How to Baby Your Batteries

Are your technicians mis-diagnosing starting/charging problems?


"In Phoenix, we had a situation where some of the emergency vehicles were changing out batteries every 8-10 months, and when they switched to Odysseys, they have pretty much more than doubled their life," Jana says. "In the City of Seattle, they actually did, completely without our knowledge, they ran the Odyssey battery for about 18 months and called us and said, ‘We as a city are going to be switching 100 percent to Odyssey batteries.'"

Another advantage of duals for vehicles that must be kept on the road for long durations is preventing catastrophic failure—something Jana says is fairly common with traditional batteries.

"You could have a perfectly good start this morning, but this evening the battery could be dead," he says. "You would have to periodically go in and (check) the battery, and if you're not on the ball you could literally dry out the battery and cause major problems."

Jana says if drivers or technicians are paying attention, as the battery ages they will be able to tell if the quality of start is slowly degrading.

"Is it grinding the motor a little bit longer?" he says. "Is it becoming a little more difficult to start the engine in cold weather? The battery will give you enough advanced warning to say, ‘It's time to change the battery.'"

When there are starting issues, Purkey says many technicians simply install a battery with higher cranking capacity to try to alleviate the problem.

"They think that it is a capacity issue, which it is, but they fix the wrong capacity issue," he says. "They go to a high CCA battery that has more and thinner plates per element. They get more energy out, but this battery will not cycle nearly as well because of the thinner plates."

Installing a more powerful alternator to solve the problem is another common mistake, Purkey says, and avoids fixing the root cause.

"People don't understand the damage," he says. "They know they cycle and they know it's bad, so they buy a bigger amp alternator, but that doesn't fix the depth of (battery) discharge, it just helps recover faster. The damage is already done. But that discharge level is the critical factor, and they never change that. That's what's draining the battery."

Purkey says in the end, it's all about knowing the basics.

"With all the electronic stuff, it's still going to be fundamentals—if your electric system cannot perform and keep the voltage up, these systems will not run," he says. "It's a like a computer; it crashes."

CHECK THOSE CABLES

Perhaps the biggest basic mistake technicians make when attempting to diagnose electrical system problems is forgetting about the battery cables. When fleet managers thank Travis Hopkey and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Springs, CA-based truck parts supplier Phillips Industries for the company's new CLEAR-VU™ battery cables, he can in turn thank them. A few years ago, the idea came up in discussions with managers and was met with great response. Now, they are playing a key role in helping technicians check electrical systems more efficiently.

The problem with battery cables, Hopkey says, is what the technician doesn't see.

"Over time, in a corrosive environment with the magnesium chloride and calcium chloride they're putting on the roads in the wintertime, that stuff gets everywhere and finds its way into the tiniest of cracks to connectors that aren't properly sealed and it never really dries," Hopkey says. "If you've got an old cable, a bad cable, an improperly sealed cable; the stuff will find its way in there and will start wicking through the wire, so the battery cable starts to corrode and you just don't notice it."

Corroded wires strip needed electricity, and from there it does not take long to start affecting the entire electrical system.
"We've done some testing (in salt spray) where after 350 hours of voltage capacity the entire system drops down 12 percent, and after 750 hours it's more than 25 percent, which really puts some serious strain on alternators," Hopkey says. "If the system's not getting the proper charge at the proper voltage, bad things happen."

Clear—or more correctly—opaque cables are designed to eliminate potentially costly guesswork.

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