If you’re like most people, you rely on your vehicle for everyday use. Without even thinking about it, you hop in, turn the key or push the start button, and away you go. That is, as long as your car is working as intended. With an improperly functioning car battery, however, you aren’t going anywhere, and it’s time to find out why. As one of our videos shows, corrosion can eat away at the battery cable parts until there is very little left.
How a car battery works
If you were a doctor trying to diagnose a patient’s illness, you’d need to know a lot about body parts and how they function. The same is true when it comes to cars. In order to know what’s working and what isn’t, it’s helpful to have a good working knowledge of a vehicle’s components, even if you’re not a professional auto mechanic.
Although there are many parts, let’s take a look at a few of the key components of a car battery:
- Battery terminals and cables – these connect the battery itself to the vehicle’s electrical system.
- Battery acid/paste – the chemical component of a car battery.
- Positive and negative plates – sets of positive and negative plate blocks make up the battery cell and conduct energy.
In simple terms (we’ll avoid the scientific jargon here), a car battery works by taking chemical energy and converting it into electrical energy – that’s the kind needed to start your vehicle and power electrical components such as lights and the radio. The chemical reaction comes from the interaction between hydrogen, oxygen, lead, and sulfur.
What causes battery cable and terminal corrosion?
If you remember from chemistry class, chemical reactions often result in the desired action or product. But, they can also lead to the formation of byproducts. In car batteries, we see that in the form of corrosion.
As your vehicle heats and cools, so does the battery. During this process, hydrogen gas is released through the battery’s vents and mixes with particles around the battery itself. This mixture builds up over time and is the corrosion we most often see on battery terminals or cables.
How to fix corroded battery terminals
Unfortunately, once corrosion occurs, it’s not going to go away on its own. Instead, it’s going to require some good, old-fashioned WORK! If the buildup is not too severe, the terminals can be cleaned as follows:
- Use a wire brush and battery cleaner. This is the ideal method as the battery cleaner works to break down the built-up particles and the wire brush scrubs them away.
- Use a baking soda-water mixture and a toothbrush. If you don’t mind a little extra scrubbing, this method can work just as well and can be done with everyday materials that most people have at home.
For both of these methods, the car’s engine should be off and the battery cables should be disconnected from the vehicle. If you have any questions at all about the process, or whether your terminals can even been cleaned, be sure to ask your local automotive repair professional.
Does a corroded battery need to be replaced?
Sometimes, a corroded battery cannot be sufficiently cleaned. Or, it has other issues that indicate it’s time for a replacement. When inspecting your battery, be sure to note the condition of the case itself. If it’s leaking or bloated, don’t bother with trying to clean the corroded terminals and cables. Instead, head to your local auto repair shop for a new car battery.
Beyond excessive corrosion and leaking or swelling of the battery case, here are a few other symptoms that indicate it’s time for a new battery instead of cleaning or repair of the old one:
- Difficulty starting the vehicle – the engine crank is slow and the car has difficulty starting or won’t start at all.
- Check engine light is on – this can occur for multiple reasons, but can also appear when the battery is weak and ready to call it quits.
- Low battery fluid – look at the side of the battery. There is often a clear window through which you can see the battery fluid level. If it’s below the lead plates, talk to your mechanic about battery testing or replacement.
- Age – if your battery is greater than three years old, it’s on borrowed time.
How to prevent battery corrosion
With many problems in life, the solution is often to prevent the problem in the first place. In the case of car batteries, it’s best to start fresh with a new battery. Then, you can implement the following corrosion prevention procedures:
- Use spray battery protector. Available at many auto parts stores, this product is meant to prevent buildup on battery terminals and cables. Follow the manufacturer’s application directions, but start with clean parts!
- Apply anti-corrosion gel. This product is directly applied to the terminals themselves, but not the connectors. It acts to prevent corrosion buildup, meaning less cleaning down the road and better battery performance!
- Install felt terminal protectors. This is a great option for the car owner who doesn’t want to handle gel or spray, which can sometimes be messy. The felt pieces are inexpensive and are directly installed on the terminals. They are typically saturated with a corrosion preventative that does not dry out or evaporate, providing long term battery corrosion protection.
8 ways to extend the life of your car battery
You’ve learned a little about how a car battery works, how its parts can become corroded, and how to prevent battery corrosion. Let’s wrap up with a few more tips on extending your battery’s life in general:
- Start with the right battery for your vehicle.
- Limit frequent, short-distance trips.
- Make sure the battery is properly secured.
- Turn off electrical accessories when the vehicle isn’t running.
- Keep the battery clean, including its case and terminals.
- Minimize exposure to temperature extremes.
- Perform regular checks on the battery’s voltage.
- Use the vehicle on a regular basis.
Follow these tips and you’ll find that a little preventative maintenance will go a long way in helping you get the most use out of your car battery. Happy driving!