Make sure your car batteries are prepared for the winter

By Allen Penticoff

There is little experience more disappointing than going out on a cold snowy morning, scraping the ice and snow off your windshield, then having the engine only turn over once, groan, then click, click, click as the battery refuses to do any more work. Now you are going to be late for work. You start thinking about who you can call at 7 a.m. who might have jumper cables and is willing to come rescue you. Your day is literally not starting well.

Batteries seem to always pick the most inconvenient place and time to let us down. But the truth is usually they have been trying to tell us that they are worn out and tired for some time. Do the headlight seem dim when the engine is idling? Has it been a bit slower to turn over? Was there a warning light about the battery on? If any of these things are happening, you need to replace the battery before it totally lets you down in a bad place or time. You won’t save any money by putting it off – in fact it will cost you more since it may leave you with an urgent need to replace it with no opportunity to shop around for a better price.

If the battery “sometimes” doesn’t start the car – your problem may be a bad connection. Particularly with older batteries that have caps for filling the fluid and terminals on top, there is a tendency for the acid fumes to form corrosion on the positive terminal. This makes for a bad connection and intermittent starting problems. Remove the terminal and clean up the battery post and cable with sandpaper or an inexpensive terminal cleaning tool. In a pinch, you can jab a straight blade screwdriver between the battery post and the cable connector to make a contact. But this is for a one time emergency get away – not a technique to put off doing the proper work. There can be other bad connections as well with the ground or at the starter. So these should be checked out before presuming an expensive battery is the problem.

If your battery is suspect but still usable, go to any auto parts store and have a quick test done for free. Or take it to your mechanic for advice. Most auto parts stores will also do the labor of replacing the battery free if you purchase it there. If you do have an older battery with caps – carefully pry them off and look inside. There should be water visible. Add distilled water only – until it contacts the bottom of the neck inside the battery. Wear rubber gloves and eye protection – you are messing with acid. Don’t touch your clothes after touching a battery – or let the battery touch them as the acid will damage them. Wash up right away.

But you are unlikely to find fill caps on your battery. Most are “maintenance free” now and cannot be serviced. Since some still vent fumes, do not use one if the battery needs to be a sealed battery or an expensive AGM battery particularly if the battery is in the trunk. Replace batteries with exactly what the vehicle manufacturer recommends. That said – there are still many variables in how the batteries are made and between makers. Highest price does not necessarily mean a better battery. In the new January 2016 issue of Consumer Reports, they awarded 10 batteries from $80-$100 a better rating and/or deemed a best buy over batteries ranging up in price to $280.

Ratings for cold cranking amps (CCA) don’t matter much any longer due to quick starting fuel injected cars that are using thinner oils year-round. CCA is more a marketing scheme than a real rating. “Reserve capacity” means much more – that is the battery’s ability to still start your vehicle after a long discharge, such as failing to turn your headlights off. Since nearly all batteries in the Consumer Reports testing rated either “very good” or “excellent,” you should have little concern with this when purchasing a battery.

A complete discharge of your battery may cause it to lose as much as one-third of its life. So it is very important to turn off your headlights if that doesn’t happen automatically – or you may be spending a lot on batteries. Normally a battery should last you 4-6 years in our climate, shorter the further south you go as heat does more damage to batteries than cold. However, if a completely discharged battery sits in the cold long enough, it can freeze – and that will ruin the battery. If the vehicle is not in use, charge the battery at regular intervals to maintain the charge or bring it inside. I do the former for all my batteries – I charge them in place about once every month or two throughout the winter.

It will mean far more to your ability to start your vehicle if it has clean winter appropriate oil in the engine. If you normally use 10W-40 oil (few do anymore) – see if you can put 5W-30 oil in your engine. That and perhaps a tune up which may consist of new spark plugs, plug wires and a distributor cap. Unlike the old days when this was done every year, new cars and new systems go 100,000 miles before needing a tune up. So just have a good mechanic check things out to see if all seems okay. No need to spend money if it won’t make any difference.

Lastly, never throw a vehicle battery away. Being full of lead and acid, they are hazardous, but also recyclable. Most places selling batteries want your old battery as a “core” worth a few dollars. Even old batteries not being replaced can be taken to scrap yards and sold for a few dollars.

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