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Battery deterioration and failure

Appreciating how batteries deteriorate is tricky, without knowing how they work. Rob Marshall also finds that knowing how the theory applies to real-world conditions allows garages to offer superior customer service and drive sales.

While 12-volt battery technology has evolved considerably in the last two decades, it still relies on well-established lead- acid technology. GS Yuasa calls the battery ‘a cannibal’ and with good reason. While the battery relies on the interaction between lead-based paste and sulphuric acid to provide electrical energy, the operating principle is also reasonable for its ultimate demise.

How does the battery fail?

Even if the very best battery is looked after perfectly, the acid will continue to gnaw the lead material away, rendering the battery useless eventually. The only thing that garages and owners can do is reduce the rate at which the damage occurs.

Sulphation is a major problem. VARTA explains that, as the battery discharges, the sulphate within the acid content of the electrolyte becomes attracted to the lead paste on the plates. As the battery ages, the reversal of this chemical reaction during recharging is not as effective and some sulphate atoms remain attached to the lead plates. As charging can no longer take place as effectively, because the sulphate prevents the acid from interacting with the lead, this ‘sulphation’ situation robs the battery of its capacity and its available Cold Crank Amps (State of Health) reduces.

As the State of Charge (measured in volts) reduces as the battery discharges, ECOBAT explains that the negative plates become increasingly covered by the sulphates. Not only does this reduce the active lead material’s surface area but it also makes the acid electrolyte weaker.

As a double-whammy, the electrons are less effective within a diluted acid mix. This altered state then accelerates as the voltage decreases. In theory, only a full charge will push the sulphate from plates and back into the electrolyte again.

Ideally, the electrolyte’s strength should be the same throughout the battery. Indeed, when fully charged successfully, the 65% acid and 35% pure water mix is fully homogenised. Yet, Ecobat clarifies that, because acid is heavier than water, it sinks slowly towards the bottom of flooded batteries and attaches itself to the plates’ lower extremities. This situation, known as ‘Acid Stratification’, is harder to reverse. Some smart chargers, however, possess an anti-stratification setting that applies a slightly higher charge level to facilitate electrolyte mixing. Incidentally, as AGM (Advanced Glass Mat) batteries do not possess liquid electrolyte, they are unaffected by stratification.

So charging the battery will resolve the problem, right?
Yes and no. GS Yuasa emphasises that internal sulphation becomes permanent if the battery experiences long periods below 12.5 volts. Banner Batteries concurs that sulphation also speeds up at these lower voltages, causing the rate of battery capacity reduction to accelerate. Therefore, maintaining the charge level above 12.4 volts reduces the risk of sulphation and ensures optimum battery service life.

Both the assertions from Banner Batteries and GS Yuasa reinforce Ecobat’s advice that battery usage patterns influence its lifespan. For instance, the frequency and length between engine starts are all relevant, as are journey lengths. If the battery is not replenished with sufficient charge that is taken from it to start the engine, its state of charge drops lower and lower. This explains why batteries on low mileage cars tend to fail far sooner than those used by a fleet user, for example.

Why can’t the alternator charge the battery?

GS Yuasa reports that an alternator cannot recover a fully discharged battery because it must work at full capacity. However, this increases the amount of heat that it produces, meaning that it can work flat-out for short periods of time. Autoelectro agrees: Excessive heat can blow the regulator and/ or the rectifier if the alternator runs beyond its capacity. The Bradford-based remanufacturer argues that an alternator can even struggle to recover a part-charged battery.

Ecobat reminds us that the battery cannot be force-fed current. As the battery ages, its internal resistance increases, which reduces the charge that can be accepted. More advanced EFB and AGM batteries, fitted to vehicles with stop-start technology, can accept higher voltages and be recharged more quickly. Varta adds that smart alternator algorithms can limit charging outputs to reduce CO2 tailpipe emissions. Furthermore, as AGM batteries can be sensitive to overcharging, the algorithms limit the optimum charge to between 80% and 90%. By not charging the battery fully, some capacity remains for regenerative braking, even if it is not ideal for long battery life.

If batteries prefer to be used and charged, has lockdown made any difference?
The responses to COVID-19 have made a significant difference to battery replacement intervals. While batteries still deteriorated during the summer months in pre-pandemic days, the reduced electrical demand ensured that the capacity reduction tended not to be noticed, until the first cold snaps of late autumn arrived.

Varta explains that this is why garages experienced a sudden spike in battery demand during the first cold snaps of late autumn. While 21°C represents an optimum battery storage temperature, underbonnet temperatures can rise to 45°C during the summer. This situation accelerates internal sulphation and, logically, reduces battery capacity. Therefore, battery failure during the colder months can also be attributed to damage suffered earlier in the year. However, COVID-19 has evened out the battery replacement cycle. Banner Batteries attribute the lack of use during the spring and summer months as being responsible for enormous demand.

Varta continues that, as cars have been standing, or used only for short trips, battery voltage has been dropping. Once it dips below 12.2 volts, internal damage commences. Consequently, Varta has also seen demand for replacement car batteries rocket over the last 20 months. GS Yuasa states that we should not forget that sulphation damage afflicts not just old but also new batteries. Therefore, in terms of battery sales, the company foresees that the pandemic’s effects will continue for some years to come.

So what can garages and technicians do?

As battery testing is quick and easy, LKQ Euro Car Parts urges garages to offer battery testing to every customer that enters the premises. First, assess State of Charge. GS Yuasa reminds us that this voltage reading indicates the energy available to ‘push’ the available cranking capacity current (amps) to the starter motor for engine starting. Banner Batteries advises that a reading below 12.8 volts means that it will need charging before you carry out a State of Health Test. It is not a bad idea to switch the headlamps on for a few minutes with the engine off, to remove any surface charge and reduce the risk of a false reading.

Varta advises that a State of Charge test reveals the voltage, only. In reality, the results do not provide an accurate reflection of the power and load levels that the battery can support. GS Yuasa agrees, in that it is easy to think that a battery displaying a high voltage is in good order.

Yet, a State of Charge test is important, because the State of Health can be assessed only once the battery has been charged fully. Banner Batteries explains that the State of Health results indicate battery wear levels, which technicians can use to judge how much of its useful life remains. The State of Health takes an amperage reading, which is compared to the CCA figure, printed on the battery label.

While old-fashioned drop-testers used to be used, modern testers are less aggressive and Varta explains that the CCA is the result of calculating voltage, CCA, available amps and temperature, although it points out that some advanced battery testers may complete conductance profiling for more accurate results. For this reason, it is fair to take Ecobat’s advice that garages should invest in the best testing equipment that they can afford, because the outlay will be recouped in time and new battery sales. Furthermore, invest in technician training, so the results can be interpreted and translated to the customer that a battery that may be functioning fine now may need replacing before next winter.

What about chargers?

As an external battery charger can charge a battery fully, your workshop could offer a battery charging service, carried out overnight. Banner Batteries advises that selecting the correct battery charger is a vital decision. The company recommends nothing less than a 10 amps smart charger for professional use, possessing algorithms that make it compatible with all battery technologies, including AGM. Banner explains its rationale with the following example. Should you face a discharged 70 amps battery, it will require seven hours to be recharged with a 10 amps charger. A lesser rated charger will put in surface charge alone, which will dissipate quickly, giving the impression that the battery is not holding charge.

Further dying battery issues…

A battery that possesses a low state of charge, low state of heath, or both, can harm other components. While the author recalls his old Citroën GSA cracking its starter motor casings in half, if forced to endure a dying battery, modern geared starter motors also do not tolerate prolonged cranking with a deteriorated battery.

According to Autoelectro, a battery that cannot generate sufficient power means that the starter motor armature cannot rotate at its designed speeds. This creates higher resistance within the motor and causes it to draw more current. It also means that the starting procedure takes longer, prolonging the starter motor operating time, which can overload the windings. It is also worth noting that low start crank speeds also causes premature dual mass flywheel failure, on cars thus fitted.

About Autotechnician
Autotechnician is a magazine published nine times a year, delivering essential information to independent garage owners and technicians in the UK. Delivered both digitally and in print, autotechnician provides readers with technical, training, business advice, product and news, allowing our readers to keep up to date with information they need to run and work within a modern workshop.
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