Most Important Car Battery Maintenance Tips Explained

Lead-acid car battery 1 photo
Cold weather, age, and improper maintenance can spell an early death for your car’s battery. Most drivers know how dreadful it is to sit behind the steering wheel, turn the key, and find out that the engine won’t turn over. Unpleasant situations such as getting a flat battery can be easily prevented by following a number of tips and tricks.
Before we go through those tips and tricks, did you ever wonder how batteries came to be such an important detail of everyday life? Benjamin Franklin coined the term battery in 1749 to describe a set of capacitors used for his experiments with electricity. Italian physicist Alessandro Volta is the father of the ancestor of the battery, though - the voltaic pile. As for the lead-acid battery we use in most of our cars today, that was invented by French physicist Gaston Plante back in 1859.

The lead-acid battery is the first-ever battery design that can be recharged by passing a reverse current through it. With the aid of a voltage regulator and an alternator, the lead-acid battery doesn’t die as fast as your iPhone does. The secret to its longevity is the humble alternator, which is driven by the engine’s crankshaft to produce AC power through electromagnetism. That’s how your vehicle generates electrical juice and the battery lasts an average of four to six years.

Other than starting the engine, a car battery sends power to the lighting system, spark plugs, infotainment system, and so forth. The typical car battery provides 12.6 volts of DC power, yet the nominal value is 12V. In essence, the car battery is made up of six smaller batteries connected in series. These are also known as battery cells.

The lead-acid battery started to gain importance in the 1920s, when passenger vehicles became equipped with electric starters. Those first batteries designed for cars were 6V units, but the 1950s saw the changeover to 12V. The automotive industry upped the ante to 12 volts due to the higher compression ratios of larger displacement engines.

Now that you have learned (or recalled) the essentials, care to guess what are the most common cause batteries go flat? Old age, as expected, is the most common cause of them all. In second and third place are excessive heat and corrosion. If your car is cranking slowly, the headlights are dim, or the engine doesn’t turn over, the battery is drained. Leaving the lights on or a defective alternator are other causes that could drain your battery flat. The biggest problem with a drained car battery is that it never wholly regains its charge.

There are only two things you can do to prevent a dead battery scenario. You could either ring a buddy for a jump start or take the matter into your own hands by carrying a portable jump starter with you at all times. Juno Power manufactures the most portable jump starter of them all. Priced at $99.99 and weighing just 7 ounces (0.2 kilograms), the Juno Jumper doesn’t only help you with jump starts but it’s also good for charging your mobile phone or tablet via USB.

Don’t forget that a correct jump start is done in steps. Step one: attach the red cable’s alligator clip to the + (positive) battery terminal. Step two: attach the black cable to the - (negative) terminal. If the car starts into life, just let it run for 5 minutes to ensure the battery is charged. Then you have to remove the cables in the reverse order and you’re finished. But then again, it’s much easier to prevent a flat battery.

The secret to long battery life is proper maintenance. Mechanics recommend to pop the hood once a month and inspect the state of the battery terminals. If corrosive buildup is on the menu, the trick is to scrub the terminals with baking soda. A toothbrush, a mixture of three tablespoons of baking soda and a tablespoon of warm water should do the trick. After brushing, clean the terminals with a towel then let them dry. Petroleum jelly should be applied to the car’s battery terminals to deter corrosive buildup in the future. That’s all!

For those who have a standard or low maintenance battery, a great piece of advice is to ensure the water level is always topped up. It's recommended to remove the filter caps and check the water level every month, especially if your battery is two to three years old. After topping up with distilled water, simply pop the filter caps back on.

The past decade saw automotive manufacturers rely more and more on maintenance-free batteries. Don’t, however, take maintenance free literally because sealed batteries also require regular cleaning and maintenance, according to the experts at Meineke Car Care. Though similar in design to a standard car battery, the maintenance-free genre can’t be opened to be topped up with distilled water. Furthermore, this type of battery isn’t leakproof since all lead-acid batteries allow gas to vent during charging. The BMW 5 Series from March 2007 onwards incorporates this type of battery, as do other modern cars. Motorcycles adopted the maintenance-free battery in the 1980s to reduce the likelihood of acid spilling during cornering and for packaging reasons.

Another top tip is to avoid short trips because the less often you start your car, the less work the battery has to do. This applies to a certain point, though, because the car needs to run from time to time for the battery to hold a charge. The best solution to this is wrapping several short trips into a longer one. Cold weather can be a headache for most batteries as well, because the cold is extra taxing on batteries. Starting the car in the winter should be done after checking that everything electrical in the car is turned off. Air con, lights, audio system, heated seats, absolutely everything has to be turned off to ease the load on the starter motor and battery. It’s as simple as that.

Battery draining when the car is turned off is yet another problem that can be avoided. In this situation, a small electrical load from the car’s computers or accessories draws current from the battery. Cables causing short circuits represent the most common scenario. Last but not least, what if you just installed an all-new battery but the engine stopped starting? You may want to tighten the clamps and turn the ignition again. That didn’t solve it? The culprits in this situation could be the alternator or the alarm system. Given this worst case scenario and the complexity of the fix, the last resort is a trustworthy mechanic.

Those who own a modern, highly technologized car with lots of electronics, computers, and sensors, be warned. Disconnecting the battery to prevent it from going flat could be a hellish experience. In the case of some German cars, disconnecting the battery erases the memory in multiple control units. That’s why the sunroof doesn’t open or close anymore, the power windows refuse to go up or down, the steering angle sensor loses its normalization, warning lights come on, and the audio system goes into antitheft mode. So please, if you own a modern Mercedes, BMW or Audi, just don’t disconnect the battery.

If, however, the inevitable happens, the AAA will gladly offer road assistance provided that you call 1-800-222-4357. As a rule of thumb, ask the mechanic to check the battery every time you go for an oil change.
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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