Every trip relies on there being life in your car’s electrical system, yet the battery – the power source – is one of the motoring world’s unsung heroes and only gets attention when it’s faulty. Mike Monk explains how to remain in charge
As vehicles become ever more sophisticated, brimming over with electronic aids to make driving easier and safer, little thought is given to the life-support system behind all the technology – the battery.
In days of yore, batteries were more evident in our motoring lives by virtue of requiring habitual checking and/or topping up, and their lifespans could be a little unpredictable. Then came maintenance-free ‘long-life’ batteries, which eliminated the chore of servicing and generally lasted longer. However, the onset of the automotive electronic revolution – especially new stop/start technology – has placed an increasingly high burden on the battery, and while each individual electrical or electronic function may not draw a heavy current, in combination they add up to quite a significant load. Naturally, then, all our batteries will eventually run down, then die altogether, so how should they be looked after and replaced?
A battery will go flat even with no external connections made to it. This is because every battery has an internal discharge circuit – known as internal resistance – as part of its chemical make-up. The ambient temperature where the battery is located also affects its life and, as with so many things, the older the battery is, the weaker it gets. While the use of jumper leads or a push-start may get you mobile, these are sometimes only temporary solutions, as the electronics may not all respond, leaving the vehicle limping along. For peace of mind, rather consider investing in a NOCO GB30 Ultrasafe Lithium Jump Starter, available from Battery Centre outlets, and keep it with your tool kit.
When leaving your car, always make sure that everything not reliant on the ignition being switched on – any of the vehicle’s lighting systems, such as its side or park lights, headlights and interior lights, for instance – are extinguished. And do not leave iPods, cellphones and the like to be charged unattended via the vehicle’s 12V sockets, USB port or any other power source.
There are essentially three types of battery for automotive use. A starting battery is suitable for vehicles with a low electrical demand – they only use a small number of amp hours. They hold thin plates with a large surface area and recharge fairly quickly. They are inexpensive and can last a long time if not frequently overloaded. For heavier demands, an SLI, or starting/lighting/ignition, battery is required. These are similar in construction to the starting battery, but have thicker plates for more frequent and deeper charging. Finally, there is the deep-cycle battery, suitable for off-road vehicles where such loads as extra lighting, long periods of idling, winch operation and cooler-box power are required. Obviously, the vehicle’s original-equipment battery specs set the benchmark, but if in doubt, check with the manufacturer.
Most recognised battery dealers will carry out a free check on your battery. When it comes down to replacing your vehicle’s battery, go to an authorised supplier and ensure that the new battery is the correct one for your vehicle. It does not have to be of the same make as originally fitted, but must comply fully with the vehicle manufacturer’s specification. Dealers should have a catalogue listing approved equivalents. Acknowledging that battery replacement is not a running cost you can plan for, when faced with the task, do not down-spec your battery to try and save costs. Buying second-hand can be folly, too. On the other hand, if you subject your vehicle to an exceptionally hard life and think that a heavy-duty battery may be needed, first check with the vehicle manufacturer that the charging system (the alternator output) can cope with the extra demand.
While pure electric and some hybrid-electric vehicles require a wholly separate approach to battery maintenance and replacement prescribed by the motor manufacturer, for all of us, a battery is crucial to getting around. Period. So remember to do the necessary and keep the current flowing.
BATTERY DOS AND DON’TS
DORMANT BATTERY CARE
If you are leaving the car unattended for any considerable length of time, connecting a trickle charger to your battery is one option, but it will need to be a specialised item such as the Optimate3+ maintenance charger or CTEK smart charger, as batteries are not designed for continuous trickle charging. Disconnecting the battery is another option, but the vehicle’s security systems will be immobilised and some on-board computer systems may not spring back to life after the prolonged absence (check with the vehicle manufacturer). Also, having someone occasionally start the vehicle, but not drive it, is not ideal, as each start uses up energy that requires around 20 minutes of normal running to replace.
Optimate3+, 082 565 5752
CTEK, 0861 447844
(This article was first published in the summer 2015/16 issue of AA traveller magazine)