Newer automobiles require more energy
If you’ve replaced a car battery recently, you aren’t alone. In its 2017 Vehicle Dependability Study, J.D. Power found that battery failures in 3-year-old cars had increased by 44 percent from the year before. A 2015 study by Battery Council International found that battery lifespan declined by 10 percent after peaking in 2010. For an explanation, consider this: Today’s high-tech, feature-laden cars are asking their batteries to do more than ever before.
Battery life is directly related to duty cycles, or the number of times the battery discharges and recharges. Unfortunately, car batteries in new vehicles are now going through more discharge-charge cycles than ever before.
Even after you’ve switched off the engine and locked the doors, electronic components that remember your favorite radio stations, run the clock and maintain the memory in the computerized drivetrain management systems continue to siphon small amounts of power. Power sliding doors on minivans and power liftgates also discharge the car battery when used with the engine off.
Also, more cars now come with stop/start technology, which turns the engine off to save fuel when the car is stopped at a light, stop sign or in traffic. The starting motor, drawing power from the battery, instantly restarts the engine when the driver releases the brake. However, while the engine is off, most electrical accessories, like wipers or the radio, continue to work. This draws power from the battery that has to be replenished once the engine starts.
Making matters more difficult for the battery are the new ways some vehicle manufacturers handle battery charging. In an effort to save gasoline, not all cars generate all the electricity needed while the vehicle is stopped or traveling slowly. Instead, these cars tap the battery, then recharge it once the car is moving quickly or slowing from higher speeds. This means even more discharge-charge cycles.
Some automakers install absorbent glass-mat batteries at the factory to help cope with this increasing workload. Owners of these vehicles should, of course, choose a comparable battery when it is time for a replacement.
Summertime heat also shortens car battery life, according to Alex Templeton, product marketing manager at battery maker Exide. This has become a bigger problem with cramped engine compartments and as automakers add heat-generating turbochargers and superchargers to more models, he said. As for problems associated with winter, freezing temperatures reduce the battery’s ability to deliver electrical energy. Yet starting an engine in cold weather requires more electrical power than summertime starts.
All of this would be less of a problem for battery life if we took longer trips after these cold starts. Unfortunately, winter weather usually means more short trips, which can leave the battery depleted and subject to early failure.
Recharging the Battery
A 2015 study conducted by the Argonne National Laboratory confirmed these results. It concluded that failure to fully recharge a car battery shortens its life. It also found that simply idling the engine would not do the trick; you need to drive the car. However, for a completely discharged battery, even a long, high-speed trip might not fully recharge it. In this situation, you’ll need a proper recharge from a professional. This means regardless of the season, you should take your car out for a highway trip every few weeks or, for cars that won’t get some highway use at least once a month, use a trickle charger to keep the battery fully charged.
Finally, be sure to have your car’s battery and charging system checked by a professional auto technician every six months. That way, your car’s electrical system will be ready to deliver dependable service throughout the year.
James MacPherson is a freelance automotive writer and broadcaster from South Windsor, Conn.