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Maggy Lombard is the Service Manager at Probe Corporation and has been working in the battery sector for over a decade. Her combination of practical know-how and theoretical knowledge about all things car-related makes her the perfect ‘torque guru’ to help us understand what drives us!
Q: What do I need to know about my car’s battery?
A: You should know what the correct size battery is for your car and ensure that you keep to that. Sometimes batteries can be an unwelcome expense, but don’t be tempted to fit a smaller-sized battery. While it may save money upfront, the problem is that the alternator will not be able to charge the battery properly. What this means is that your battery is not going to last as long as it should.
If your car has a stop-start system, you should be using what is known as an Absorbent Glass Matt (AGM) or Enhanced Flooded Battery (EFB) rather than the standard lead-acid battery. Both the AGM and EFB are high-performance batteries that can meet the power demands of stop-start systems. For drivers of cars with stop-start systems, and especially second-users of cars with these systems, it can be tempting to opt for a regular flooded battery (lead-acid battery) because the AGM and EFB are more costly. But using a standard battery instead of an EFB or AGM can cause battery failure within a very short period after installation.
Q: Must I do anything to my battery once it is installed, such as checking water levels from time to time?
A: The best type of battery to use in your car is a maintenance-free battery. At Probe, we call this the true ‘fit and forget’ battery because it is completely sealed and cannot be accessed or opened up in any way. This is by far the best option compared to an MF access type battery, which you can open up in order to top up the battery water level. The problem with MF access type of battery is that topping up the water can interfere with the specific gravity (SG) levels of battery acid. There should be an exact ratio of water to sulphuric acid in the battery electrolyte and topping up the battery’s water can inadvertently interfere with the correct SG level.
Q: Why won’t my car start on a cold winter’s morning?
A: If you have a dead battery on a winter’s morning, be prepared to jump-start your car.
Keep in mind that in the cold weather, water freezes and expands. In very cold weather this can happen on the inside of your battery. Ideally, you should try to keep your battery protected if your car is parked under a carport or out in the open overnight.
Q: How do I jump-start my car?
A: Jump starting enables the flow of electricity from a functioning battery (generally of another car) into the ‘dead’ battery through jump start cables. Jump starting usually requires two cars that are parked hood to hood, with the cables correctly attached. The red clips should always be clamped onto the positive (plus sign) terminal on both batteries, and the black clips to the negative (minus sign) terminals on both batteries. Your car should be in neutral and switched off. The other car should be switched on to allow the power to flow through from its battery to your battery.
Jump starting is quite a schlep, especially if you don’t have any jumper cables, or a friend or partner with a car to help out. However, there is a very handy device on the market called a battery-less Schumacher SL 65 booster. The booster enables you to jump-start your car without requiring another battery (and car) as a power source.
The Schumacher booster is a small, portable microprocessor-controlled device about the size and shape of a smartphone, just a little thicker. It comes with two small clamps, like the large clamps you find on jumper cables, which you clamp onto your car’s battery as you would with the large jumper cables.
The booster can be charged with a normal 220 Volt plug in your house or the standard 12 Volts in your car’s cigarette lighter. You can even use it to charge your cell phone. A normal passenger vehicle can be jump-started as many as 20 times with the booster. It really is a no-fuss way to jump-start your car.
Q: How long can I expect my car battery last?
A: Your car battery must be used all the time to keep it fully charged and optimally performing. That is why a car standing for long periods of time will have a flat battery. If you’re travelling only short distances, a good idea is to drive for about an hour every week or so to help prolong the battery life.
To get a bit technical, this is how the battery works: Batteries operate in cycles, with one cycle consisting of discharge and a charge. Think of how many times during the day you drive; you to go to work, you may pop out for lunch, you may go to the gym or shops after work. Each time you switch your car on and off (in other words, discharging and then charging the battery) that is a cycle. You may end up doing about five cycles or more in a day.
If you have a sealed, maintenance-free ‘fit and forget’ battery, and you practice good battery health, your battery could last up to six or eight years. Generally, a car battery warranty will last for 24-months, or 730 cycles, depending on which comes first.
Good battery health includes being aware of all the technical gadgets we use in our cars and unplug these when necessary. Phones, tablets, navigation devices and others all draw power from the car battery when plugged in. Habits like leaving your cell phone charging in your car when it’s switched off will drain the battery, as will using your car’s sound system and pumping up the volume when it’s parked and switched off.
Q: Can my maintenance-free battery also go flat from limited use?
A: Whether you have a ‘fit and forget’ maintenance-free battery or not, the same chemistry is happening inside the battery. Lead sulphate starts forming inside the battery which is broken down with regular battery use. Without regular use, the sulphate begins to build-up and a white crystal layer develops inside the battery, settling around the battery’s active material and blocking the pores of the separators. This restricts the flow of electrons, and in the worst-case scenario, can cut the circuit off completely as the current cannot flow. As more and more reaction surface becomes sulphated, there is increased resistance in the battery.
So I get that my battery shouldn’t be inactive, but I’m going on holiday and won’t be using my car. What should I do?
A: There are a couple of things to think about here. Firstly, your car battery really shouldn’t go flat from a couple of weeks of inactivity if the car has been driven regularly as per usual before the time, so don’t worry too much on that count.
But there is another issue to consider. Most of us have tracking devices in our cars. If you’re going on holiday for two or three weeks and locking up your car and leaving it to stand, your tracking device will still be operational and it will draw power from the battery (given that the battery is its power source). You don’t want to switch off your tracking device because it’s there for security, so an idea is to use a battery charger.