Car batteries are the strong, silent member of the automotive team. They do their job regardless of heat, cold weather and the drivers who demand so much of them. While a battery that allows a car start at the first turn of the key is a joyful thing, it doesn’t last forever.
In fact, depending on where you live and how you drive, the condition of your charging system, and a number of other factors, a battery lasts about four years on average. And when it does give out, there’s generally no sign of trouble — your car just dies.
While the lead-acid car battery hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years, it’s still a difficult part of the car to check during routine maintenance. Simple battery testers can’t, at this time, muddle through the chemical complexity of what goes on in a battery. Instead, they provide a sort of snapshot of the battery at the time it’s being tested — without the context of the battery’s chemical composition before or after the test.
So the rule of thumb is simple for battery replacement: You have approximately four years before the battery will theoretically begin its slide from chemical powerhouse to chemical paperweight. At the four year mark, start watching, and hope your mechanic will detect a problem before it’s too late.
But due to the nature of the chemical cocktail inside any battery, it may give out before the four year mark, or maybe it will last for several more years. So you have to ask yourself, “Do you feel lucky?”
If you look at a typical lead-acid maintenance-free car battery, it’s easy to make sense of why these factors affect normal battery life. Inside the plastic box are plates of materials like lead and lead dioxide. The plates are suspended in a mix of water and sulfuric acid, which forms an electrolytic solution. This solution allows electrons to flow between the plates — that flow of electrons is essentially electricity.
A host of factors can disturb this chemical reaction. Vibrations from rough travel or a poorly-secured battery can shake loose or damage the plates. Extreme heat speeds up the chemical reaction, shortening battery life, while extreme cold can sometimes prolong battery life by slowing down the reaction. This is why some batteries are covered by an insulating sleeve to keep extreme temperatures in check.
Driving style can affect the reaction, too. Starting the car takes a huge jolt of electricity, so the charging system has to step in to replenish the battery. If you have a short commute or take lots of brief trips, the battery never gets fully charged. This constant state of undercharge results in acid stratification. Inside the battery, the electrolytic solution goes from homogenous — or the same all the way through — to a rough vertical split. The upper half of the solution is a light acid, while the bottom is a heavy acid. The light acid layer will begin to corrode the plates, and the heavy acid solution will start to compensate for the car’s electrical needs by working harder than it’s designed to work. The result is a shorter battery life, even though the battery shows up as working on routine tests.