Caring for your battery

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There isn't much to it - but there are some simple things you can do to get maximum life out of your cars battery.

If you follow the below battery check-up and your car is still refusing to cooperate, then you need to call in the experts.

However before you start fiddling with your battery, you need to be aware that batteries are filled with a corrosive and volatile mix of distilled water and acid. The fluid will burn your skin and damage clothes and paintwork. So you need to be careful. If you get any fluid on yourself, wash it off immediately with water.

How do I do a quick check-up?

Give your battery the following once-over every month or, to keep it going for as long as possible.

The average battery life is about three to five years. If you’re having regular trouble and think your battery is three years’ old or older, then it may be time to replace it.

  • Before attempting any check, make sure your engine is turned off.
  • Read your car manual if you’re going to disconnect the battery to make sure you don’t lose any radio or computer settings (but you don’t necessarily need to disconnect it to do a basic check).
  • Take a good look at the battery, checking it for corrosion (white fluffy stuff) or loose connections.
  • Make sure the battery terminals are clean and dry. The terminals are the knobs on top where the battery cables are attached.
  • If a terminal or connection is warm or hot to touch, it’s a reasonable indication that it is loose or corroded.
  • Tighten any loose connectors or battery terminals using the correct size spanner. Be extra careful not to let the spanner accidentally touch any part of the vehicle body or any wires or cables in the engine as it will spark (short out) and may damage your electrical system – sometimes a very, very expensive mistake.
  • If there’s any corrosion on the terminals or anywhere around the battery, pour hot water onto the affected areas to clean it up.
  • Your battery is filled with electrolytes – a mixture of distilled water and battery acid. Like a marathon runner, your battery will start to flag if its electrolytes get low. Some batteries are sealed for life – nothing much you can do. Others have screw-on caps which you can remove to check and refill the battery fluid. If you have a battery with caps, remove each one and check that the fluid in all of the separate chambers is between the levels indicated on the battery. If it needs topping up, use only distilled water (which is available at supermarket's or petrol stations). Make sure you don’t overfill it. After filling, tighten your plugs securely.
  • Check that the cables are connected securely and that the battery is securely mounted in the engine.

Note: If you need to disconnect the battery cables, undo the negative terminal first (black). When reattaching the battery cables, it is the opposite process. Attach and tighten the positive battery cable first (red) then the negative battery cable (black).

  • You could check the charge in your battery using a multimeter and a hydrometer but… let’s face it, not too many of us are that committed to the world of batteries. A better option is to get your mechanic or  someone with more experience to check the charge for you.

What are the battery don’ts?

Don’t leave your battery standing for long periods without being charged. In other words, if you aren’t planning to drive your car for a long period (if you’re going on a holiday for example), then make sure someone runs the engine for five to 10 minutes every week or so. This will keep the battery charged and ready to go.

Of course, never leave the lights or other electrical items on while your car’s parked. You have to be particularly aware of this on dark, wintry days when you use your lights during daylight hours.

Danger!

The fluid inside a battery is corrosive – you don’t want to get it on your eyes, skin, clothes or, any exposed metal parts of your car (it will eat it away). If you do make a mess, wash it away carefully with water – don’t wipe it with a cloth.

What should I look for when getting a new battery?

Batteries come in heaps of different sizes and quality standards. If you’re getting a new battery, make sure it has the right rating for your car and that it’s got a decent warranty.

The battery rating is stamped on the outside of the battery. Check the specs for your car in the owner’s manual or ask your mechanic.

You need to make sure that your new battery fits snugly in your car - if it’s too big or small, you won’t be able to fit it properly. A battery that moves around as you drive can get damaged, leaving you with another replacement bill way too soon after the last one.

If you need a new battery you can buy one from your garage or auto shop and fit it yourself, but only if you feel confident you know how to change a battery correctly. If not it’s probably more convenient to either get your mechanic to do it or a battery company.

How should I get rid of the old battery?

Used batteries can do bad things to our planet because some of them contain toxic materials.

Some manufacturers will take back your old battery for recycling. Your mechanic may accept old batteries, or you can try your local recycling or waste management centre. Most organisations that offer a battery replacement service will take away your old one for recycling.

Never put your battery in the garbage, take it to the tip or leave it lying around at home. And it goes without saying that you should never burn your battery. This will release dangerous fumes and it could explode.