from Goss’ Garage by Pat Goss

One of the most important parts of any vehicle is its battery. Take away the battery and the car is useless. You can’t even listen to the radio without a battery. But even though batteries are fundamental to the operation of all vehicles most drivers ignore them until they’re stranded or the car is damaged.

Personally I absolutely despise an unreliable vehicle so I check my battery at least monthly. I check the water level (it’s actually electrolyte, which is a mixture of sulfuric acid and water) by looking through the see-thru case. Sometimes holding a flashlight behind the battery makes it easier to see the level. If your battery doesn’t have a see-thru case or removable caps you’re out of luck. You may also be out of luck if the liquid level becomes noticeably low, as most batteries have no provision for adding water. Therefore when the liquid level in a sealed battery drops significantly, the battery will soon fail. That always means it’s time to start shopping!

On the plus side, some batteries are designed with removable caps. If this is the case with yours keep it topped off with distilled water for longest life. Tap water is not acceptable as it normally contains minerals detrimental to batteries.

But don’t confine your battery exam to liquid level; it’s equally important to check battery cable connections for corrosion. Corrosion: nasty looking, fuzzy, gray-green, mess that grows on battery cables. If left alone corrosion will ultimately cause a no-start situation or damage your car’s electrical system. Even if battery cables look okay they should be cleaned, properly tightened, and have corrosion inhibitor applied yearly.

For you non-professionals who have been cleaning batteries for years, I wouldn’t recommend it on your late model car unless you have a service manual and a memory protector. Many newer cars will lose a portion of their computer memory when battery cables are disconnected. Some will even require a repair-shop procedure to re-establish proper computer function.

What are the warning signs of a failing battery? Today usually none, the majority of batteries are working fine one minute and dead as yesterday’s herring the next, absolutely no warning signs. So maintaining reliability requires being proactive with a simple five minute battery test using an electronic battery tester. Modern battery testers are highly accurate and also have the ability to check the alternator and voltage regulator. It’s always best to have the full test performed since a bad charging system can destroy a battery and a bad battery can destroy a charging system and electronics.

But suppose the battery test confirms yours is a goner and you need to buy a replacement, what next? Knowing the standard battery rating system is crucial to making a smart purchase. Batteries are rated in Cold Cranking Amps (CCA) and don’t be fooled by Cranking Amps (CA) which is not the same. Compared to Cold Cranking Amps, Cranking Amps gives an inflated number, which implies a battery, is stronger than it actually is.

The rule for putting this information to work is easy. Always buy the largest battery, in Cold Cranking Amps, that will physically fit your vehicle. Also, there is no such thing as a battery with too many Cold Cranking Amps. By using this rule you’ll purchase a longer-lasting battery, more reliability, plus added protection and life for every electrical component on your vehicle. Even the bulbs will last longer. Finally it’s a good idea to have your battery tested early in the spring and late in the summer (now) because most batteries fail when there is a significant change in average temperature.