Article > Tech

Batteries Are Working Harder Than Ever

By Larry Carley

The basic chemistry inside a car battery has not changed, and average battery life is still only about four to six years (and can be as little as three years in really hot climates).
Considering all the advances that have been made in recent years in automotive electronics, the lead-acid battery seems rather dated. The basic chemistry inside a car battery has not changed, and average battery life is still only about four to six years (and can be as little as three years in really hot climates).

Batteries are also temperature sensitive. The chemical reactions inside a battery that produce current slow down as the temperature drops. Because of this, a battery’s output can be reduced as much as 60 percent at zero degrees F. Consequently, if the battery is undercharged to begin with, or not in very good condition, it may not be able to deliver enough power to crank and start the engine.

In spite of these shortcomings, there have been steady improvements in lead-acid battery technology since the earliest days of the automobile. Up until the late 1950s, most vehicles operated on 6-volt electrical systems. 

The switch to 12-volt electrical systems was a major step forward because it allowed more reliable cold weather cranking and starting, better lighting, more powerful electric motors for wipers, power windows and seats, and the use of more efficient alternators instead of generators to keep the battery charged.

The old heavy black rubber battery cases that were common up until the 1970s were replaced by thinner and lighter plastic cases. Venting was also improved to reduce corrosion around the battery terminals. In the 1970s, General Motors introduced the side terminal battery, which reduced terminal corrosion even more. Other improvements included thinner and more efficient cell plates and grids that allowed more storage capacity to be packed into the same-sized case or a smaller case.

One of the biggest improvements was the introduction of “maintenance free” sealed top batteries. All batteries produce hydrogen gas when charging. This is partially a function of the metal alloys used in the battery grids. Reducing the amount of antimony in the grid alloy, or replacing it with calcium or lead-strontium reduces gassing so the battery uses less water over time. Less gassing also reduces the risk of a battery explosion when jump-starting a battery.

The Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) battery was another major innovation. In this design, the acid is held in sponge-like fiberglass mats sandwiched between the positive and negative cell plates. This almost eliminates evaporation and gassing, as well as the risk of spillage. The AGM design also makes a battery more resistant to vibration, which improves durability and reduces the risk of premature failure.

Another innovation was to reconfigure the design of the battery cell itself. Instead of using flat rectangular cell plates and grids, some batteries feature a “spiral wound” cell construction that packs a lot of surface area into a smaller volume. Combined with AGM technology, it improves battery performance, durability and longevity.

Batteries typically fail for one of several reasons: chronic undercharging (which causes plate sulfation, rapid aging and loss of charging and storage capacity), vibration (which can crack separators and cell connectors inside the battery), and loss of water (due to excessive temperatures, evaporation or overcharging). Batteries can also freeze if they are discharged and the temperature is below freezing.

A battery’s state of charge can be determined with a voltmeter. A fully charged battery should read about 12.68 volts.
A reading of 12.45 volts indicates the battery is 75 percent charged. Anything less means the battery is low and needs to be recharged.

If a battery is low, the output of the charging system should be tested with the engine running, and should be around 1.5 to 2.0 volts higher than battery voltage.

Also, the battery cables and terminals should be checked for tightness and corrosion, and cleaned if necessary to restore a good electrical connection.
  Previous Comments
avatar   Chris   star   5/27/2010   9:20 AM

On the AGM batteries I've had, I always use a 1-amp marine charger. Never had a problem :)

avatar   Jason Johnson   star   5/20/2010   2:55 AM

The main thing you have to take into concideration with an optima battery is that people really have no clue as to what they are buying in the first place I have used the same optima battery for atleast six years now and never had a single problem even in various applications (usualy from the truck to the boat and to the camper.) the thing you have to remember when you have an optima battery is that it is a DEEP CYCLE AGM BATTERY! you cant charge them like a normal wet cell when it goes down! you have to use a deep cycle charger filtered through another battery, preferably another deep cell wet battery, you cant use a normal 2 amp trickle charger over night on these it fries them to the point of being as useful as a tarp weight. long as you stick to those guidelines you have a good long lasting battery that has very little maintence if any at all. dont count them out just yet read your owners manual before you make the assumption that you know what youre doing in the first place!

avatar   Jason Johnson   star   5/19/2010   9:22 PM

its not that the optima batteries are junk is most people don't know how to recharge them to begin with, most people put them on a regular battery charger thinking okay that will do the job but whilst an optima has three features to it no one bothers to look at one, its an agm battery you have to filter it through another battery to charge it. two, its a deep cycle battery therefore you need to charge it with a deep cycle charger. and three, if you don't know about the first two then you really shouldn't bother to buy it in the first place if all you're gonna do is ruin it to begin with bring it back and expect your money back, it doesn't work that way here. if you mess it up its your baby don't expect me to pay for your screw up....

avatar   Dave Elliott   star   5/12/2010   9:56 AM

Well, it's been my experience with the over rated Optima battery that if you sell it, it's coming back. A bigger piece of junk I've never seen, and I worked in this industry when the Vega and the Pinto were around!

avatar   don   star   5/6/2010   4:07 PM

Ive had very few problems with Optima's. Its usually some ones "BIG STEREO" that causes problems with the battery. your typical charging system is not designed to work with 2 amplifiers and big speakers.

avatar   Robert McMillan   star   5/5/2010   8:35 AM

I have been in the auto parts business for some 40 years and my biggest issue when selling a battery is trying to explain to a customer just how important having a strong battery is to the cars nowadays with all the electronics the cars have. I would say that 75% of the people that come in for a battery always want the cheapest battery that we have. Would you have any suggestions as to how to convince them that this will cause future problems with thier charging and starting systems. Also I was told along time ago that the battery should be fully charged before testing the charging system, is this still the rule. I also see that you say that the spiral wrap technology as in the optima battery is one of the best designs to come along. But I have noticed that we have around a 75% failure rate with them we have one customer that comes in every year and has to have his Optima warranteed. Has there been anything found in common with these batteries having a high premature failure rate or do we just have an unusual case. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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