Car batteries are the strong, silent member of the automotive team. They do their job regardless of heat, cold weather and the drivers who demand so much of them. While a battery that allows a car start at the first turn of the key is a joyful thing, it doesn't last forever.
In fact, depending on where you live and how you drive, the condition of your charging system, and a number of other factors, a battery lasts about four years on average. And when it does give out, there's generally no sign of trouble -- your car just dies.
While the lead-acid car battery hasn't changed much in the last 100 years, it's still a difficult part of the car to check during routine maintenance. Simple battery testers can't, at this time, muddle through the chemical complexity of what goes on in a battery. Instead, they provide a sort of snapshot of the battery at the time it's being tested -- without the context of the battery's chemical composition before or after the test.
So the rule of thumb is simple for battery replacement: You have approximately four years before the battery will theoretically begin its slide from chemical powerhouse to chemical paperweight. At the four year mark, start watching, and hope your mechanic will detect a problem before it's too late.
But due to the nature of the chemical cocktail inside any battery, it may give out before the four year mark, or maybe it will last for several more years. So you have to ask yourself, "Do you feel lucky?"
Normal Life of a Car Battery
When it comes to vehicle maintenance, "normal" is determined by a number of factors that exist in theory but rarely come to pass. For instance, a battery has an average normal lifespan of four years under normal conditions. "Normal" in this case means the battery goes through full charge cycles, isn't subjected to extreme temperatures, is attached to a reliable and consistent charging system and isn't providing power for a ton of accessories. See, normal just isn't normal. In the real world, temperature extremes, vibration, short trips down the street and an ever-increasing array of MP3 players, GPS receivers and other devices take a toll on the battery.
If you look at a typical lead-acid maintenance-free car battery, it's easy to make sense of why these factors affect normal battery life. Inside the plastic box are plates of materials like lead and lead dioxide. The plates are suspended in a mix of water and sulfuric acid, which forms an electrolytic solution. This solution allows electrons to flow between the plates -- that flow of electrons is essentially electricity.
A host of factors can disturb this chemical reaction. Vibrations from rough travel or a poorly-secured battery can shake loose or damage the plates. Extreme heat speeds up the chemical reaction, shortening battery life, while extreme cold can sometimes prolong battery life by slowing down the reaction. This is why some batteries are covered by an insulating sleeve to keep extreme temperatures in check.
Driving style can affect the reaction, too. Starting the car takes a huge jolt of electricity, so the charging system has to step in to replenish the battery. If you have a short commute or take lots of brief trips, the battery never gets fully charged. This constant state of undercharge results in acid stratification. Inside the battery, the electrolytic solution goes from homogenous -- or the same all the way through -- to a rough vertical split. The upper half of the solution is a light acid, while the bottom is a heavy acid. The light acid layer will begin to corrode the plates, and the heavy acid solution will start to compensate for the car's electrical needs by working harder than it's designed to work. The result is a shorter battery life, even though the battery shows up as working on routine tests.
Signs of Car Battery Problems
The most obvious sign of a battery problem is a dead battery. However, because the battery is part of a larger system connected to other parts of the car, a dead battery may indicate a deeper problem than simply no juice. If something else is going wrong in the electrical system -- say, a weak alternator -- a working battery may be providing less electricity than it should.
The best way to test a battery is with the electronic testers available at most automotive shops and even a few auto parts stores. A tech will hook the tester to the battery in the car, and it will take a snapshot of your battery's condition and indicate whether it needs to be replaced. This check should be a part of routine vehicle maintenance and done every time you have an oil change.
The battery itself provides other clues to whether it's on its way out. The first is age. If the battery is older than three or four years, start expecting problems. Second, take a look at your driving habits. Remember, short trips and long periods of inactivity will sap a battery's life. Third, take a look at the battery itself. Corrosion or stains mean you have a leak. If your battery is covered in a case or insulating sleeve, remove it every once in a while to see what's going on underneath. Look for buildup around the terminals as well. You can clean the buildup off with baking soda and water -- just remember to use gloves and safety glasses while working. The electrolytic solution is partially sulfuric acid, which is not gentle on the skin. Finally, smell the battery, paying attention to rotten egg odors (sulfur) or the smell of the battery overheating.
Batteries are so reliable and so simple that drivers have a tendency to forget they're even there until it's too late. If you pay attention to your car's battery and conduct a few tests and observations along the way, you'll reduce your risk of being stranded on the road. All things considered, batteries are relatively inexpensive, considering the amount of work they perform on a regular basis.
Replace a Car Battery
Replacing a car battery is relatively easy and can be part of a regular auto maintenance schedule. While there seems to be a dizzying array of batteries on the market, only three companies produce most of the maintenance-free batteries used in the United States today -- Delphi, Exide and Johnson Controls Industries. Each company manufactures batteries that are marketed by different companies under different names. The name brand on the battery doesn't ultimately matter. What does matter is age, cold cranking amps, reserve capacity and group size.
- Age: Batteries usually come with a manufacture date on them, and they should be sold within six months of that date. Check the date carefully before you buy. The date is often coded. Most codes start with the letter indicating the month -- A for January, B for February and so on. The number indicates the year, as in 0 for 2000 or 1 for 2001.
- Group size: This measure determines the outside dimensions and where the battery terminals are. Make sure the group size of the battery you're buying matches that of the one you're replacing -- otherwise you could wind up with a battery that has a different size and configuration than your car can use. Fortunately, most battery sellers group them by the car make, model and year they can be used for.
- Cold cranking amps: This is a measure of a battery's capacity to start a car at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 degrees Celsius), when the engine oil is thick and the battery's chemical potential is low. The higher the CCA, the better it will start in the cold. Most batteries list this on the battery sticker, though some only list CA, or cranking amps. CA is measured at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) and is usually a higher number. However, it gives a less accurate assessment of how well the car will start in the cold.
- Reserve capacity: This is the toughest number to find but one of the most useful. It indicates how long your car can run off battery power alone if the alternator suddenly dies. It can usually be found in the battery literature at the store or online, or occasionally on the battery itself.
Follow these rules and you should be able to weather the worst a bad battery can throw at you, and find a reliable new one when you need it.