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My battery went dead yesterday. I couldn't hear the usual cranking sound of starter. Just a faint click when try starting the engine. Replaced the battery, then all was fine. I tested the voltage across the battery with the engine running, got 14v DC. Is this how you check the alternator? It's a 1-litre 2001 polo hatchback. The maintenance-free battery only lasted around five years, and I don't use my car a lot at all.

Are there any tips you can give me to stop this from happening? Is there anything else that could have caused the battery to die?

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your battery is actually likely to last longer if you use your car a lot, so this may be part of your problem. –  Rory Alsop Sep 7 '12 at 16:11
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Many modern batteries will only get around 5-8 years these days, depending on the quality, usage patterns and where you live - harsh, cold winters will cause a battery to fail earlier than one kept in a more temperate climate.

14v across the terminals with the engine running sounds like your alternator is fine.

One of the worst things for a battery (and many other parts of the engine) is frequent shor journeys in cold weather, so if this matches your usage, make sure you take it out for a fairly long journey at least once a week. This gives the battery a chance to charge up fully.

If you tend to leave the car for fairly long periods unused (e.g. if you don't use it to commute, so it sits all week), it may be worth getting a trickle charger to keep it topped up - you can buy solar powered ones fairly cheaply that simply sit on your dashboard and plug in.

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Or, if you don't want the gas expenditure of a long journey, put the battery on a trickle charger overnight once a week. –  Bob Cross Sep 7 '12 at 16:40
    
Hot Summers will also kill batteries. I've not yet had a battery fail in Winter, but I've had several fail in the Summer (usually they split open on top and start leaking). –  Brian Knoblauch Sep 10 '12 at 16:24
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My brother owns VW Polo (1998) and the battery goes dead sometimes, usually when dad parks the car.

He found the source of the problem to be in car stereo. When the car is turned off by rotating the key all the way down, one would think that the power is cut away from car electronics. However, when it comes to Polo, power to the stereo (and I guess other electronics as well) remains active until you remove the key from the keyhole (a clicking sound - latch closing - can be heard while doing so). Dad didn't know this, so the battery was fully depleted on several occasions. I'm driving Peugeot 206 and do not have these problems. I'm not sure how common this kind of power routing in vehicles is.

You should make sure to always remove the key from the keyhole when turning the car off if you're gonna leave it turned off for a while.

Battery may or may not recover after full depletion, depending on age an build quality.

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