Keeping those batteries charged

You have the power. Now you just have to take care of it

By Jens Nielsen

We all know we have a battery in our vehicle but most people don’t really give them much thought until they don’t work. Proper maintenance of your battery will increase the lifespan of the battery and reduce potential breakdowns.

Early cars didn’t have electrical components, so they had no need for batteries. They started with a hand crank, the horns were squeeze balls like you’d find on a bicycle, and headlights were gas powered. It wasn’t until electric start came along in the early 1920s that batteries became necessary.

Without getting too technical, a basic lead acid battery is made up of plates, lead, and lead oxide with a solution of around 35 per cent sulfuric acid and 65 per cent water. The solution is called electrolyte, which causes a chemical reaction that produces electrons. When you test a battery with a hydrometer, you are measuring the amount of sulfuric acid in the electrolyte. If your reading is low, that means the chemical balance that makes electrons is off.

Over the years, as the number of electrical components continued to increase in vehicles, batteries evolved into the more powerful sealed batteries we now have.

It’s been said that batteries are like piggy banks. If you keep taking out and never put back, it will end up empty. If you end up with a dead battery, you can be in big trouble.

Vehicles today have a lot of electrical devices and components that can have a large constant need for power. This large draw on batteries has decreased the average life of batteries to somewhere between two and four years. In fact it’s estimated that only 30 per cent of batteries will reach the four-year mark. With this in mind you should have your battery tested every fall when you swap to winter tires. It will be much cheaper to replace the battery then, rather than later, with a tow bill added to the cost and down time without your vehicle.

Winter temperatures make engines harder to start and saps your battery’s power, so you want to make sure you have a healthy, fully charged battery. A battery that’s only 40 per cent charged will freeze at around -26 C, while a fully charged battery won’t freeze until well under -60 C. This is another reason to have a battery blanket on your vehicle in colder climates. A warm battery also has more cranking power than a cold one.

Even while your vehicle is parked there is a small drain on your battery. Most vehicles have clocks, engine management computers, alarm systems and other devices using small amounts of power. If your vehicle is not started for even as little as two weeks your battery can become low on charge. If your vehicle will be parked for a considerable time then unhook the battery or keep it on a trickle charger. A battery that is constantly low and not fully charged will have a much shorter life.

If you are getting a battery charger always get a good one. Cheap battery chargers can have incorrect charging levels and can actually do more harm than good. Make sure you purchase the correct charger to suit your battery’s needs.

Always keep your battery clean. This includes the top of the battery, and the battery terminals and posts. There are battery terminal brushes available that make the job easy, or just make sure it’s done while having your vehicle serviced.

Make sure your battery is strapped down snugly. This is usually done with some form of strap or clamp that was installed at the factory. They may just need to be tightened properly. Your battery can quickly become damaged if allowed to bounce around.

Always put safety first when doing maintenance or repairs on your vehicle. Always wear eye and skin protection and remove all jewelry. Older clothes are also recommended. If you are not totally comfortable doing the work yourself, have a repair shop do it. There are lots of hazards under your hood. Batteries can explode and do serious harm. The risk of potential harm can greatly outweighs any potential savings. Unless you are a qualified technician, never go under the hood while the vehicle is running.

It’s important to understand that the alternator is designed to maintain your battery and run the electrical devices and components. It does not really charge your battery. If your battery goes dead, boosting it, and letting your car run will not charge up the dead battery. If you can clearly determine why the battery went dead (say, you left the headlight on) you need to put the battery on a charger and fully recharge the battery. If you are not able to determine why the battery went dead you should have it checked by a shop that you trust.

Maintaining a healthy battery will help ensure trouble-free driving.

Catch Driving with Jens on CHON FM Thursdays at 8:15. If you have any questions or comments you can reach out to Jens Nielsen at drivingwithjens@gmail.com, or on Facebook or Twitter: @drivingwithjens.

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