Car Talk: The dos and don’ts about car batteries

Heine, our OEM Manager down in PE was recently hosted on Cape Talk radio. He was interviewed regarding ‘The Do’s and Don’t’s about Car Batteries’ listen on the link below, or read the transcription below:

Pippa Hudson: Now, we’re making good on a promise in Car Talk today. A promise to do a segment focused on car batteries and how we treat them, and how we can prolong their life, or what we’re doing that is unintentionally damaging their life. A couple of weeks back, you may recall we received a listener query about how often she should expect to have to replace her battery. Because she felt like she was doing it more than she used to, and hot on the heels of that call, we got an SMS which read as follows.

“I used to be a mechanic and I too have noticed batteries don’t last long anymore. They used to last 5+ years, guaranteed. Now it’s two years maximum. I’ve had two batteries in five years in a 10-year-old BMW. It’s just rubbish quality and overcharging by dealers.”

Quite a confrontational statement. I want to know, is he right or is she right? Is it just rubbish? Are they being designed to expire more quickly so that we have to spend money buying a new one, more often than we used to? Or is there more to this than that? And, what can we do to make sure that we get maximum life out of the batteries we’ve already got? To help us answer those questions, I’m delighted to welcome on the line Heine Coetzer, who is an original equipment manufacturer and research and development manager at Auto X, which is one of the country’s leading automotive battery manufacturers and distributors. Brands like Willard and Sabat, I believe, within their umbrella. Heine, lovely to have you with us on the show today. Welcome.

Heine Coetzer: Hello, Pippa and hello to all the listeners.

Pippa: I have to ask you to explain in layman’s terms, upfront, exactly the role the battery plays in the car, because I know it turns it on and when the battery’s dead the car doesn’t go anywhere. But that’s about all I know. Heine can you just give us an overview first of it’s role.

Heine Coetzer: That’s the absolute question to start with. So essentially, as we know, automotive starter batteries, they’re currently used in millions of cars all over the world. Just specifically in South Africa, we have a current car park (registered vehicles) on the road of around 10.3 million vehicles, on our roads today. We’ve got a fairly old car park with an average age of 9.5 years, so chances are very good that you will require a replacement battery during the life of your car. So, essentially, the battery is being used. The conventional battery is referred to as an SLI battery, which stands for Starting, Lighting and Ignition, primary function is really to start the engine in the vehicle. These days, with modern vehicles, a lot of us would have encountered start-stop technology, where the vehicle actually stops, the engine stops when we stop at a stop street or a robot. So, that has necessitated a new range of batteries as such, because you can now imagine your vehicle stops, the engine stops, you still want the air-con to work, You still want the power steering to work, however, the engine has stopped, so that has placed increased demands on the actual battery.

Pippa Hudson: Right. I can really relate to that because I am that person who has, I think on at least four occasions, run my battery flat sitting at school listening to the radio while I had switched the car off, all even the lights on. And and and. I know all of those behaviours are bad for the long-term health of my battery Hein, So let’s talk a little bit about health in general. I take your point that there are different kinds of batteries for different kinds of vehicles. The technology is more advanced in some than in others. But in general, what are the sort of healthy habits to cultivate as a car owner that might extend the life of the battery, or might not cut it short?

Heine Coetzer: Okay, so if we’ve got a couple of points here, despite the fact that, obviously, the battery manufacturers optimise and change their designs to cater for these new type of vehicles. We still are saying give it a try and limit your short drives or the amount of short drives you make just to maintain the battery in a good state of charge, as we call it. So, a lot of people, what they do or, what we recommend they do is, when they don’t use the vehicle frequently or for extended periods is to invest in a portable battery charger and use that to keep the battery in a good state of charge offline when the vehicle is not being used. Then, secondly, to make sure that the batteries are properly secured to the vehicle, onto the vehicle itself and there you have to check the hold-down that is mechanically fastening the battery to the vehicle chassis. You also need to have a look at the actual two leads, positive or negative lead, that connects to posts the battery, to make sure that they are tightly fastened. And, an obvious one, turn off all your lights and electrical consumers when you exit the vehicle. I think most vehicles these days will have some form of a beeper that goes off if you do forget your lights.

Have your battery tested. If you do suspect that there’s a problem with your battery, go to a battery specialist and have it tested. That is actually the simplest way to ensure you don’t get stuck out there on the road. And then, care for the whole car, the electrical system in your vehicle is no larger just the battery. There’s an alternator that charges the battery, there is a starter motor that starts the engine. It’s good to take overall care of your vehicle and not just focus on the health of the battery itself.

Pippa Hudson: Okay. Hein, coming back to your comment about the portable battery charger. I was always told if you’re going away on holiday, for example, and even your car staying in the garage for three weeks, you should physically disconnect the battery. Is that old fashioned advice that no longer applies? Has the portable battery charger replaced that?

Heine Coetzer: Look, disconnecting the battery these days can be problematic due to the location of some of these batteries. Some batteries – you’ll struggle to find the battery in the car. So, the battery does have an internal self-discharge while just sitting there. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about that. If you do have a vehicle – and this should not be a case – that has an electrical problem and there is current draw over and above what it would normally have to draw during static standing conditions. Then it could help to disconnect the battery. But then you’re not solving the real cause of the problem. You need to then sort out the electrical problem on the vehicle. So I would certainly not recommend to disconnect and to connect the vehicle battery while it’s standing. Rather invest in a charger to keep a good state of charge.

Pippa Hudson: How much does a portable charger cost? Is there a ballpark figure you can share with us these days?

Heine Coetzer: These days if we look at the cost of the battery and the increase in the cost of batteries, which is largely due to the fact that the price of lead, which accounts for 60% of the raw material used in the battery, has increased tremendously over the last couple of years. A typical charger – and I’m not going to mention any brand names – an intelligent charger which we refer to as a Fit & Forget charger that you can put it on indefinitely, it will take care of the battery all by itself in the region of R1,500 to R2,000 for a typical car-sized battery.

Pippa Hudson: Sorry. R1,500 you say for a typical car size battery, depending on the brand.

Okay, so the million-dollar question. Hein, do you think that batteries are being intentionally designed to last a little bit less than they used to? I mean, you’ve spoken about the sort of technological advances, about the way that they’re having to do a whole lot more. Is that just a side effect of the fact that they have to do a lot more? so they last a little bit less, not quite as long as they used to? Or is that something that you think is just an urban legend?

Heine Coetzer: I think that’s one angle that one can have a look at. We do a fair amount of analysis on failed batteries or on claim batteries coming back to us. And we have a distribution curve that is an average, at the moment of around about 3.5 to 4 years average life span. Bearing in mind that average. You know, obviously there’s batteries that did fail sooner than that. And you have batteries that it lost up to twelve, 14 years in certain cases. So the technologies have definitely advanced to cater for the modern vehicles. One also needs to be reminded that as the car gets older, the rest of the system ages together with the car. It’s like a human body. Eventually, some other parts start packing up as well. There is also a propensity for consumers to make changes to the car. To add, for example, big amplifiers and subwoofers, spotlights to the car as soon as the car’s out of warranty. All these factors add up to shortening battery life, unfortunately, it’s not a very easy question to answer. However, we as manufacturers, as part of the R&D programs try and cater for those conditions to ensure that the battery does last for a decent amount of time. In actual fact, most of the local manufacturers have now increased a warranty from one year to 24 months (to two years) to just give the consumers that peace of mind.

Pippa Hudson: Yeah, that’s what I think. I got a 24-month warranty on my last replacement about a year ago. So that sounds accurate. It’s interesting, that comment about adding stereos and spotlights etc, and accessories to the car can have an impact on the battery life. Conversely, Hein, if somebody knows they’re going to be doing that to a car, they should be telling the person they’re buying a battery from. To say: please sell me something that is going to be robust enough to cope with all of that.

Heine Coetzer: Yes. Or even that person doing the modifications to the vehicle, that business in most cases, they must also take the battery into consideration when they make those changes.

Pippa Hudson: Okay. Somebody is asking, are there any, sort of, guidelines or best practices you can share with us for how to treat it? If you do run your battery flat and you have to get jumpstarted or hill started by someone, etc.. Any advice you’d share with our listeners?

Heine Coetzer: Yes, sure. There is, from a safety perspective, there is a very specific procedure – that’s a fairly long procedure in terms of jumpstarting. Which cables to connect first. It all has to do with base practice and avoiding a spark and possible battery explosion in the vehicle. Those procedures are all available on the local manufacturer’s website. Like I said it’s a fairly long procedure, I’m not going to go through that now. The main thing, as far as an excessive discharge of a battery is concerned is, don’t leave it in a discharged state for too long. Because, chemically, there is damage that occurs when a battery stands in a flat state. That is the most important advice. And that’s why even for recreational type of vehicles: motorcycles, jet skis, quad bikes and so on, it typically is used for three or four months in the year when the weather’s good, around about this time of the year, and then it stands in the garage for the rest of the time. Invest in a small little stand-by charger. A particular charger that can keep that battery fresh during the time that you’re not using the recreational vehicle.

Pippa Hudson: So it’s a bit of an investment upfront in that stand by charge to save quite a lot of money replacing batteries time after time after time because you continue with the same bad habits that run them down more quickly. You’ve painted a very clear picture for us. Hein, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that I should have asked you, that you think our audience needs to know?

Heine Coetzer: I think the most important thing is just going back to the start of the conversation in terms of battery technologies, and especially the latest battery technology is required to start-stop vehicle. There are two types. We refer to them as EFB which stands for Enhanced Flooded Battery and they’re used in simple start-stop systems. And then we have a sort of high-end battery is referred to as AGM, which stands for Absorbent Glass Mat and that is using your premium cars, your typical high-end German vehicles. These battery technologies are generally not interchangeable.

So, if you are uncertain about the technology that needs to go into your car, especially if you drive this type of vehicle. Please refer to your owner’s manual or go back to your agent and check with them.