Your car battery plays a vital role in your vehicle’s operation, but if there’s a problem, it’s not always easy to know what it is. There’s a difference between recharging an otherwise healthy battery and replacing a depleted one. Either way, it’s important to know the proper course of action and get to the bottom of the issue. This guide will teach you essential information about checking, charging, boosting, and replacing your car battery...
If gas is the lifeblood of a car engine, the battery is the pulse that keeps it going. There’s no worse feeling than buckling up to drive somewhere and twisting your key in the ignition only to hear a clicking sound, and then silence. A boost may help jumpstart it again, but what if your battery has simply reached the end of its lifespan and needs to be replaced?
The good news is, it’s easy to keep tabs on your car’s battery life if you know what to look out for. We’ve compiled a few checklists and step-by-step guides to help you check, charge, boost, and replace your car battery.
Not everyone agrees on how long a car battery will last for. Conventional thought is about four years, but some people will tell you that up to six years is possible.
The lifespan of your battery depends on a number of factors:
For that reason, shorter driving distances done frequently could actually reduce the long-term battery power sooner. This can also happen with “undercharging” caused by increased corrosion or leaving lights on overnight, for example. Constant undercharging leads to acid stratification, where the battery stays at a lower charge (below 80%) and never gets fully charged.
It’s hard to truly gauge a battery’s health from the outside, but that doesn’t mean you can’t glean at least some insight into it. One of the telltale signs that something isn’t right is a slow crank. When you hear the car wheezing during ignition, especially when the weather isn’t cold, something might be amiss.
That may be caused by a weakened alternator not charging the battery fast enough, so it may not be the battery, specifically. But there are a couple of checks you can do that will help you determine whether you need a new battery soon or not.
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A good rule of thumb is to start inspecting the battery more frequently after three years. There are two checks you should do: an eye test and a load test.
The eye test is simply a visual inspection when you lift the hood. Look for corrosion around the cell connectors or posts holding the battery, cracks on top of or down the side of the battery, a fraying or broken cable, or unusual stains. Any of these signs indicate your battery might need to be replaced soon. Also, a smell of sulfuric acid should not be ignored. This diagram highlights which parts of the battery should be checked during a visual inspection:
You can do a load test to gauge capacity and charge with a handheld multimeter (or voltmeter), which you can pick up at almost any hardware or automotive store:
If it seems like your car battery is consistently losing its ability to hold a charge over time, it might be time to buy a new one.
Picture yourself parked and waiting in the pick-up line, waiting for your kids after school. Since you can’t idle, you’re listening to the radio when you lose all power. The battery has died.
It could be in various situations – waiting in line for a ferry, leaving the lights on, or leaving a charger plugged into the power outlet. How long will your car battery last without starting the engine to charge it?
The answer varies depending on several factors:
A normal radio could play literally all day and your battery will still have the necessary power to start the engine, as is the case with most charging accessories inside. An amplified radio or a newer vehicle with a large infotainment screen might have only an hour or two in reserve.
If you’ve left the lights on, how long your battery lasts depends heavily on whether it’s your headlights or interior lights, as well as if they’re normal halogen headlights or LED lights. It can range from just 30 minutes to several hours with headlights, and even days with the interior light left on.
If your battery dies after listening to the radio for less than an hour or a light left on kills the battery quickly, there’s a good chance it isn’t holding a full charge anymore and needs to be replaced.
Even if your car battery isn’t old, has no corrosion, and is securely connected and fastened, it may still die on you from time to time. There could be a number of reasons for this. Maybe you left the lights or car stereo on for too long while the engine was off. Or maybe the car sat inactive for too long.
If your battery problem isn’t actually a malfunctioning alternator, there are a few things you can do to jolt your car back to life. The first is a jumpstart with booster cables. You’ll need booster cables (obviously). You’ll also need a friend or helpful passerby to volunteer their car for your battery-boosting cause.
Besides getting a jump from another car, there are a couple of other ways to revive a dead battery. A battery charger is a handy device to keep on hand when you don’t have booster cables or another vehicle to draw power from.
An automotive battery charger connects to your battery in the same way jumper cables do. Simply connect the red clamp to the positive terminal, and then the black clamp to the negative one. Plug in the battery charger to a power outlet. Chargers can also retain a charge with their own battery, letting you use them on the go as well.
These videos by caranddriver.com are a great reference on how to charge your car battery with a battery charger.
Step 1: Lift the hood of your car and uncase your battery's terminals.
Step 2: The red clamp attaches to the battery's positive terminal and the black clamp attaches to the negative terminal. After you connect to the terminals, plug your charger in and turn it on.
Step 3: When your battery is charged, disconnect the charger by removing the black clamp first and then the red clamp.Video Credit: caranddriver.com
If you don’t have any booster cables or a battery charger, a couple of willing friends will help you push-start your car. The faster your friends can push the car above 8km/h (with you in the driver's seat), the more likely the engine will start when you depress the clutch and switch the ignition on. Here's a great youtube video by howcast.com on how to do this:
Car batteries can be expected to need replacement eventually, and a high-quality battery to fit your vehicle isn’t always inexpensive. But there are things you can do to make it last as long as possible.
After you’ve determined that your vehicle battery is ready for retirement, the following steps will help you swap out your car battery by yourself:
Properly dispose of the old lead-acid battery by taking it to a store that sells new car batteries, like Canadian Tire, Costco, Walmart and other auto parts locations. There is no municipal recycling pickup for used car batteries.
When you buy a car battery, it typically comes sufficiently charged to start your vehicle, to around 90% of capacity or so. It isn’t required to charge a car battery before its first use.
However, under normal driving conditions, the alternator is unlikely to charge your battery to full capacity. It keeps it sufficiently charged, but fully charging a new battery if you have the time to do so will ensure you get the best life expectancy from your new car battery.
Car batteries range in price from under $100 to over $400. You can find them at various retailers, like Canadian Tire, Costco, Walmart and auto parts stores. Be sure to have your car’s make, model, engine size, and battery dimensions handy when picking one up.
In some circumstances, you might realize that you don’t need a new battery, you need a new car! And when that time comes, Canada Drives is here to help.
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