Although you need petrol to make an engine run, electricity is also an important requirement as, without this form of energy, you won’t get the sparks to start combustion, nor be able to crank the starter motor to set the pistons in motion (unless you push-start the car). So a battery, which stores electricity mainly to help you get the car started, deserves more attention than it usually gets.
Care of a battery generally means keeping its fluid up to the right level. The level can drop due to evaporation and if it drops significantly, the cell plates will be exposed and their capability to store electricity will diminish.
Most batteries have lines marked on the sides of the opaque casings so you can roughly see the level of the electrolyte through the casing. There’s usually an upper and lower limit – ensure that the level is within the two lines. You can also remove the caps and peer inside. If the level is high enough, you won’t see the upper portions of the plates of the cells sticking out of the solution.
You don’t have to disconnect the two electrodes at the top when topping up, but make sure that no sparks are created when you are handling the battery in any way. This means no smoking as well! Because of the chemical reaction inside, hydrogen and oxygen are given off and an explosion can result if there’s a spark.
Use only distilled water. Tap water contains impurities which can become solids during the chemical reaction. These accumulate at the bottom of the battery and, over time, will interfere with the charging process and storage capability in the battery. Distilled water is sold at petrol stations and hardware shops (or you can distil it yourself). Never add sulphuric acid into the electrolyte.
When pouring the distilled water in, do so with care. The electrolyte contains acid, a highly corrosive and poisonous liquid. If the electrolyte overflows or splashes onto the casing, quickly wash it off with water (after capping the openings first). If you allow it to remain, corrosion will start.
Is it still serviceable?
One of the infuriating things about batteries is that they die when you are in a hurry to get somewhere or when you are starting off for work in the morning. And what’s worse, you often do not get any warning although slow cranking of the starter motor is often a sign that the end is near for the battery.
There are meters in accessory shops which can help you determine
the battery condition. While not very accurate, they do provide some indication. If you want accurate measurements, you will need to check the specific gravity in each cell using a hydrometer. Note, however, that the hydrometer will measure the specific gravity in each cell so you have to consider the state of all the cells. If there is a difference of .050 or more between the highest and lowest cell, or the battery can’t hold a charge at 75% capacity or higher, then it’s definitely time to replace it.
There’s no fixed lifespan as it depends on usage, purity of the electrolyte, electrical demands and even ambient temperatures. A rough environment where the battery is subjected to excessive vibrations can shorten its life and a faulty alternator (which recharges the battery) would also have a negative effect. Even if the battery is not behaving like it’s ‘going’, it’s a good idea to replace it after 12 – 18 months (24 months at most) if you want to avoid being stranded on a rainy night at a carpark outside a seafood restaurant 20 kms from home.
Keeping the electrolyte topped up at all times would make a difference to service life so check the level regularly. When you start the engine, be sure all unnecessary equipment is switched off. This means not starting with the lights on and the air-conditioner blower running. They all place extra demand on the battery when the idea is to allow the full capacity of the battery to be used to turn the starter motor. Obviously, you don’t want to leave the lights on when the engine is off, unless there is a need to do so.
Be sure that the battery is kept clean and the caps are all tight. The terminals should also be free of corrosion and if you want, add some grease or spray water-dispersant oil on them. Some people put an old cloth or newspaper under the battery to provide a little bit of protection against vibrations.
Recharging a battery
Sometimes a battery may go flat and still be serviceable after being recharged. The best way is to use a battery charger and ‘trickle charge’, which takes a while. If the battery has gone flat while you are driving, you can either jump-start your own car or connect the battery to another car’s battery using the right jumper cables (be sure to observe the correct procedures for connecting the terminals).
Once the engine is started, it’s not a good idea to just leave the engine idling to recharge the battery; drive the car instead. The length of time to fully recharge the battery depends on how flat it has become, the amount of surplus current that is diverted to the battery from the alternator, and a few other factors. Bear in mind that the alternator is designed to work with a serviceable battery that is charged and not intended as a recharging unit.
If you think the battery is going, it is best to head straight for the nearest workshop and get it changed. No point taking chances and getting really stranded. If you are member of the AAM, you can call them up and have a battery sent over and installed. Their service is well known and you get a fully-charged battery ready to go.