There aren’t too many parts of your car as boring as the battery.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most crucial. So grit your teeth and plough into the Hood Honcho’s DIY guide to all things battery – it could save you a lot of time and inconvenience.
It’s a particular kind of sinking feeling to turn the key in your ignition and receive absolutely no response.
But before jumping to conclusions about your engine reaching the end of the road, you should conquer your overwhelming indifference to this boxy piece of electrical technology and check your battery.
It’s not hard to find, and there doesn’t seem to be much to it – but there are some simple things you can do to get maximum life out of it.
If you follow our battery check-up and your car is still refusing to cooperate, then you need to call in the experts.
Before you start fiddling with your battery, you need to be aware that batteries are filled with a corrosive and volatile mix of distilled water and acid. The fluid will burn your skin and damage clothes and paintwork. So you need to be careful. If you get any fluid on yourself, wash it off immediately with water.
How do I do a quick check-up?
Give your battery the following once-over every month or if there’s a problem, to keep it going as long as possible.
However, bear in mind that the average battery life is about three to five years. If you’re having regular trouble and think your battery is three years’ old or older, then it may be time to replace it.
- Turn your engine off.
- Read your car manual if you’re going to disconnect the battery to make sure you don’t lose any radio or computer settings (but you don’t necessarily need to disconnect it to do a basic check).
- Take a good look at the battery, checking it for corrosion (white fluffy stuff) or loose connections.
- Make sure the battery terminals are clean and dry. The terminals are the knobs on top where the battery cables are attached.
- If a terminal or connection is warm or hot to touch, it’s a reasonable indication that it is loose or corroded.
- Tighten any loose connectors or battery terminals using the correct size spanner. Be extra careful not to let the spanner accidentally touch any part of the vehicle body or any wires or cables in the engine as it will spark (short out) and may damage your electrical system – sometimes a very, very expensive mistake.
- If there’s any corrosion on the terminals or anywhere around the battery, pour hot water onto the affected areas to clean it up.
- Your battery is filled with electrolytes – a mixture of distilled water and battery acid. Like a marathon runner, your battery will start to flag if its electrolytes get low. Some batteries are sealed for life – nothing much you can do. Others have screw-on caps which you can remove to check and refill the battery fluid. If you have a battery with caps, remove each one and check that the fluid in all of the separate chambers is between the levels indicated on the battery. If it needs topping up, use only distilled water (which is available at your supermarket or servo). Make sure you don’t overfill it. After filling, tighten your plugs securely.
- If you need to disconnect the battery cables, undo the negative terminal first. Pour some more hot water and use a wire brush or cloth to wipe away anything extra-crusty. Coat the terminals with petroleum jelly or grease to prevent corrosion.
- Now, get yourself a drink, preferably something heavily caffeinated!
- Check that the cables are connected securely and that the battery is securely mounted in the engine.
- You could check the charge in your battery using a multimeter and a hydrometer but… let’s face it, not too many of us are that committed to the world of batteries. A better option is to get the NRMA, your mechanic or a fully-equipped rev-head to check the charge for you.
How do I jump start the car?
If you’ve done your battery check-up and the car’s still dead, you can either call for help (the NRMA, your mechanic or a battery supplier who delivers) or if you’re game, you could try to jump start the car.
This usually means connecting your battery to the same voltage battery in another car and ‘borrowing’ a bit of their charge to get you going. You’ll probably still need to replace your battery, but at least you won’t be stranded.
Don’t attempt to jump start your car unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing. It requires a careful, methodical approach because it can be dangerous and can permanently damage your car’s electrical system.
Here’s the step-by-step guide to jump starting. You need heavy duty, good quality jumper cables, which can be purchased from auto shops and garages. Some of the better jumper cables have surge protectors to reduce the risk of damaging your car’s electronics.
Auto shops sell jump start packs which allow you to get going without the help of another vehicle. These aren’t cheap and the average person probably won’t want to fork out.
This is where you really need to pay attention – maybe you should grab another triple-shot espresso.
- Check that the batteries of both vehicles are the same voltage.
- Park both vehicles safely, nose to nose, making sure they don’t touch.
- Turn off all electrical devices (lights, radio etc.) and check that the vehicles are in park or neutral with the park brake on.
- Connect one end of the jumper cable to the positive terminal (the one with the ‘+’ive sign and red cap) of the dud battery and the other end of the same cable to the positive terminal of the good battery.
- Connect one end of the jumper cable to the negative terminal (the one with the ‘-‘ive sign and black cap) of the charged battery and one end – not to the negative terminal of the dud battery, but to a metal part of the vehicle far away from the battery (clip it to the engine but don’t connect it to cables or any part of the engine that will move when it’s turned on). This process prevents a spark igniting an explosion. Big tip here - never allow the jumper cable clips to touch one another.
- Now start the engine of the vehicle with the good battery. Once it’s running, let it idle for a couple of minutes then slightly increase the revs. Now you can attempt to start the car with the dud battery. If it doesn’t start after 30 seconds, it ain’t going to work and you need to call for help.
- If the engine starts, disconnect the cables in reverse order (in other words take the negative/black lead off first). If the engine is running, be careful not to get the cables caught in the moving parts of the engine.
What are the battery don’ts?
Don’t leave your battery standing for long periods without being charged. In other words, if you aren’t planning to drive your car for a long period (if you’re going on a holiday for example), then make sure someone runs the engine for five to 10 minutes every week or so. This will keep the battery charged and ready to go.
Of course, never leave the lights or other electrical items on while your car’s parked. You have to be particularly aware of this on dark, wintry days when you use your lights during daylight hours (or if you’re a Volvo driver).
You battery can be a dangerous beast – never check it near a naked flame such as a mate pulling on a Winnie Blue.
The fluid inside a battery is corrosive – you don’t want to get it on your eyes, skin, clothes or, heaven forbid, any exposed metal parts of your car (it will eat it away). If you do make a mess, wash it away carefully with water – don’t wipe it with a cloth.
What should I look for when getting a new battery?
All batteries eventually run out of juice. Your mechanic can check the charge or, if you’re ambitious, you can do it yourself with the right equipment.
Batteries come in heaps of different sizes and quality standards. If you’re getting a new battery, make sure it has the right rating for your car and that it’s got a decent warranty.
The battery rating is stamped on the outside of the battery. Check the specs for your car in the owner’s manual or ask your mechanic.
You need to make sure that your new battery fits snugly in your car - if it’s too big or small, you won’t be able to fit it properly. A battery that moves around as you drive can be damaged, leaving you with another replacement bill way too soon after the last one.
If you need a new battery you can buy one from your garage or auto shop and fit it yourself. But it’s probably more convenient to either get your mechanic to do it or use a replacement service from the NRMA or a battery company.
Delivery and installation are free for NRMA Members – you just pay for the battery. If you’re not a member, you can still use the service but you'll pay a call-out fee in metropolitan areas. This charge may vary in regional and country areas. Other suppliers are listed in the Yellow Pages.
How should I get rid of the old battery?
Used batteries can do bad things to our planet because some of them contain toxic materials.
Some manufacturers will take back your old battery for recycling. Your mechanic may accept old batteries, or you can try your local recycling or waste management centre. Most organisations that offer a battery replacement service will take away your old one for recycling.
Never put your battery in the garbage, take it to the tip or leave it lying around at home. And it goes without saying that you should never burn your battery. This will release dangerous fumes and it could explode.
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