Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Battery Maintenance

Now that we've discussed how to fix it when your car batteries die, let's look at how to prevent those bad things from happening in the first place.

Batteries have a lifespan. A quality lead-acid car battery, under average conditions, can be expected to last an average of 5-7 years; however, several things can alter that lifespan. Extreme temperatures, both high and low, can drastically shorten battery life. Rough handling, or driving rough roads regularly, can also have an impact, as can frequent, short charging cycles (i.e., making lots of short trips where you turn the car on and off without giving the battery time to properly charge.)

How to avoid the dreaded "click"

So, how do we stretch our battery life? First, if you live in an area where you experience broad temperatures throughout the year, store your vehicle in a garage if possible. If not, allow for a bit of extra charging time when you run your vehicle in the cold, and stay on top of your battery maintenance. This applies to most of the country, with the exception of very temperate coastal regions.

Be aware of how your battery is physically jarred and moved. Make sure that whatever mechanism holds your battery in place is secure. If you're driving rough roads, slow down and avoid the worst parts. A hard bump can do irreparable damage to your battery (and a whole lot of other parts of your car.)

Allow for a bit of idle time if you're making several short (fewer than 15 minute) trips. This gives your car time to recharge the battery and replace the energy used to start the car. One or two short trips won't hurt, but if you're in and out of your car all day, you can put the hurt on a battery that's getting soft.

Be aware of your battery's age. Most batteries have a sticker on them that tells when they were made. As your battery gets close to five years old, start planning on replacing it. If your car takes a little more time to start, take your battery in to your mechanic or local parts supplier, and have them test it. They can advise you if it's on its last legs, or if you still have years of life to expect from it.

Perform regular battery maintenance

To do this, you'll need a few things. I always recommend nitrile gloves, a dust mask, and safety glasses. Car batteries can develop some pretty nasty corrosion and dust on the terminals, and you don't want it in your eyes or your lungs. In addition, batteries contain a strong acid, which can splash and burn you.

You'll also need a wrench of the appropriate size to loosen the nuts on your battery terminals, a flat-bladed screwdriver, and a wire brush, at a minimum. A battery terminal brush and terminal protectant are nice, but not absolutely necessary.

A battery brush in the wild.
This side is for cleaning
the inside of the clamp.
This side cleans the terminal posts.

The two posts with wires on the corners of my truck battery are the terminals. Over time, they develop corrosion, which appears as a blue-white "fuzz." While wearing your dust mask, safety glasses, and gloves, use your brush to knock off as much fuzz as possible. If there is a lot of corrosion, you may have to carefully remove the cables from the terminal posts, and use a terminal brush or wire brush to clean both the post and the clamp on the cable, then re-attach them and tighten the clamps securely.

The very beginnings of corrosion. This battery is about 5 years old, and I'll have to keep an eye on it.

The 5/10 sticker is the born-on date.

The raised pieces above the date sticker on this battery are covers for the cells. Using your flat bladed screwdriver, gently pry the covers off one at a time and check the water level in your battery.

Properly filled, they should look like the picture below. If they're lower than this, slowly add water until they reach this level. Distilled water is the best to use, but regular tap water will work in a pinch, particularly if your water isn't especially hard. When they're full, put the caps back on, making sure that they seat fully to prevent leaks.

If your battery doesn't have these caps, don't fret. This means you have a sealed or "maintenance free" battery. They're a bit less common, but they work well enough.

Hopefully, this advice can save you a bit of stress and heartburn, and a few dollars in maintenance costs.


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