By Tom Benford
The average collector car owner has little concern for the battery in his or her car — that is, until the engine won't start and he/she has to resort to jumping it. This is due, in part, to the fact that today's batteries require very little maintenance and in part to the fact that the average Joe doesn't fully understand the workings of the battery and the potential problems it can have.
And I confess that up until recent years I, too, scarcely gave my automotive batteries the thought — and care — they deserve. Oh, I'd check to make sure the water level was where it should be and occasionally wire-brush the terminals to knock off any crud or corrosion, but beyond that it was a matter of 'out of sight, out of mind'. But, as you will soon learn, there's more going on inside that heavy black box that we depend on for our cranking power than most folks imagine, so that's a good place to start.
The battery has two purposes. The first is to provide power to start the engine, and in order to do this it must provide a lot of current for a short time — as much as 600 amps for 10 seconds. A battery in good condition can provide enough current to run the starter for a much longer period, but the starter won't be able to endure it.
The second purpose of the battery is to filter out voltage spikes which the electrical system can experience. For example, when the starter is shut off, a -200 volt spike can occur, and large positive spikes can also occur. The battery does a great job as a filter since it acts like a large capacitor to absorb these spikes.
Once the battery has provided the required power to the starter and the engine is running, the alternator then takes over the job of supplying all the power needed to keep the engine running as well as supplying power for all the other devices and charging the battery back up.
So, essentially, the battery is constantly being discharged and recharged as its lot in life. Unbeknownst to most people, however, is that a build-up of sulfate crystals on the battery plates is also taking place constantly as this charge/discharge scenario goes on, and this is a naturally-occurring process. And also unbeknownst to most is that this build-up of sulfate crystals is the main cause of premature or unpredictable battery failure.
These are what sulfate crystals on battery plates look like. These crystals form naturally as a byproduct of the chemical processes that produce electricity in the battery and can seriously interfere with the power the battery puts out.
Very frequently a perfectly good battery will seem to be dead because lead sulfate has built up on the plates. Lead sulfate crystals form as a result of the chemical reaction that produces electricity. These crystals interfere with the flow of electricity in and out of the battery, and it's estimated that 80% of the automotive batteries that are discarded each year could be recovered by removing the sulfate crystal build-up on the plates.
Now, as I already said, sulfate crystal build-up is inevitable, and sulfate build-up on the plates is the first and most common cause of premature battery failure; there are some factors that accelerate it:
The second most common cause of failure is loss of electrolyte (the liquid chemical that causes electricity to flow) due to overcharging or heat. By checking the electrolyte level in your battery and adding water as needed this is an easy problem to monitor and solve.
What about the sulfate crystal build-up on the plates? What can be done about that, you ask?
There are a few de-sulfator (or desulphator, depending on your spelling preference and the manufacturer) devices available on the market, two of which are the Battery Life Saver and the Battery Minder Plus. The Battery Life Saver is a device that you leave permanently attached to the battery and, ostensibly, it performs continuous desulfatizing; there is also a version of the Battery Life Saver (the BLS-12/24-B) that is intended to be used in concert with a charger to rejuvenate unusable batteries. The Battery Minder Plus is a battery charger/maintainer that also performed full-time desulfatizing. Sulfarid's Desulfators also attach permanently to the battery to work constantly. All of these products come with guarantees that they work as claimed by their respective manufacturers.
The Battery Life Saver BLS-12-M connects in the vehicle to the battery terminals and performs continuous de-sulfatizing.
For seriously sick batteries, the BLS-12/24-B is used in concert with a charger to de-sulfatize and revive batteries that are frequently given up for dead.
Now let's jump back to the actual workings and anatomy of batteries again so we can better understand what we're up against.
Conductance is a measurement of the plate surface available in a battery for chemical reaction, a determinant of the ability to supply power. Measurement of conductance provides a reliable indication of battery health and correlates to battery capacity. Conductance can be used to detect cell defects, shorts, normal aging and open circuits that can cause the battery to fail. And conductance is the required test method for battery warranty decisions at most automotive dealers worldwide.
A digital multimeter like this one is good for letting you know the voltage of your battery but, alas, it can't give you any indication of the overall health and life left in the battery.
A new battery (when fully charged) will have a high conductance reading anywhere from 110% to 140% of its rating in terms of CCA (this is an abbreviation for Cold Cranking Amps, a measurement of the number of amps a battery can deliver at 0°F for 30 seconds and not drop below 7.2 volts. So a high CCA battery rating is good especially in cold weather. As a battery ages and is used, the plate surface can sulfate or shed active material, which decreases cranking performance and lowers it conductance.
The rate that a battery ages is determined by operating conditions, including time in use, temperature, state of charge and vibration. Extremes in any of these conditions mean the battery's life is used up faster and that its measured conductance will decline faster.
When the battery has lost a significant percentage of its ability, the conductance reading will fall well below its rating and the test decision will recommend that you replace the battery. Because conductance measurements can track the life of the battery, they are also effective for predicting end of life before the battery fails. Here's an example of a typical battery life cycle:
So, as you can see, conductance is really the indicator of battery health. And while a digital multimeter will readily tell you the voltage of your battery, it can't give you a clue as to the conductance. To measure and check conductance, you need a meter capable of this function, such as the Midtronics PBT-300. It will set you back quite a bit more than a good multimeter, but it's still an affordable — and very useful — tool to have in your garage. Plus, it also tests the condition of your starter and alternator, so it's a lot more than just a battery tester.
The Midtronics PBT-300 displays the CCA (cold cranking amps) power of the battery and the LEDs indicate battery condition, too. The lit yellow LED tells me this battery's condition is low and it's nearing the end of its useful life cycle.
In addition to displaying the CCA power, the Midtronics meter also tells you what the available voltage is. The PBT-300 also performs alternator and starter tests, too.
Now let's talk about what you need to perform battery care and to keep your cranking power up to snuff.
Battery charger — every garage should have a good battery charger available to keep the power level up on seldom-used vehicles or to charge dead batteries. The power, size and price of battery chargers vary from about $30 to several hundred. Most users can get by with a modest charger in the under $100 price range, but if you have several vehicles you may find it to be a better investment to go with a heavy-duty charger that has a fast-charge cycle on it as well. It's important not to skimp on a charger, however — you definitely want to get one that has built-in overload protection, since this will protect both the charger and the battery.
This industrial-strength battery charger from NAPA features multiple charge power ranges and can also be used to jump start a vehicle with a totally-dead battery. With a price tag of a few hundred bucks, this is more power than most folks need or want, unless you subscribe to the 'bigger is better' school of thought.
A trickle charger is a particularly useful piece of gear for vehicles that are stored over the winter or used infrequently; a trickle charger will maintain a full charge on the vehicle's battery without overcharging it and draws very little household current while in use. There are several different brands of trickle chargers available, and some are even capable of maintaining the battery charge on several vehicles simultaneously — something of interest to you readers with multiple-car stables. These devices sell for under $100, are available from numerous sources, and are an excellent investment for maintaining the charge on your battery and, in so doing, prolonging its useful life.
A trickle charger like this Battery Tender will keep your battery fully charged without overcharging it. This is a very useful piece of equipment for vehicles that are infrequently used or stored for long periods of time.
While a battery load tester is not an absolute necessity, it's inexpensive enough (under $70) to have a place in your garage. A battery load tester will, as the name implies, subject the battery to a simulated load and then accurately report its condition in a couple of minutes. Knowing the condition of the battery is good information to have, since recharging a bad battery only gives it temporary or "surface power". The bottom line here is that a freshly charged battery may accept and hold a surface charge, yet still not have enough power to crank an engine over. The battery load tester will let you know if it's time to replace the battery or not.
A battery load tester will accurately report the condition of a battery in a minute or two and let you know if it's time to replace the battery or not.
Another absolutely essential piece of equipment for any garage is a good set of booster cables. And when shopping for a set of booster cables, the best advice I can give you here is not to be penny-wise and dollar-foolish. Spend a few dollars extra to get a really good set of cables with multi-stranded conductors, preferably shielded, of at least 15-feet in length. The spring clamps on both ends should also be insulated and have good mating on the "teeth" of the clamp so that they will grip the battery terminals securely. A cheap, thin set of cables won't conduct sufficient electricity to successfully jump the battery and the cables will become hot, indicating that they are not good conductors. By purchasing a good set of booster cables you'll be getting a piece of gear that should last you for many years and give you trouble-free service. Think about it for a minute — what good is a set of booster cables that don't do what they're supposed to do when you need them? Remember this: good equipment isn't cheap, and cheap equipment isn't good.
Jumper boxes, also called "hot boxes," are self-contained batteries with terminal clamps attached that are designed for jump-starting vehicles with weak or dead batteries. Again, as with other tool and gear purchases, don't go with the bargain basement jumper box — spend a few dollars more to get one that has plenty of cranking amperage because a weak jumper box that doesn't have enough power to turn your engine over isn't of any use. There are several different jumper boxes available from different manufacturers and they vary in CCA (cold cranking amps), price and other features that may or may not be important to you. Some of the better jumper boxes also have built-in lights, charge gauges and some even have air compressors to pump up a slow leak on the roadside. One very useful feature to look for in a jumper box, however, is a 12V 'cigarette lighter' outlet which is very handy for powering battery-operated vacuum cleaners, 12V impact wrenches and other accessories without draining your vehicle's battery.
A jumper box, also called a 'hot box', can be a real lifesaver when you have a dead or weak battery. Essentially, it is a sealed, rechargeable 12-volt battery enclosed in an easy-to-carry case and it has cables and terminal clamps already attached. This Husky unit has a built-in voltage meter that gives you an accurate reading of the cranking power available and the charge state of the jump box. It also features a cigarette lighter socket, a handy feature for powering 12V accessory items.
There are a couple of small items that should also be considered 'garage essentials' when it comes to battery care. The first is a good terminal brush. These are inexpensive (under $10) and are wonderful for cleaning both the posts of the battery as well as the terminal clamps to remove oxidation, slag, corrosion and other foreign material that can interfere with a good connection. And the other essential item is a battery terminal wrench if you have a side-terminal battery. Of course, you can use a regular 5/16" wrench (or socket if you have the room) for loosening or tightening the battery terminals, a ratcheting side-terminal wrench makes the going a lot easier and faster. Priced at under $15, it's well worth the expense.
This is a battery terminal cleaning brush. The sharp, abrasive bristles scrape the surface of the terminals to remove slag and oxidation; the blades at the opposite end are for scraping the terminal cable clamps. Clean, shiny terminals are essential for good electrical conductivity.
This side-terminal battery wrench is just the ticket for quickly tightening or loosening the 5/16" side battery terminals of later-model collector vehicles.
Always make sure that the electrolyte in your battery is up to the proper level, adding water as required to top it off. This is particularly important in hot weather, when the level tends to drop quickly due to evaporation. While purists maintain that distilled water is the best to use for battery longevity, using tap water is still a lot better than not adding any water at all. I do not recommend bottled spring water, however, since it may contain minerals that can hasten the demise of the battery.
A lot of folks maintain that you should never store your battery on a cold cement garage floor over the winter months. While I'm not going to comment one way or the other on whether storing it on cement as opposed to a wooden shelf is OK or not, I will say that the most important thing is to make sure the battery does not freeze — a charged battery will not freeze, but a discharged one will freeze. And once the cells in a battery freeze, the battery's life, for all intents and purposes, is over, since it will not hold a charge (if it even takes one) sufficient to crank your engine. (I'm talking about standard car batteries here, not marine batteries or deep-cycle batteries, which are designed differently).
So, hopefully, now you know just about everything you need to know about your collector car's battery, how to care for it and how to keep it in tip top shape. So keep crankin'!