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Four Important Things to Know about Your Car Battery

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A few months ago, I ran into a terrible, terrible situation with my PT Cruiser. My dad-in-law decided, due to some recent problems with the car, that we had to replace the alternator. (He has much more experience with cars than do I, and so I trusted his opinion.) If you know anything about a PT Cruiser, you realise that replacing the alternator is a stupidly monumental task for a layman in his garage. To make a long story short, after removing and testing the alternator, we discovered that that particular piece of equipment was fine, and it was merely the battery which was the problem. What had been a ten-hour process could’ve been solved in forty-five minutes. While this was a very silly mistake to make, perhaps there is someone else out there who will be in a similar situation, and will think back to this post and benefit from it.

When working on your car, always check your battery first. I don’t care if you think it’s a flat tire–check your blasted battery! This post is contains a few good tips for battery maintenance, and how to tell when you need to replace the old thing.


#1: What Does a Battery Do?

Good question, fellow automotive amature! The battery is traditionally responsible for several tasks: starting, lighting, and ignition. The starter is what fires when you first turn the key in the car. The lighting refers to the headlamps of the vehicle. The ignition is the spark that explodes the gasoline inside the engine to keep the car moving.

Newer cars (ie. anything since the Model T) rely on the battery to power other things as well, such as the sound system, the A/C, the DVD player, the GPS, the Bluetooth speaker, the espresso machine, or any other fancy electronics you decide are necessary on your commute.

This may sound like a lot to expect out of your battery, but the internal combustion (or, explosion!) of gasoline keeps your battery recharged. There’s almost no way to drain your battery while driving. However, when not driving, you should limit the use of electronics that depend on your battery for power. Watching a Die Hard marathon in the back seat is fine, so long as you keep the car running.


#2: How Can I Make Sure My Battery Keeps Working?

There’s a rare type of battery, used in the olden days to power covered wagons, that required you to keep it topped off with water. And if that isn’t odd enough (aren’t you supposed to NOT dunk your electronics in fluid?), it required snazzy distilled water–tap water had too many particulates. Those old batteries were such snobs!

Assuming you have a modern vehicle, you don’t need to water your battery. You do need to occasionally check the connections. Make sure the wires are screwed on tightly! Loose connections are bad. You also need to clean the terminals, or posts. (Posts are the places where the wires connect the battery to the engine.) A whitish powder, lead sulfate, builds up on the terminals over time (do not eat it). This buildup is normal, but it results in a faulty connection. There’s a nifty tool I recently found at a thrift store: it’s a metal cup, with hundreds of stiff wires bristling from the inside. You can stick the post into the hole, and the wires clean off the buildup. (Note: do NOT insert any other rod-shaped objects into this hole. It will be painful.)


#3: My Battery is Dead, What Do I Do?

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to be a good battery parent, your battery will die. Perhaps you left the headlights on overnight, or watched that Die Hard marathon in the back with the car turned off. (After I warned you!) This is why you need to have a jumper cable in the back of your car. If you do not have one of these, buy it the next time you go to the store. Since many people will never read this article, there’s a good chance they will also not have jumper cables. The jumper cable connects a charged battery to an uncharged battery. (Remember, red is positive, black is negative.) Electricity is channeled into your dead car, which allows the explosions to being inside your engine. Once the engine is running, the battery beings to get charged. Leave your engine on for as long as you can after a jump, preferably thirty minutes or more. (Driving counts toward the thirty minutes.) You should consider immediately driving to an automotive shop; most shops will test your battery for free.


#4: How Do I Pick Out a Replacement Battery?

Well, here you are, at the shop with a dead battery. Replacing a battery is very simple in most cars. It usually requires unscrewing a few bolts, but that’s that hardest part. But when you walk into your store of choice, you are suddenly presented with 37,000 different options. How do you tell the difference between all these black boxes full of electricity? Well, the industry uses a few measurements that can tell you the quality of a battery.

CA (Cranking Amperes) measures how many amps a battery can deliver, at 32⁰F for thirty seconds, without dropping below 7.2 volts. (You know the relationship between volts and amps, right?) The higher this measurement, the higher quality your battery.

CCA (Cold Cranking Amperes) is the same measurement as CA, made at 0⁰F. Temperature affects the performance of batteries, and if you live in a cold climate, you’ll want a higher number for CCA. If the CA and the CCA on your battery are very far apart, your battery is a low-end model, and you shouldn’t have paid very much for it. (Note that a low-end model still works well, but it may have trouble in cold environments.)

RCM (Reserve Capacity Minutes) measures how many minutes a fully-charged battery at 80⁰F will deliver 25 amps until the voltage drops below 10.5. Again, higher is better. The temperature for this measurement is much higher than the CA measurement, because your car starts (“cranks”) cold, but runs hot.

Congratulations, you now know the basics on battery maintenance! Brag to your friends!

Sources: Battery Equaliser, Wikipedia

Adam Wagner works for Clark Motors an auto repair shop in Southern California. Clark Motors specializes in Mercedes-Benz Auto Repair in Santa Barbara.

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