Keeping Your Battery Happy

Let’s face it, car batteries are problem children: It’s very hard to monitor them, and they either need constant attention or prefer to be ignored altogether. And just when you need them the most, they might fail you. 

That’s frustrating enough, but these days, car batteries are more important than ever because vehicles depend on them not only for starting the engine and providing the spark that ignites the fuel in the cylinders, but also for powering the onboard computers that control just about everything else. A modern car without a battery is a boat without an oar, a cheeseburger without the cheese, a Christmas morning without children’s laughter. And it won’t get you very far either.

So what are you to do about this potential problem waiting to happen that resides under the hood of your car? Maintenance, yes, maintenance. Do the things a battery likes; avoid doing things a battery doesn’t like. (Note: If you substitute the word “wife” for the word “battery” in that sentence, you also have the key to a happy home.) And since avoiding the bad might well be more important than doing the good, here are some things you shouldn’t do with your battery:

1. If your battery is frozen, don’t charge it. Why? It might explode, that’s why -- and we’re pretty sure that’s something you don’t want. How do you tell if your battery is frozen? One sign is that the sides are bowed out, as if the battery gained weight after a big winter meal. This condition is dangerous, and the battery will need to be replaced.

2. If you need to charge your battery, be absolutely certain you know how its charger works. Go to that oddball length of actually reading the instructions. To help avoid inadvertent damage to the battery, you might also want to switch the charger to a low-charge setting. Most chargers have this feature. If you’re not comfortable using your own up-to-date charger, have a professional charge the battery.

3. Don’t attempt to charge a dead battery with a car’s alternator (or a margarita machine, for that matter). Neither an alternator nor a cold-drink blender is designed to function as a charger, and they might damage the battery if used.

4. Never put any part of your body over a battery when charging, testing or jump-starting the engine. (You know which body parts you treasure most, but you probably want to keep them all.) As previously mentioned, batteries have been known to explode, causing grievous harm to those nearby.

5. Don’t disconnect battery cables while the engine is running. Several bad things can happen in this circumstance, and we can’t think of any good that’ll come out of it. (This is doubly the case if the car is moving.)

6. Don't let your battery lose power completely. Most car batteries get their power from lead cells submerged in electrolyte, and these cells can be damaged when the battery has no power at all, shortening the battery’s life -- or worst case, ending its life right there on the spot.

7. Don’t let the battery get hot while charging. At the same time, don’t let yourself get hot while charging. Again, nothing good can come out of that.

By avoiding this kind of stuff -- and common sense items like cleaning your battery with the garden hose -- your car’s electrical system (and your wife) will be that much happier.