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.


How to Choose the Right Mechanic

New cars are expensive. The economy, in a word, sucks. Because of this, you are probably thinking more about preserving your current chariot than buying a new one. You are not alone. According to a recent AAA survey, 54 percent of American drivers say they have decided to keep an existing vehicle rather than invest in a newer one. It can be a cost-effective strategy, but it requires that you find a good repair facility and a mechanic you can trust.

So how do you make this magic connection? The first order of business is to start looking now rather than on the day you walk out to your car and find its transmission lying on the street. One good method is to ask for recommendations from family and friends. You can also visit the AAA website to find nearby AAA Approved Auto Repair (AAR) shops.

When it comes to servicing your vehicle, you have three basic choices: You can take your car to a new-car dealership; go to an independent repair shop; or go to a shop that specializes in the particular problem you are currently experiencing (like a brake repair shop or tire retailer.) Once you’ve made that decision, check out the facility. Does it seem well-organized? Are the employees you talk to responsive to your questions, or are they clueless? Typically a repair shop isn’t the tidiest place on Earth, but it should give the immediate impression of being well-run.

See if the owner/manager is on the premises. Shops run by technicians with “skin in the game” often deliver better service than those operated by absentee owners. Of course, the facility should employ qualified technicians who receive ongoing training in the latest technology. Certifications from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) are often posted, and dealerships may display vehicle manufacturer service training credentials as well. Collision repair shops often have certificates from training offered by the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR). Remember, though, that just because these credentials are posted, it doesn’t mean that all the mechanics working in that dealership or shop are certified.

Ask an employee how he will go about diagnosing the problems you have with your car. A good repair shop will have up-to-date service equipment and repair data to help technicians make good calls. The amount of information that is necessary to repair modern cars can no longer be effectively contained in paper manuals, so quality shops today have Internet access to repair information or an on-site service information library of CD/DVD ROMs.

Finally, look at the shop’s reputation. Check with the Better Business Bureau, the state department of consumer affairs or the attorney general’s office; they will provide you with information on how the shop handles any consumer complaints. Additionally, ask how long the dealership or shop has been in business. The economic travails of the past few years have forced many dealerships and independent service shops to close. If a repair facility has weathered the storm, it is a good indication that it continues to satisfy its customers, and that’s what you’re looking for.