Car battery basics
By Mike Bumbeck
These articles sponsored by Kirkland
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AUTOMOBILE BATTERIES WILL USUALLY last as long as they’re supposed
to—unless they are neglected. If your car came to you new off the lot, there is
no mystery involved in what kind of battery to choose when the time comes.
But the battery under the hood of that mint-condition 1991 Dodge Colt
Vista wagon you just picked up off eBay may be of more uncertain origin.
Worse, your car might not even have the right battery. New car or used, the
best time to buy a new battery is before the one presently under the hood
gives up altogether.
The battery will tell you when this is about to happen. Unless you left the
lights on or there is an electrical short, automotive batteries will not generally suffer from sudden death. The classic warning sign of impending battery
expiration is the starter laboring to turn over the engine in the morning. This
laboring will slowly sound more difficult until nothing but a few sad clicks
come from under the hood instead of the usual joyful cranking.
A common and expensive “do-it-yourself” battery blunder is to assume
the battery has finally quit and replace it, only to discover a brand-new-but-dead battery the following morning. If your vehicle seems to be laboring
to turn the starter in the morning, first check the charging system. Many
mechanics have portable diagnostic equipment they can roll out to help you
in this task.
If the charging system checks out, then it’s time to run a battery load test
to determine if the battery needs maintenance or outright replacement. Also
check for electrical shorts. A frayed wire grounding out against the frame or
body of the car can create a short circuit and drain battery power. A spent
starter or starter solenoid can also mimic a dead battery.
If battery replacement proves the best option, making the best choice in
a new battery depends on several factors.
Determining the group size
The first consideration is choosing the correctly sized battery for your
vehicle. Automobile manufacturers divide batteries into what are called group
sizes. Fitment is an important concern. A perfect fit keeps the battery snug in
the battery tray and working with the factory battery hold-down system. This
prevents battery damage by keeping vibration to a minimum. A battery that is
too small can rattle around in the battery tray and suffer a short life.
It’s cold cranking amps (CCA)
A battery must have enough power to turn over the engine. This cranking power is measured in cold cranking amps (CCA), and is the standardized
measured amount of cranking power that a given battery can deliver at zero
CCA is of particular concern for those who live where winter temperatures can dip below zero. Engine and transmission oil becomes thick at these
temperatures. Turning over the engine sometimes requires more CCA than
measured at zero degrees.