By Tom Benford
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'!