump-start procedure to take more time, as it takes a while to charge the battery before you'll have enough juice to get it running. Thinner wire cannot pass enough amperage to start a vehicle. You'll find when trying to jump another car, the wire can get warm during the attempt. This is because it's trying to pass more juice than the wire can handle. With thicker wires you can actually start the vehicle directly from the running vehicle with little to no wait time.

You will also find that the larger gauge (lower number numerically) will have longer cable lengths, which will allow you to go battery-to-battery more easily in more and varied situations. I bought a set of 2-gauge cables over 20 years ago which continue to service me today. They are about 20' long, which gets me from battery-to-battery very easily.

While the cost of cables goes up as the wire gets thicker, you'll also notice the quality of clamps get better as well. Cheap wires have cheap clamps, which are a pain-in-the-butt to use as well as they are less likely to stand up to time. Cheap clamps are copper plated. Better clamps will be solid copper, which will transmit electricity much better. After utilizing a plated set a few time, the copper can be worn off down to the steel substrate, which does not transmit the electricity nearly as well, meaning your cables won't work very well.

Insulation is no different as to the gauge of wire. The thicker wire, the better the insulation. If you live in a cold climate, cheaper insulation will usually crack very easily. Better insulation will retain its pliability while you uncoil and recoil it during/after use. Cheap insulation will not want to straighten out, making them very hard to use.

Needless to say, jumper cables are one of those purchases where you get what you pay for ... don't skimp out on them and you will never regret it.

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Thanks for the advice. I'm seeing cables ranging from 2 - 12 gauge... would you always go with a 2-gauge cable regardless of the vehicle? –  nhinkle Jun 11 '14 at 17:35
@nhinkle ... That's what I use and carry all the time. It is my opinion that you should go large or go home. I am an impatient person. I hate to wait while the dead battery is charging before I can start the vehicle. With 2-gauge cables you are always in good shape. As long as your clamps can get good connectivity, you can most of the time do a straight jump and get the opposite vehicle going with little or no wait time. You cannot do this with 12-gauge jumpers. –  Paulster2 Jun 11 '14 at 18:09
So I'm finally getting around to actually figuring out which ones to buy, and I'm finding that a lot of jumper cables seem to be "copper plated aluminum" instead of plain copper, even on some that seem (to me) to be pretty expensive. Am I correct in inferring that I should avoid aluminum cables and try to find some that are actual copper? –  nhinkle Jul 12 '14 at 18:10
@nhinkle ... get what you can afford. You want copper wire. You may not be able to find anything but copper coated aluminum clamps, so get what you can get. If you look at them, you'll be able to tell flimsy clamps from sturdy ones. The sturdy ones usually come on the wires which have a larger gauge wire (remember, the lower the number, the higher the gauge, ie: 2-gauge is larger than 6-gauge). –  Paulster2 Jul 12 '14 at 18:13

It doesn't really matter all that much. The more expensive cables will probably last longer, but unless you plan on keeping the car for more than 10 years, I'd just go with the second cheapest set. My own personal rule of thumb being that the second-cheapest option of anything is usually the best value for money. The cheapest one will break and the most expensive one will not be so much better that it justifies the extra money.

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