By Eric Meltzer
It’s battery season. Dead battery season, to be accurate. This is the time of year when you go out to warm up your ride only to turn the key and watch the lights dim, and hear a click or nothing at all. Most of us know the routine. Call for road service or find someone with jumper cables, then call work and tell them you’re going to be late.
Car batteries have been around as long as the electric starter and even longer for operating lights. They have evolved from 6 volts to 12 volts and amperage has increased to power electric starters that have to turn over ever higher-performing, higher-compression engines. The primary purpose of the car battery is to start the engine and provide electrical power when the engine is not running.
Modern vehicles require a constant flow of electricity to power things like engine management parameters, stereo presets, clock, and other power accessories. The constant draw of power is very low and with normal use won’t kill a battery and this amperage usage is calculated when the vehicle manufacturer specifies the battery size. A properly configured and operating electrical system won’t be hampered by minor accessory power draw.
The most common battery in a car, that is the battery used to start the engine, as opposed to a hybrid battery like those found in a Prius or a fully electric car like a Tesla, is a lead-acid battery. Invented by Gaston Planté in 1859, it would be another 26 years before the car would even be invented. Lead-acid batteries consist of lead plates and separate plates of lead dioxide, all submerged in an electrolyte solution of sulfuric acid and water. The result is a chemical reaction that releases electrons that flow through conductors and produce electricity.
Variations on the car battery include “Maintenance Free” which are just a sealed battery case that doesn’t allow periodic addition of water. The downside is that they may be more life-limited depending on conditions that I’ll go into shortly. A recent improvement to auto batteries is one which submerges the plates in a gel solution rather than liquid. This has the advantage of preventing spills if the battery is tipped or the case is compromised although the average vehicle doesn’t require such protections and the increased cost limits their target market.
The common thought regarding battery life in New England is that cold kills a battery and while extreme temperatures don’t help, heat is actually the harshest environment to a battery. That electrolyte solution of sulfuric acid and water I mentioned earlier is mostly water and will evaporate when subjected to heat. This upsets the chemical composition, causes oxidation and leaves deposits on the plates in the battery. Additionally, plate growth, plate buckling, and corrosion are exacerbated by heat and contribute to premature aging.
All this is happening to your car battery while you’re sitting by the river or sipping a cool beverage on the porch. Now fast forward to early December when the snow flakes are blowing in the wind, the last warm days of fall are behind us, and you’re sitting behind the wheel of your dead car, staring at a dim or dark dashboard while your breath crystallizes on the frigid windshield and your wondering how your battery could be dead when it was working yesterday. Well, your battery has been slowly deteriorating all summer in the heat and now that your car is cold soaked, oil and fluids are thick, and electrical demands are high as your starter is trying to turn all that molasses-like lubrication, your battery has given up the ghost. Heat kills batteries but, around here, they fail in the cold. In fact, the average life of a battery in hot climates is three years. The average life of a battery in New England is almost twice as long thanks to our season changing temperatures.
There are alternatives to the surprise of a dead battery. Abnormally slow cranking, especially on a cold day, is a good indication that your battery is going bad. Your favorite auto shop, mechanic, and many auto parts stores should be able to load-test your battery to give you a good picture of it’s health. This simulates the effort your battery would put forth while trying to start your car or run all those accessories like the blower motor, lights, and wipers. Dead cells and unacceptable output can be diagnosed and the battery replaced before you find out the hard way. Similarly, your charging system can be assessed to be sure a new battery is what you need.
Modern vehicles with their complex electrical systems are dependent on the flow of electrons and the battery is the heart of the system. Get it checked out periodically and don’t be left out in the cold.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.