When it comes to building battery sales, technicians are the primary influencers of what is chosen by the vehicle owner. A technician can only be that kind of influencer, however, if the jobber is there to help support him with the right kind of knowledge.
What knowledge are we talking about? Robert Brault, regional sales director (East), transportation with Exide Technologies Canada Corporation, says the most important point is making sure technicians move away from waiting to make battery recommendations only when a battery fails.
“Seventy-nine per cent of battery replacement is still the result of battery failure,” says Brault. “We need to change that by better informing consumers of the health of their batteries. Unfortunately today, preventative maintenance is showing a setback. In 2006, 12% of battery replacement was the result of battery testing. In 2013, it dropped by one point. We are not really making headway on providing the proper information to consumers. Repair shop staff should include battery testing as part of regular maintenance.”
This is confirmed by Nick Bintas, co-owner of Spark Auto Parts in Toronto, who says battery sales for his jobber operation are greatly influenced by whether the vehicle service operation makes battery testing a regular part of a maintenance program. “Battery sales can be increased if the service provider has its technicians do some preventative maintenance. There are equipment and tools available today that can quickly and accurately test batteries and measure for such things as cold cranking amps, voltage, etc., and recommend a battery replacement before the battery totally dies.”
Nick Bintas continues that he and his counter staff offer service writers numerous opportunities to test batteries – from when a vehicle comes in for an oil change, to when an alternator or a starter is being replaced.
Brault suggests that winter and spring tire changes are another time jobbers should advise technicians to test vehicle batteries. The vehicle is already in the shop, and likely having its oil changed while the tires are being swapped out. Make the battery test a part of that normal tire work routine, he counsels. “Proper testing of a battery can prevent failure and returns to the manufacturer.”
Batteries Are Pushed Harder Than Ever
Most agree that vehicles today are placing a lot of demands on batteries. While from a pure starting perspective, most new vehicles use less battery power to start the engine than before – largely due to smaller engine displacements and more efficient fuel injection systems, for example – the loads made by many off-key systems and accessories are placing very heavy demands on the battery.
Justin Bakhsh, vice-president with Magnacharge Battery Corporation, says several factors are impacting modern vehicle battery designs. One is having batteries survive in extreme environments. “Extremes between hot or cold [weather] will have an effect on batteries. It is critical to ensure that the battery technology being used is sufficient for the vehicle’s requirements and the conditions the vehicle will face.”
Gale Kimbrough, engineering and tech services manager with Interstate Batteries, says today’s onboard electronic and computerized systems are demanding more power every year, tapping the battery even when the vehicle is not being driven. “The key-off computer memories and entertainment systems draw additional current (in milli-amps), allowing the battery to be discharged to a lower state of charge. The vehicle’s starting battery is often over-taxed, to supply not only its intended purpose of starting, but also providing additional medium to deep discharge cycles.”
Kimbrough explains in greater detail what jobbers and technicians need to keep in mind when making a battery choice for a vehicle owner. “The battery’s RC (Reserve Capacity) rating is just as important as its CCA (Cold Cranking Amps). The battery’s RC rating is a test of the amount of minutes a battery discharges 25 amps down to 10.5 volts. This situation makes it more important than ever to encourage the customer to choose 1) a high quality product, 2) a fresh battery, and 3) the correct rating (CCA and RC). For example, 0.100 a (100 milli-amps) is not a lot of discharge. However, when a vehicle sits unused for seventy-two hours, a 100 milli-amp discharge to retain various key-off [functions] drains circuits, and a normal-sized and fully charged battery can lose 15 to 20% power availability.”
This new reality has changed the design of many batteries. In order to produce the needed capacity and life cycles, batteries today are made with additional plates and paste materials, and are packed more tightly together.
Randy Anderson, training and technical sales manager with battery maker Canadian Energy, says jobbers need to be aware of what causes battery failures in order to properly educate vehicle service technicians on what to look for.
“The most common cause of battery failure today is plate deterioration due to cycling loads,” he continues. “Weak batteries can be detected by manufacturer- or BCI-approved load testing methods.”
Interstate Batteries’ Kimbrough points to other reasons for vehicle battery failure that jobbers need to be aware of, and which the jobber can then ask a technician to look for when calling to discuss a battery issue.
“Over the last few years, increased under-hood temperatures, along with over-discharging (cycling), have accelerated deterioration of the battery’s life,” he continues. “With this extreme heat, the battery’s internal lead plates deteriorate faster due to corrosion, eventually causing external signs similar to over-charging. Those signs include increased ‘gassing’ and electrolyte residue across the top of the battery, as well as corrosion at the terminals.”
Kimbrough adds jobbers and technicians also need to remember that battery over-cycling or repeated discharges do not often exhibit any outward signs that there is something wrong. So a visual inspection has to be replaced by doing a conductance or impedance test.
Price + Quality = Value
Magnacharge’s Bakhsh says jobbers are well educated in the testing procedures for identifying batteries that are about to fail, for example, running load tests after the battery has been fully charged. The issue is passing that knowledge onto shop service writers and technicians.
One thing jobbers need to do is make sure service writers understand the “price-value” proposition. Often, vehicle owners will come in focused only on price and ask for the lowest-cost battery in order to save a few dollars. This, more often than not, will result in a battery that may fit into the vehicle’s allotted battery space, but is not suited for the electrical demands that will be placed on it. A simple set of rules apply for helping a service writer make the right choice for the vehicle owner, and for making the case that price must be paired with quality and right battery chosen.
First, choose a battery that meets the vehicle’s recommended OEM CCA rating. Going with a lower rating will cause the battery to suffer a higher discharge at each start and reduce its service life. The correct CCA rating is important, as it needs to match the vehicle’s engine horsepower, starting rpms, and starter torque, for example. Second, one needs to select for the right reserve capacity. Remember, today’s vehicles have many off-key systems that will tap the battery. Make a mistake here and watch a customer come back asking why their vehicle failed to start when it was sitting in the garage for a week while the family was on vacation.
These off-key issues are one of the main reasons jobbers are often stuck with comebacks of perfectly good batteries. Jobbers must also emphasize how important it is that technicians properly test batteries and diagnose systems to make sure that they have eliminated other reasons that could prematurely drain a battery.
“The number-one issue we see today with battery comebacks is low state of charge, whether the issue is from off-key loads discharging the battery, or charging systems not keeping up to vehicle electrical loads,” says Canadian Energy’s Anderson. “There are many options for battery testers on the market today, [and] the most advanced units will warn the user if the battery needs to be recharged before testing…. My advice to a technician is if a vehicle comes in with a discharged battery, there is always a cause. One should ask the vehicle owner how the vehicle has been used and their driving habits. Simply replacing a battery to get the customer going is a nice gesture, but if there is an underlying issue, they will come back with the same issue.
“Many of today’s jobbers have the most advanced testing and diagnostic equipment available, as well as chargers designed for the latest battery technologies. Along with proper training, technicians should be able to properly diagnose and resolve battery issues and eliminate unnecessary battery returns.”
Interstate Batteries’ Kimbrough adds that misdiagnosis is a problem for the “jobber, the technician, and the supplier,” which is why accurate diagnostics and using the right testing equipment is so important. He gives an example to keep in mind. “The old battery dynamic load test of discharging at ½ CCA for 15 seconds should never be performed at a battery level that is below 75% of its charge. Using this method, auto starting batteries need to be at 12.60 volts for an accurate diagnosis. This also applies to conductance or impedance testers. Many of these testers can test accurately down to five volts. Bottom line, the lower the battery’s voltage, the lower the tester’s accuracy.”
“The jobber and installer should be aware that the vehicle may require the newer, higher capacity battery even if it’s not what the consumer is accustomed to from years past,” adds Magnacharge’s Bakhsh. “It’s our responsibility [as a battery company] to ensure the sales, counter, and jobber staff are well equipped with material and information on the options to effectively select the appropriate battery. The initial purchase, if done correctly, will be the lower cost option for all involved. An underpowered or mismatched battery will result in premature failure, additional replacement, and strained relations.”
Jobbers should also keep in mind the growing importance of lithium ion battery technology in vehicles. Vehicle makers are looking to find uses for this technology as it provides a great deal of power for the light weight of the batteries. Right now, lithium ion’s applications are limited as the RC power of the technology is not sufficient for today’s vehicles. But over time, it is expected to change and lithium ion will begin to take its place in vehicles. For now, lead acid batteries are here to stay, and jobbers need to keep up with the demands placed on them by today’s vehicle technologies, and the changes being made to the batteries by manufacturers.