Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2008   by Lawrence Cummer

Batteries Taking a Battering

Another Canadian winter has passed, and it time for shops to check what affect the cold season, and other strains, have placed on customer's batteries and electrical systems.

Another Canadian winter has passed, and it time for shops to check what affect the cold season, and other strains, have placed on customer’s batteries and electrical systems.

Sensitive to extremes of both heat and cold, the challenge for most North American automotive manufacturers is creating a vehicle with a battery and electrical system that will readily trek through the back roads of Texas and the highways of Alaska without wear or failure.

New technologies and refinements

According to Jim Monaghan, Batteries Project Specialist for General Motors Service and Parts Operations (SPO), lead-acid battery technology, hasn’t fundamentally changed in years, but refinements continue to be made.

“If you’re looking at the last few years, I would say that the changes we see in battery technologies are more (about) different battery manufacturers tweaking their batteries in their processes -mostly their chemical and manufacturing processes,” he says.

Manufacturers in recent years have investigated different alloys, like silver or tin, to strengthen their batteries’ grids or give them properties that will make a longer-lasting battery. As well, Monaghan says improvements have been made by manufacturers in the separator between the positive and negative plates of their batteries.

One technology that some manufacturers have gone to is absorbent glass mat (AGM), a lead-acid battery in which the electrolytes are absorbed into a fibreglass mat. AGM batteries are often used in high-performance vehicles due to their efficiency; however, it does come at a cost, according to Rob Morell, Director of Technical Training at WorldPac.

AGM batteries can be impacted even more heavily by temperature than traditional batteries, says Morell, but he notes this can be an advantage here in Canada.

“These batteries particularly like cold weather,” Morell says. “You have to be careful how fast you charge them. They are much more sensitive to being charged up properly than an older battery and you can really damage them if you overcharge them or charge them too quickly. But, in a colder environment, like in Canada, they can take an enormous charge very quickly. It’s very temperature dependent.”

But extremes of heat and cold aren’t the only strains on today’s batteries and electrical systems. The abundance of electrical accessories being added to vehicles in the form of global positioning systems (GPS) and entertainment systems are creating pressure to develop bigger and better alternators and improvements, such as brushless and digitally-controlled alternators, to better handle the electrical throughput needed for a modern car.

“Alternators are computer controlled now, which is not fully bought into by the industry yet. Not everybody’s climbed onto that (bandwagon), but that’s the direction it’s going. Most of the European cars have already (systems) where the alternator is digitally controlled, usually by the engine control unit,” Morell adds.

Morell says that in Europe, digitally- controlled alternators have been popular for the past seven or eight years, but are only starting to break into the North American market. The advantage for the technician is that the engine control unit also has control of the alternator and receives fault codes from the alternator for diagnostics, as well.

Challenges in older vehicles

While new technologies are on the horizon, many of the problems seen by technicians are based on the limits found in cars typically a few years old.

Steve Perusits, owner of Wally Clayson/Master Mechanic Leaside in Toronto, says one of the main problems he sees is based on five-, six-or seven-year old cars lacking an automatic shut-off system.

While a lot of newer vehicles will have a 20-minute shut off once the keys are removed, Perusits says drivers too often leave on electrical drains, such as rear window defrosters and cell phone chargers in older vehicles and kill their batteries. Also, Monaghan notes that as new devices or accessories are installed, they are too often added to older cars that aren’t properly designed to handle the new electrical system strain. Shops must pay attention when adding new electrical accessories to older vehicles and ensure the vehicle’s existing system can incorporate them or make necessary changes.

WorldPac’s Morell says that in order to be prepared for all the new modules and accessories placing demands on automotive electrical systems shops must invest in the training and tools needed to keep up on new technologies. “It’s absolutely essential nowadays, because the car has the capability to help the technicians diagnose all this stuff, but if you aren’t aware of it and you don’t know how it works you can really be hopelessly lost.”

Art French is the owner of AML Auto Service in Toronto. He also stresses the importance of keeping up on the latest technologies and utilizing the best scan tools due to all the modules being added to new cars.

French says it’s important to test the battery charge whenever a car is in for service, perhaps during regular oil changes as drains on the battery hap- pen frequently.

“If I were a garage installer, I’d check that battery every time I’m opening the hood and servicing that vehicle,” adds Monaghan.

Ultimately, though, best practices in battery maintenance are following age old techniques that are in place at most shops, such as ensuring good battery storage and rotation, and that the first battery in is the first out.

Know your customer

Perusits and French both point to one of the key issues with batteries, when failures are seen as customer driving habits. A great many drivers simply do not drive enough to meet their battery’s charging needs.

“I have got quite a few little old ladies (as customers) and I love them dearly… But they just aren’t doing enough driving to charge the batteries,” Perusits says.

Perusits says the most important skill in properly servicing a customer for their battery and electrical systems is the same as all day-to-day service work: communication.

“Every single customer is like a finger print,” he adds.

In the end, he suggests it’s about understanding the customer’s habits and style: their needs and their abil- ity to accept risk, because a battery is a little like a light bulb. He notes that one wants to replace the battery before it becomes a concern, but most customers need to retain their existing batteries as long as they can before facing replacement costs.

Recognizing and recommending the right time for replacement is a skill.

“You don’t want to deal with it when you’re all dressed up and you’re on your way down to [a fancy night out] and, guess what, the battery won’t fire,” he says of finding the right time for customers to replace batteries. “And the driver will usually have known about a problem, but sometimes they won’t have.”

Perusits says there’s little reason for drivers not to know the condition of their batteries and that shops should be offering a load test as part of their regular inspection packages to test the voltage on the battery. “It should be part of spring maintenance, and fall maintenance and summer maintenance. It’s just part of doing a good service.”

“But then again, in your back pocket you always have to keep aware of when that light bulb’s going to burn out. We’ve tested it and it was fine, and a customer can’t ask for more. There’s only going to be one person who knows when that battery is going to die out, and that’s The Big Guy.”

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