A large part of owning a vehicle is learning to balance the costs and benefits of maintenance over the long term. While many car owners drive carefully to avoid costly repairs and get the best possible fuel efficiency, many of us neglect entirely an essential part under the hood that can cost hundreds of dollars to replace: The car battery.
The sad truth is that, while most automotive batteries are expected to last between three and five years according to the manufacturer’s specifications, many car owners are forced to replace their defective car batteries after only one or two years. Because of this, the question of “how much do car batteries cost?” is much more nuanced.
If you are forced to replace your car battery after only a couple of years, that battery probably cost you twice a much as it should have. In this article, we will take a look at a few of the factors that affect car battery life and what you can do to prolong that life and get the most out of your investment.
The most common reason that most car owners replace their batteries is that the battery goes “dead” or no longer holds a charge. However, most of the time that this happens with a car battery, there are signs and preventative measures that can be taken long before the battery reaches the point that it can no longer summon the charge it needs to crank the starter.
Once a car is started, the alternator continually charges the battery as long as the vehicle is running, which can hide the symptoms of a battery having trouble holding a charge. While many cars have a battery meter on the dashboard, this cannot always provide an accurate depiction of the battery’s charge independent of the other vehicle systems.
An excellent automotive battery can see anywhere from a 5-10% expenditure in its available voltage from regular use, which is then gradually recouped by the alternator as the car runs. As a battery nears the end of its life, this expenditure can be anywhere from 10-20%, declining until it can no longer reach the cold-start voltage necessary to start the engine.
In the cost/benefit comparison of cheap car batteries vs. expensive car batteries, it can be easy to overlook the benefits of more costly batteries because the alternator seems to charge both equally well. However, if a more expensive brand can hold a charge for one or two years longer than a cheaper one, it ends up paying for itself in the long run. As a rule of thumb, more expensive automotive batteries, if properly maintained, are worth the cost.
Even if you buy the best car battery brand, how you take care of it will significantly impact how many useful years you get out of it.
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Here are some practical steps you can take to prolong the life of any type of automotive battery:
Develop the habit of opening up the hood and checking for corrosion around the battery terminals once a month. Battery corrosion is caused by oxidization and shows up as a white or sea-foam green buildup on the battery posts and cable terminals. You can clean corroded posts and terminals using baking soda and water mixed together to make a paste.
After disconnecting the battery terminals, you can drizzle a small amount of the mixture onto the battery post. The baking soda will react to the acidic buildup, and the grime can be wiped away with a clean cloth. Battery cable terminals can be dipped into the baking soda mixture and then wiped dry. Once the battery posts and cable terminals have been cleaned, dried, and tightened back down, you can apply a thin coating of petroleum jelly to the posts and terminals to insulate them from the outside air and slow the effects of oxidization in the future.
SAFETY NOTE: Anytime you are working with a car battery, be careful not to complete the circuit between the two battery posts by touching both at the same time or pouring the baking soda/water mixture over the battery in a way that could complete the connection.
Also, because the acidic buildup is corrosive and can be harmful to your skin, try to avoid touching the battery corrosion with your bare hands. While just brushing your fingers against battery corrosion probably won’t cause injury, the best practice is to wear rubber or latex gloves when cleaning corrosion off the posts and terminals.
If your battery is not tightly secured in its place under the hood, the shaking and jostling of everyday driving can cause unnecessary wear and tear on your battery and shorten its lifespan. This random motion causes stress on both the battery posts and the cells inside the battery. Make sure that your battery is sitting securely by only using the correct battery size for your vehicle and tightening down all of the bolts and screws holding it in place until the battery is resting snuggly.
Also, make sure that the battery cable terminals are screwed down tightly and that the cables have a little bit of slack. If the wire is stretched tight, the movement of the engine under the hood can cause undue stress on the battery post, and may even cause the post or cable terminal to pull free.
While it may sound ridiculous to give your car battery a blanket, a lack of insulation is responsible for many batteries dying too early. There is minimal airflow underneath the hood where most automotive batteries sit, and as the engine heats up, temperatures around the battery can become stifling.
In general, batteries do not respond well to drastic changes in temperature, and the overheating of an automotive battery can literally cook the electrolytes in the battery cell and reduce its lifespan significantly. Many newer car models have addressed this issue by putting insulated linings in the battery compartments. If your vehicle does not have this feature, many of the best car battery brands sell insulation kits which are definitely worth the extra investment.
These insulation kits consist of a wrapping or sleeve that usually looks like a silver emergency blanket. This extra insulation helps guard the battery against the changing temperatures under the hood and may help cushion the battery from jostling as well.
As we mentioned above, a battery loses life as it spends its charge and recharges itself from the alternator. Through constant use, the battery gets gradually worse and worse at holding its charge until it needs to be replaced.
You can slow your battery’s gradual decline by keeping it “topped off” as much as possible. Even when you are not using your car, your battery will gradually lose its charge due to the small load that your car’s electrical systems pull even when your car is off (this small load is what keeps your dashboard clock, and radio presets from resetting each time you kill the engine).
If you know that your vehicle will not be used for an extended period of time (say, while you are on vacation), you can help preserve your battery by hooking it up to a charger that will maintain it at a set voltage. By keeping the battery charged, you can avoid wasted stress on the battery by having to charge it back to full capacity or even preventing it from being “dead” when you return.
Another way that you can keep your battery charged is by avoiding making short trips, if possible. If you start your car and run the engine for just a few minutes, the alternator will not have enough time to bring the battery back to a full charge, which can shorten car battery life over time. Running the engine for 20 minutes or so will ensure that the alternator has enough time to bring the battery back to a full charge.
SAFETY NOTE: Anytime you are charging your battery or connecting it to an automatic charger, be careful not to overcharge it. Not only does this reduce the battery life significantly but it is hazardous and can even cause the battery to explode. Replacing a dead car battery is much better than replacing a damaged engine or a burned-down garage, so only leave your battery on an automatic charger if you are sure it is working correctly!
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