Batteries are tougher and last longer, but can still prematurely fail if not taken care of
Car batteries are likely one of the most strained and abused items in a vehicle today. That seems an odd statement to make, as technicians and motorists can point to any number of vehicle parts and systems that undergo grueling punishments. The shock absorber as well and the whole suspension systems is one obvious example. So why say the car battery is one of the most strained?
Think for a moment about today’s vehicles. Compared to vehicles manufactured even 20 years ago, the number of electronics and computer-controlled systems is astounding. You cannot open the car door, let alone raise or lower the window, without engaging a computer system, module and electrical part.
Take the example of the new Ford Taurus. That vehicle comes with more electronics gadgets and controls systems than the proverbial Space Shuttle: Adaptive Cruise Control, Blind Spot Information System, full-colour rear-view camera, not to mention onboard navigation and entertainment systems. And we are not even including the numerous other systems controlling the everyday operations of the vehicle. Nor have we mentioned whether the owner of that vehicle has decided to add the latest add-on electronic gadgets and systems.
One can imagine then the strains on the battery, even when the vehicle is parked and sitting idly in a garage.
“When you look at the role of the SLI battery (starting, lighting and ignition) over the years, it essentially does the same thing,” said Roy Helmmund with the technical services department of Interstate Batteries. “But the demands have changed. Older vehicles had very little parasitic draw from the battery when the vehicle was shut off. New model vehicles have higher parasitic draw . . . the higher parasitic draw is due to things like keep-alive memory, keyless entry systems and the PCM running tests while the vehicle is off.”
Daryl Brockman, senior sales application engineer for Optima Batteries agrees that the power requirements of today’s vehicles are putting a strain on batteries. This strain, he suggested, results in batteries discharging more quickly and deeply than in the past, and thereby shortening the battery life.
This extra load on a traditional car battery has resulted in advances in battery design, the most significant and well-known to service technicians is the use of AGM or Absorbent Glass Mat technology. AGM technology works using a sleeve design in which the electrolyte is now held in glass mats, not freely floating about the plates. These mats have thin glass fibres woven into them to increase surface area.
One advantage of AGM batteries is that if the battery is dropped and the cases cracks there is no spillage of acid. Another is greater power.
Robert Bosch’s S6 batteries use AGM technology in order to “satisfy the highest starting power and supply standards of today’s modern, high-end vehicle which have a great amount of power consumption built-in, such as GPS navigation, powerful audio systems, seat heating and electrical adjustments, and other devices,” said Andreas Tobler, product manager, Bosch Energy Systems. Tobler added the AGM design allows the S6 battery to have 30 per cent more deep cycle and vibration resistance than conventional lead-acid batteries, which translates into more power and a longer life for the battery.
Optima Batteries is another company that has adopted AGM, but has given it a twist. When one looks at an Optima battery the first thing that once notices is that it is not the traditional bulky rectangular or square shape of other batteries. It is instead six spiral-wound AGM cells – dubbed Spiralcell Technology by the company – that are tightly fitted into a sealed case. This spiral design has several advantages, according to Optima’s Brockman, increasing battery life and producing more cranking power in cold climates.
“The cranking power of a battery is largely dependent on the surface area of the plates,” Brockman added. “Because of the Spiralcell design, the compression fit of the cells within the battery, Optima has over 40 per cent more plate surface area than a typical flooded cell battery. This gives the battery more cranking power.”
The odd-looking design might seem to make the Optima battery a hard sell for service shops as it would not seem, at first glance, to fit some battery bays. Brockman has heard this criticism before, but points out that Optima provides a wide-range of height and fitment adapters which “means that a shop owner can maintain a relatively small inventory of batteries and service the majority of applications, reducing holding costs and storage space and increasing inventory turns, all while providing a premium product for their customers.”
Preventing premature failure, making the sale
There are several reasons why a battery can prematurely fail. Sometimes, it can be as simple as the vehicle being the second or third vehicle owned by a family. That vehicle probably sits around for long periods of time and the reserve capacity of the battery is slowly used up to keep the electronics of the car going. Another problem that a technician can come across is sometimes a battery is chosen that has too many cold cranking amps for the climate, especially if the local climate rarely has the deep freezes one might encounter in Alberta.
But what can unintentionally shorten a battery’s life are often simple things can be avoided by a shop and its technicians, the most common being undercharging a battery.
“Undercharging the battery is the most common mistake when charging a battery,” said Rick Adams, product manager, customer care and aftersales, Canada with ACDelco Canada. “With the advent of automatic chargers and high-rate digital chargers this can be limited, but using an older charger means you need to make sure the battery is “fully” charged. Batteries require a certain amount of charge time based on temperature and current flow. Without proper testing and determination of a battery’s’ state-of-charge you will almost never “fully” charge a battery with an older charger.”
While those chargers can do an adequate job in charging a battery, one has to remember that the voltage regulation on those old chargers isn’t very good and can cause various problems
“The (old) chargers can cause damage to the electronics of the vehicle due to the high voltage . . . (and) high charge rates can cause damage the battery due to overheating,” added Interstate’s Hellmund.
Another problem is to only partially charge the battery and then rely on the alternator to do the rest. The problem with that approach is the alternator is not a charger at all. It is better to think about it as a power supply.
“A battery that has been deeply discharged may need around 15.8 volts to drive the sulfation out of the plates and restore the battery,” Hellmund said. “Alternators provide what is generally considered to be a steady float voltage to the battery and that is why you can’t rely on the alternator to completely recharge a deeply discharged battery.”
Automatic chargers and testers also provide a unique sales opportunity for a service shop. Today’s testers provide a lot of information that a savvy service writer can use to sell a customer on a replacement battery or up-sell to a higher-premium and better-quality battery.
Tim Stumpff, product manager with the Bosch Diagnostics Business Unit points to some of the features of the new Bosch BAT 131 tester that can help in a battery sale.
For instance, the tester comes with a means to print the results of the test in English and French, and it provides a USB port for quick downloads of the test results to a computer. These printouts can then be given to the vehicle owner to show them the state of their battery.
“Special features of the BAT 131 include the ability to test in-stock batteries, the ability to enter the shop’s information to appear on the header of the printout and a coupon function allowing the shop to customize a coupon printout at the bottom of the test results.”
Such things, while seemingly simple,
are surpassingly effective in building brand loyalty and more customer comebacks which, in the end, is what any good service shop wants.
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