For the most part, today’s automotive batteries are largely maintenance free. Few of them require the steps necessary even a few years ago (adding water, for instance). However, that does not mean that there is nothing for you to do. In fact, the right maintenance and care steps can help ensure that your battery lasts as long as possible and will help you avoid being stranded by a dead battery. What are the steps necessary in vehicle battery maintenance? Let’s run through them below.
Know Your Type
The first thing you’ll need to do is check the type of battery in your car. Most people have lead acid, or LA, batteries. However, there are subtypes that may play a role in your maintenance. For instance, flooded, AGM and gel are three types of lead acid batteries used in automotive applications today. You will also find lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries at times, although these remain rare due to their extremely high cost.
You will need to visually inspect your battery on a regular basis. We recommend once per month or so. What should you look for? There’s really not a lot that can go wrong with a battery while it’s installed under your hood.
However, you do need to look for some specific things. For instance, bulging sides indicate a serious problem with your battery, and it should be replaced immediately. If you notice any liquid around the battery, this is a sign that the electrolyte is spilling from the battery, and it should be replaced immediately. Check for signs of corrosion at the terminals and cable ends, too.
Clean Cable Ends
When corrosion develops on your battery cables, it should be cleaned off. You can do this in a couple of ways. A quick and dirty tip is to pour a small amount of cola on the corrosion – it will remove it quickly. However, that does leave you with a sticky mess under the hood and on the floor. The right way to do this is to purchase a battery cable and terminal cleaning kit. Remove the cables from the terminals and clean them thoroughly.
However, before disconnecting your battery, make sure that doing so will not cause a problem. Some cars are designed with anti-theft systems that activate when the battery power is cut. Honda is famous (or infamous, if you prefer) for their audio systems locking up when the power is cut, and requiring a radio code to reactivate them.
Clean Battery Terminals
While you have the cables off, go ahead and clean the terminals, too. The tool you purchased should have a section that slides right over the terminal, allowing you to scrape corrosion off with wire bristles. Once done, apply a bit of corrosion inhibitor (a gel available from your auto part distributor) to help prevent corrosion from coming back. Felt washers are also recommended if you do not have them installed already.
Most lead acid batteries today are designed to be completely maintenance free. That means you don’t need to add water. If your battery says “maintenance free” on the top or side, do not open it. However, not all automotive batteries are like this. Yours could require that you add water periodically. Over time, the electrolyte solution within the battery becomes depleted. This is most common in unsealed lead acid batteries – sealed lead acid batteries with depleted electrolyte levels should be replaced.
You will need to pry off the cap(s) on top of the battery and check to see if the water level is adequate. If it is below the top of the water holes, you will need to top it off. Use distilled water to bring the level up. Note that you should be very careful here, as the electrolyte is very corrosive. Also note that only specific types of lead acid batteries need their water levels adjusted. If you have a gel or AGM battery, it will not need water.
You should test your battery at least twice per year, but we recommend having it done more frequently. At a minimum, it should be tested in the spring and the fall, before extreme hot weather or cold weather has a chance to kill it. You can test it on your own if you have a volt meter, but we recommend having it done professionally. Most mechanic shops, and even most auto part stores today, will test your battery for no charge. This test will also usually include both the starter and the alternator, in addition to the battery, providing you with an overview of your entire charging and starting system, and helping to head off issues before they become serious problems.
If you will be parking your car for several weeks or months, we recommend removing the battery and storing it. Proper storage is essential, though, particularly during the colder months of the year. There is a persistent myth out there that says storing your battery on concrete is a no-no, but this is actually untrue. It has no effect on your battery. Instead, you need to pay more attention to temperatures. Your battery should be kept warm and protected from freezing temperatures – frozen batteries can short, and will not hold a charge. You also need to avoid storing your battery in areas where it might be subject to extreme heat, which will also kill your battery. Avoid areas where temperatures drop below 33 degrees F, or rise above 80° F.
When you take your battery out of storage, chances are good that the charge level will be low. Make sure you have a battery charger on hand to recharge the battery to its optimum operating level.
As you can see, there is not much involved with battery maintenance, but these steps can make a very big difference in the health and lifespan of your battery.