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On several occasions (in different vehicles) I've had batteries fail without warning, leaving me stranded and needing a jump, or even a tow. There was NO prior indication of a problem, such as slow cranking, etc. The battery worked great, and then it failed.

Is there any way to anticipate these problems so I can replace the battery before I am stranded? Thanks.

  • Good question and nice to think proactively. Some good answers here for you. One thing I would add: remember batteries often first cause problems when winter sets in. – Steve Oakes Jul 21 '16 at 17:58
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A battery load tester will give some indication of the battery health. It could be an somewhat expensive tool (about $100) for occasional home use. The model I own has two leads that are clamped on to the battery terminals. A switch is then activated and a reading of bad, marginal or good is read off the gauge. The scale has readings for various battery load capacities. If you don't feel you have the need to buy the tool ask them to check the battery during routine service. Even with regular testing you can still get stranded. Batteries do occasionally fail with no warning due to internal failure rather than just wearing out.

  • It's also possible to load test the battery using the starter motor and a decent multimeter, which is a more general-purpose tool. If the battery voltage drops below (IIRC) 9.6 while cranking, it fails the load test. – Josh Caswell Aug 12 '14 at 0:52
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    This voltage drop test is only an accurate battery test if the cable, connections, solenoid and starter are all known to be good. – mikes Aug 12 '14 at 10:36
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Yes, there is - by age.

Plan on an automotive battery to live about seven years in "normal" use. If you replace it after five years of service, and if your battery usage is about typical, then your chances of experiencing a battery failure are greatly diminished. It COULD still happen, but it's much less likely.

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    Interesting. I reviewed my records on two of my cars for 10 years. One got, on average, 2.4 years before the battery failed and the other got 3.6 years on average. I wonder what I am doing wrong. I have used a mix of genuine Honda batteries and batteries purchased at NTB. – Vinnie Boombatz Aug 11 '14 at 19:55
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    Ouch! Your batteries are NOT lasting long enough! I'm now starting to suspect that your alternator is overcharging - that can kill batteries prematurely. On a side note, I'd THINK that a Honda battery should at LEAST come with a five-year warranty... but that doesn't help if the alternator is killing your batteries and you wind up stranded. – TDHofstetter Aug 11 '14 at 22:07
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    Another age measure is the warranty on the battery. The manufacturer is good at math and will figure out how often they expect to have to pay out a warranty claim. – Bob Cross Aug 11 '14 at 23:09
  • @VinnieBoombatz If you regularly drive short distances (less than a few miles or so, perhaps) per engine start cycle, that does take a fair toll on the battery. Not sure if that is (was) the case in your situation, but might be worth thinking about. 2-4 years of service life out of a car battery does seem excessively short. – a CVn Jul 19 '16 at 14:05
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    Where does this "7 years" come from? Is it the same for any climate? I guess that in places with cold winter (where -20 Celsius is not uncommon) batteries would live less. Am I wrong? – Alissa Jul 19 '16 at 14:55
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You could regularly check the acid concentration and liquid level in your battery. This can only be done on lead acid batteries that are not "maintenance free".

Clean the top of the battery, then open the plugs. Pay attention: There is concentrated sulfur acid inside. Use acid-resistant gloves. Use splash goggles. Make sure a water tap is nearby, so in case you could flush the affected areas with water. There should be an marking indicating the needed fluid level, either on the side of the battery or under each plug. If you cant find a marker be sure that the lead plates are fully covered with liquid. Do not overfill, too much liquid is dangerous for the battery. Top off the liquid with distilled water, make sure nothing else enters the battery.

After filling the battery, use an electronic controlled battery charger to fully charge the battery, let the plugs open during charging. Attention: During charging explosive hydrogen gas fumes out, make sure the area is well ventilated.

After charging the battery let it rest for half an hour, then use an acid hydrometer to check the acid concentration of each cell of the battery: If there are large differences in the acid density between the cells there is a cell fault and the battery needs to be replaced. If the acid density is not in the right range (about 1.28 g/cm³) the battery also needs to get replaced. Close the plugs, clean the battery terminals and install the battery in your car.

I recommend to use non "maintenance free" batteries of an reputable brand and to annually check the battery before winter

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First, it is very rare that a battery will fail before its life cycle without other causes. so you can check the battery regularly in a number of ways. As mikes mentions, you can use a load tester, and as Josh Caswell mentions, you can use a multi meter.

Another test you can do with any DC volt meter is a charge retention test. See if the battery holds charge over time. When batteries are starting to have issues, their ability to store voltage over time will diminish dramatically. I was just helping a friend with a brand new battery that wasn't starting his scooter. We charged it fully and then tested it. Within the first minute it went from 13.8 VDC down to 12.2 VDC. Check 30 minutes later and it was down to 11.4 VDC.

What you can do is quickly check you voltage on the battery (with all systems off, the key out and all doors closed - you're trying to make sure nothing is pulling voltage) at night, then do it again in the morning. A healthy battery should lose very little juice over this time (depending on alarms or other systems) but should not be falling below 12 VDC ever.

When you notice that your battery is doing this, there's a reason. But that's another topic of debug.

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