Car batteries? As long as the car starts, the lights turn on, and the radio plays, it’s easy to forget about them and the fact that they need regular attention just like every other operating part of your car. Don’t forget. Such attention is particularly important during the winter months. The colder the climate, the greater the drain on the battery. Here is a thorough guide on how to maintain a car battery.
Car batteries today do tend to be trouble free if they receive reasonable care and maintenance. There are four general reasons for their failure: failure to add water when needed, prolonged undercharging or overcharging, inadequate capacity, especially if electrical accessories have been added to the car’s original equipment, and lack of proper engine and battery maintenance.
Following are some tips on how to maintain your car battery. If you follow them, the chances are that you will get satisfactory performance throughout its service life. A warning, however: don’t attempt to service it yourself unless you are thoroughly familiar with the precautions that must be taken.
Car battery gases are explosive and they may explode with great violence. A torch, match, lighted cigarette or sparks from metal tools accidently contacting both terminal posts could cause ignition of the gases. If you’re not in the know, let a service station man take care of the upkeep. Check, however, to see that such upkeep is being done.
Water is the life of your battery. Check the level once a week in hot weather, at least once a month in cold weather. Add plain water if the liquid level as seen through the vent cap opening is below the built-in indicator. If the water level is too low, the high concentration of sulfuric acid on the exposed plates may permanently damage the battery. Do not fill above the level of the indicator. Overfilling may cause the electrolyte to bubble up and escape through the vent caps. If the water level is low frequently, have a qualified serviceman check the output of the alternator. It may be overcharging and “boiling” the water away.
The electrolyte? That’s the solution of sulfuric acid and water in which the plates and separators are immersed in. Acid, by the way, is highly corrosive. Avoid splashing it on skin or clothing. If you touch a case or terminal, do not touch your eyes before you wash your hands. In case of accidental acid contact with eyes or skin, flush immediately with a large quantity of water. If acid reaches your eyes, get medical attention at once.
If the alternator belt stretches and begins to slip, the alternator will not produce a normal amount of electrical current for recharging. Have the bell checked for tightness by a qualified serviceman at intervals recommended by the manufacturer, or whenever you take the car for a tuneup.
When the cable clamps corrode at the terminals, trouble is likely to follow. A corroded clamp means a poor connection and loss of power. If long neglected, corrosion can actually eat through a clamp and cause a complete power loss. Clean corrosion from cable clamps with a wire brush and water. After cleaning, coat the clamps with petroleum grease, silicone grease, or vaseline to prevent or slow corrosion. If the cable clamp is too badly damaged from corrosion, replace it. If you fail to keep cable clamps and other cable connections tight, you will experience a power loss or complete power failure. Have the serviceman periodically check and if necessary tighten the clamps, the “ground” connection, and the cable connections to alternator, starter, and power terminals.
Take proper care of the case as it is very important for your car battery maintenance. A film of moisture, grease and dirt on the case and around terminals can cause a slow leakage of electricity even while the car is idle. Remove loose dirt with a slow stream of water, being careful to prevent it from entering the vent holes. Use a stiff brush to remove corrosion. This is a must if you want to maintain your car battery.
A cloth dipped in a solution of baking soda (two ounces of soda to one quart of water) will help neutralize acid which may have accumulated on the case and connections. Clean the vent caps periodically. Each has a tiny hole in the center to permit accumulated gases to escape. Remove corrosion and rust from the tray and holddown clamps with a stiff brush and a solution of baking soda and water. Rinse with clean water, dry, and then coat with acid-proof paint. Do not paint the terminals! Avoid getting the baking soda solution into cells. Keep hold-down clamps firmly adjusted to prevent the battery from rocking in the tray. Rocking may cause severe damage to the cells and allow the electrolyte to splash out.
If you experience a power loss such as dim lights or a marked slowdown in starter operation, have your serviceman check the car battery to see if it is in good condition and fully charged. If the cells are about equally charged and if the water level is normal but the overall charge of the battery is low, have the serviceman look for the cause. It might be:
- A short in the electrical system causing an excessive drain.
- Trouble in the alternator causing a drop-off in the charging rate.
- A slipping alternator belt.
- Insufficient driving to keep the car battery adequately charged, in which case you may need to have it recharged occasionally.
- Lights or accessories operating too often when the engine is off and the alternator is not operating.
Your car battery may be in perfect condition and all connections may be tight, yet its power may be gradually declining – particularly if you live in a cold climate. If your engine is hard to start because it is poorly tuned – bad spark plugs, burned distributor points, incorrect timing – or if it stalls frequently, you may be literally working your battery to death. If you use up more energy than the alternator can restore, your battery will slowly lose its charge. Have a complete tune-up in the spring and late fall; more often if the car is hard to start, tends to stall, or is subject to very extensive usage.
If you live in a cold climate, it is important that you use the right “weight” oil in your car; that is, the oil with the proper viscosity for the temperature in your vicinity. Oil that is too viscous (heavy) acts like molasses or glue on a cold morning, making it hard to crank your engine. The result, again, may be an overworked car battery.
If it seems to labor on a cold morning, ask your service station or garage attendant if you are using an oil too heavy for the car and climate. With the best of care, winter is a time problems can appear and this is the time when proper battery maintenance is essential. For example, people who leave home for work before the sun has come up, sometimes forget to switch off lights when they park. If you leave high beam lights on with the engine turned off, the 18-amperes drain will reduce a fully charged 40 ampere-hour rated battery by 50 percent in approximately 40 minutes – that means a dead battery. How to maintain your car battery if this happens?
Before the development of automatic transmissions for automobiles, failure of a car battery meant asking a friendly neighbor or a passing motorist for a push. But with many of today’s cars, if the battery is dead the car cannot be started by towing or pushing with the engine in gear. Consequently, the “jumper cable” is now a common emergency accessory. With it, you can borrow power from a neighbor or passing motorist and start your car.
Unfortunately, many people do not understand how to use jumper cables or how dangerous they can be if improperly used. Here’s how they should be used. First, before you attempt to connect jumper cables, take the following precautions:
- In very cold weather, check the car battery to see if the electrolyte is frozen. Do not use jumper cables if it is frozen; it could damage it beyond repair.
- Check to see that both the booster and rundown battery have the same voltage – six-volt or 12-volt. If your car is a six-volt you can get a boost from a 12-volt car, but you must be sure to detach the cables as soon as the car motor turns over, otherwise you may overcharge your battery. Under no circumstances should you charge a car with 12-volt battery from one with 6-volt.
- Turn off all accessory switches and the ignition key.
- Place the gearshift or gear selector in the neutral or park position.
- Remove vent caps from both the booster and rundown battery.This will release accumulated gases.
Now, you are ready to connect the cables. On the rundown battery, find the terminal connected to the starter switch. Note if positive or negative. Then clip one end of jumper cable to like marked terminal of booster battery. Now, clip the other end of the same jumper cable to the terminal of the rundown battery. (Be sure the positive terminal marked POS, P, or of one is connected to the positive of the other and that the negative marked NEG, N – is connected to the negative of the other. Connection of a positive terminal to a negative terminal may result in alternator damage or possible explosion). Connect one end of the second jumper cable to the other terminal of the booster battery. The other end of this cable should be fastened securely to the bumper or engine block of the car with the rundown battery.
Engage the starter of your car. If it does not start immediately, it is well to start the engine of the other car to avoid excessive drain on the booster battery. Put the cell caps on the batteries of both cars after the one with the dead battery starts and the engine is running normally. Remove the ground connection cable from the bumper or engine block of the one car and then the other end from the booster battery. Then, remove the second cable, first detaching it from the recharged battery and then from the booster battery.
If you cannot start your car with the aid of jumper cables and a booster battery, think twice before you take emergency measures. If your car has a standard stick shift transmission you can push it or have it towed without danger of damage. If you have an automatic transmission, however, you cannot push your car to start it; and if you have it towed, be sure the tow truck has a crane. Your car’s drive wheels must be lifted entirely off the ground; otherwise your car may suffer serious damage. Your other alternatives, of course, are to replace the car battery or have it recharged.
Car batteries are usually taken for granted and people pay attention to them only after they notice issues with them. So, it is of utmost importance that you know how to maintain a car battery as its failure may mean the end of the road for you.