Car batteries are hardly new technology; they’ve been an integral part of the automobile for as long as anyone can remember. The stalwart 12-volt battery is found in virtually every type of auto, including cutting-edge electric vehicles (although it functions somewhat differently in an EV). And even car owners with no technical knowledge understand what a battery does and what happens if it goes bad. It’s simple, without a functioning battery, a car can’t properly operate.
Read on as we offer a greater understanding of this essential component and provide insight into when it’s time for a new battery.
Background: What Does the Battery Do?
Let’s begin by clarifying that we’re talking about a standard 12-volt car battery (that’s usually located under the hood); not the massive battery packs that power electric vehicles.
A car battery is a component that provides that all-important spark of electrical energy that brings a conventionally powered vehicle to life. The voltage from the battery engages the starter which in turn helps the engine turn over. The battery also provides power for in-car electronics.
A battery also stabilizes the car’s energy supply. In other words, this ensures that the engine runs smoothly, the lights operate at the correct brightness, and the stereo is free of fading and flickering (all things that can’t occur when a battery goes bad). That’s a lot of function from a small box. But, the wonders of a basic chemical reaction make it possible. And the car’s alternator helps keep the battery optimized as you drive and idle.
Long periods of inactivity can cause a battery to lose its charge and become inoperable. Leaving your car in the garage for an extended period can later lead to a discharged battery and a car that won’t start. Even running the car for 20-30 minutes once or twice a week can prevent these situations.
How Long Do Car Batteries Last?
It’s difficult to say exactly how a car battery will last, but most are usable for three to five years under normal conditions. Extreme hot or cold temperatures and taxing situations can significantly shorten a battery’s lifespan. And keep in mind that this period begins at the point of production. So, a never-used battery that’s been sitting on the shelf still loses its charge over time. Three things actively work to reduce a battery’s lifespan:
- Environment : Extreme heat and cold are the enemies of a car battery
- Vibration: Excessive vibrations also contribute to a battery’s breakdown/ These effects can be reduced by ensuring the battery is securely installed.
- Insufficient Charging: An adequate charging system helps the battery’s health. Otherwise, having to repeatedly jump-start the car leads to a shortened lifespan.
How Often Should You Change a Car Battery?
As there’s no hard and fast rule about battery lifespan, there isn’t a precise guideline about when a battery should be replaced. Four years is the average of three to five years of typical battery usability, but don’t assume it’s time to buy a replacement at this mark. The battery could go sooner, or last well beyond this timeframe. The quality of the battery and how and where you drive all impact lifespan.
The idea, however, is to identify battery problems before you get stuck somewhere. So, beginning at the three-year mark, have the battery checked as part of your car’s regular maintenance routine. And continue to do this annually (or more frequently), until your mechanic advises a replacement is needed. Be more alert as the battery reaches or exceeds the five-year threshold.
Battery Replacement Cost
How much does it cost to change a car battery? At the low end, it can cost as little as $50. But, more premium batteries and those used in luxury vehicles can run up to $250 or more. Vehicles with larger engines also require bigger (and more expensive) batteries. Price is directly tied to the battery’s power capability and quality (longevity).
Signs That Your Car Battery is Failing
A battery will almost always give an advance warning that something is wrong. Here are some red flags to be on the lookout for.’
Sign 1: Engine Struggling to Start
A slow or stuttering start can be a sign that the battery isn’t delivering enough power to the starter motor. Under normal conditions, the engine should turn over instantaneously. Otherwise, have the battery tested right away to avoid being stranded later on. \
Sign 2: “Check Engine” Light
An illuminated “Check Engine” light is never a good sign, and one of the reasons for this occurring can be a bad battery. Your car may just have a single warning light or a dedicated battery status indicator. Regardless of the setup, consider the battery to be the culprit, particularly if you notice other symptoms from this list. Learn more: Why You Never Ignore the Blinking Check Engine Light .
Sign 3: Corrosion
In most cars, the battery is located under the hood. But sometimes the manufacturer places it in the trunk/hatch or even under a rear seat (check the owner’s manual as needed). This helps balance the car’s weight and provides more room in the engine compartment. Make a point of regularly inspecting the battery to look for signs of corrosion; usually, it’s crumbly or powdery build-up on the negative and positive terminals. This substance can interfere with the transfer of power and indicates that the internal workings of the battery aren’t normal.
Sign 4: Flickering Lights and Electronics
When driving at night, do the headlights seem dimmer than usual? Does the dome light inside the car flicker or dim upon initial use? These are all indicators that the battery is starting to fail and is unable to send full power to the car’s electric systems. Also, look for an instrument cluster, infotainment system, or radio display that isn’t as bright as normal.
Sign 5: Physical Damage to the Battery Case
While you’re looking for corrosion on the battery terminals, inspect the exterior casing. Cracks, swelling, or other deformities are indicators that the battery is damaged and is in need of replacement. Importantly, escaping gases can create an explosion hazard, so deal with the situation right away.
Sign 6: Bad Odors
Another sign of leaking battery gases (and a serious problem) is a rotten egg smell coming from under the hood (or wherever the battery is mounted). You may even notice the aroma in the passenger cabin. Have this looked at right away.
Topmarq Tip: Advice on becoming a DIYer (do it yourself) and how to find a good mechanic when you get stuck .
Conclusion: Don’t Wait to the Last Minute to Change a Car Battery
Leaving a battery to its last moments of usefulness is tempting fate. Because just when you have to urgently drive off to somewhere important is when a battery dies. To avoid this situation, be on the alert for symptoms of a failing battery, have it tested regularly, and buy a replacement sooner than later. Better safe than sorry is always a good guideline when it comes to replacing a car battery.
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