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Mechanics Corner: Battery life is an all-season issue

Andy Overbay Published on 31 October 2013

Winter is the season most associated with the issue of a dead car, truck or tractor battery. Indeed, even the way we purchase batteries for vehicles suggests this.

Cold-cranking amps (CCAs) are listed on many, if not all, batteries as a means to suggest the battery’s ability to crank a stubborn, cold-natured piece of equipment. That said, summer heat can cause issues with batteries as well.

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In fact, many of our winter battery failures begin in the sizzling heat of summer, so let’s take a few moments to consider how we can extend the life of our vehicle’s electrical heart.

Excessive charging or overcharging taxes your battery’s internal fluids via evaporation. Overcharging is generally associated with a faulty voltage regulator, so periodically checking your alternator is a good practice.

Again, most times we only think of our alternator during periods of undercharging, but excessive charging is just as problematic. Heating also is hard on cables and connections, so be sure to check these are secure with the absence of damage or swelling.

If your battery is one that can be refilled, be sure to only use distilled water. On my home farm, hardness levels for dissolved calcium are extremely high, so tap water is as sure a way to ruin a battery (or a coolant system for that matter) as any.

It is also wise to not overfill the cells of a weak or dead battery as the heat of the recharging process will cause the water in the cells to expand, and seepage is very possible.

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If you remove the battery from the vehicle and service the battery, I suggest placing the battery on the floor and in an area where no one is apt to trip over it before it is returned to the vehicle. I was also raised to always place the battery on a wooden board to keep it off the concrete floor.

Concrete is no longer a threat to discharge a battery due to the advent of hard plastic cases that protect the battery from sweating on a concrete floor. That same hard-shell plastic case can also become swollen or deformed, which is never a good sign.

One lesson from youth that does hold true today is that cleaner really does make it run better. Dirt and corrosion robs a battery of starting power because the ions in the grime can serve as a conductor and interrupt electrical flow efficiency.

Cleaning the top of the battery periodically and using a product to promote water exclusion will pay dividends by extending the useful life of your battery.

One thing to always keep in mind is: Safety first. Always wear proper eye protection and rubber gloves when handling a battery.

Do not smoke or light a match when checking the battery electrolyte level, especially right after charging a battery or after running the battery down from cranking.

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Hydrogen gas from a battery (even in low concentrations) may explode in the presence of a spark or open flame. Keep a rubber cover on the positive battery post to guard against sparks.

Finally, if you must replace a battery, always use a battery with at least the same ratings as the original.

With the proliferation of electronics and our vehicle and equipment’s increasing sophistication, low-voltage issues are much more likely to contribute to breakdowns and system failure, some of which may be very difficult to diagnose.

Batteries aren’t cheap, but a battery purchased solely on price may lead to very expensive repairs on down the road. Battery failures are listed by many sources as the number one cause of vehicle breakdowns. Prevention of battery problems will help keep you on the road and in the field. PD

Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has over 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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Andy Overbay
Extension Agent
Virginia Cooperative Extension

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