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ASE Technician of the Year Offers Tips on Battery Maintenance

Taking Care of Your Car Battery So It Will Take Care of You

ATLANTA, June 10 -- The lowly but loyal car battery. With the turn of the ignition key, it dutifully springs to life, sending forth a surge of electricity to crank your car's engine and send you on your way.

Interestingly, commercial lead acid battery technology hasn't changed much the past 100 years. Yet the chemical principal behind automotive batteries has allowed the average car battery to be one of the most reliable automotive components and require very little maintenance.

Still, consumers can get more battery life for the buck by including battery inspection and electrical system testing as standard maintenance.

"Today's automotive batteries may lull you into a false sense of security," said Stephen Powell, NAPA/ASE Technician of the Year and owner of Thoroughbred Transmissions & AutoCare, Inc. in Laurel, Md. "There is more to battery maintenance than meets the eye, and a well-cared-for battery is less likely to let you down at the end of a busy workday or on a cold winter's morning."

While the four-year rule of thumb for battery life still serves as a good average, today's cars are loaded with electronic devices that require much more from a battery than earlier cars. One source says the amount of electrical wiring in today's cars weighs in at a hefty 11 pounds. Recreational vehicles and some boats have even more.

Powell said that while there are many aspects to quality battery maintenance, three items stand out as a battery's worst enemies: vibration, heat and corrosion.

"Vibration is not often considered an issue with batteries, but unnecessary vibration can sap life from a battery by causing unnecessary damage to the plates inside," Powell said. "Vibration resistant construction, such as the Anchor-Lok plate construction in NAPA brand batteries, is important to longer battery life. In addition, batteries need to be firmly anchored to the battery shelf with a bracket. A well anchored battery will not be affected by the average amount of automobile vibration."

While many think cold weather is the major cause of battery deterioration, extreme heat also saps battery life. Battery construction plays an important role in its ability to resist heat, as does the frequency with which cars sit in direct sun, the local climate and whether or not the battery is protected by a casing inside the engine compartment or elsewhere in the car.

"Battery covers help shield batteries from heat and cold," Powell said. "It's important that replacement batteries are not too big for the cover. Consumers should be aware when buying replacement batteries that the cover is put back on securely and not discarded."

Many batteries are perfectly healthy but can't provide the juice through corroded or ill-fitting battery cable connections. Most battery corrosion is caused by gases from the battery reacting with metal parts or acid bubbling out from the inside. Powell recommends a thorough cleaning periodically to minimize corrosion. Some suggest using petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, on the cables and battery posts and heat-resistant grease on the post exposed just above the cable.

  Battery life also can be affected by:

   - Age. The older the battery, the closer it is to failure. Batteries
     older than three years should be tested twice a year by a certified ASE
   - Driving conditions. Driving habits will affect a battery's life span.
     How much you drive, frequent starts and stops and extreme climates
     affect a battery's overall performance and longevity.
   - Reserve capacity. This is the battery's ability to recharge itself.
     Adequate reserve capacity can save you when, for example, the dome
     light is accidentally left on all night or the alternator, which
     recharges the battery when the engine is running, fails. The more
     electronics a car has, the more taxing on a battery. Buy batteries with
     the greatest reserve capacity to support on-board accessories,
     computers and emergency power needs.
   - Frequency of use. Batteries in cars that sit for long periods have
     life-shortening sulphation build up, the chief cause of battery
     failure. Batteries removed for storage should be connected to a trickle
     charger or other source of energy input.
   - Undercharging. Batteries that are deeply discharged are vulnerable to
     extreme heat and cold. Undercharged batteries can freeze solid in
     exceptionally cold conditions.
   - Overfilling. While most batteries are maintenance free, some need water
     levels checked at regular intervals. Use only distilled water. Hot
     weather will cause water to expand and overflow if battery cells are
     filled too full.

To avoid battery problems, Powell recommends a routine 3- to 5-minute battery and electrical system check twice a year, or at every other oil change, by an ASE-certified technician. Call 1-800-LET NAPA for an ASE technician nearest you.

Consumers who want to check batteries themselves between regular inspections by certified technicians should be reminded that batteries can be dangerous. Wear safety goggles to avoid corrosive particles from entering eyes and polyester cloths that naturally resist acid. Also avoid metal tools that could cause an arc or electrical short.

Powell also recommends buying batteries covered by replacement guarantees and nationwide warranty coverage, such as NAPA's LEGEND Professional Line batteries.