What is it about batteries that they seem to quit without warning suddenly?
Even with charge-level indicators I always get caught off guard when my PlayStation controller craps out, or my cell phone decides there’s not enough power to take a picture at my kid’s graduation, or I’m at Mount Rushmore or some other once-in-a-lifetime moment.
It’s not just me, right?
So, if your average person can’t keep tabs on his or her batteries that do have charge readouts, how can we possibly know what’s going on with our car batteries?
Yes, your battery might be the most mysterious part of your vehicle, and most of us don’t think much about it until it doesn’t work. But, as with all batteries, even automotive batteries have a finite lifespan.
How long does a car battery last? What are some signs its days may be numbered? And how do you know for sure it’s time to replace it?
All that and more is coming up.
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What Are the Signs of a Declining Car Battery?
Before your battery gives up the ghost entirely, it will probably send up a few warning signals. But, if you don’t know what they are, you might miss them.
Here are the things to look out for:
Slow Turn Over
One of the surest signs of imminent failure is a slow turn over when starting. Starting your car is the battery’s primary function, and if it can’t do that without a struggle, there’s a problem.
To recognize this sign you need to know the sounds of your vehicle pretty well. Listen carefully each time you start your car and you’ll know when something’s not quite right.
Slow Power Windows
A good battery has enough residual power to run your vehicle’s electrical components when the engine is shut off.
If you notice your power windows go up and down noticeably slower with the motor off than when it’s running, you may have a weakening battery.
Dimming Head Lights
With the car at idle, pay attention to your headlights. Maybe pull up close to a wall so you can see the strength of the beams from the driver’s seat.
If the lights get brighter when you rev the engine, that’s an indicator the battery can’t supply enough power to the lights on its own.
Flickering Dash Lights
If you hadn’t noticed, there are a LOT of lights on a modern dashboard! Should you notice flickering or dimming lights on the dash when starting the car, it may be time to check on your battery’s health.
Leaking Acid and/or Corrosion
If you see any signs of acid seeping from the battery or a build-up of corrosion around the terminals, things are looking grim.
Testing the Health of Your Car Battery
Whether you suspect you have a battery problem or not, it’s always a good idea to keep tabs on its condition. You can do this by visiting your dealer, any service shop and asking the mechanic to test it.
For a reasonable fee (some places offer this service for free), you’ll find out if your battery’s capacity is diminished, and if there are any problems with the charging system, including the alternator. It’s a convenient way to check its health, and if there’s an issue, you can deal with it on the spot.
You can also check your battery health at home with a dedicated tester or voltmeter. Owning one of these devices is the fastest way to get a read on your battery, and you can do it regularly without scheduling an appointment somewhere.
Battery testers aren’t badly priced, and they can provide a ton of information vital to understanding the health of your vehicle. Some even give you a printout!
Seriously, How Long Does a Car Battery Last?
Ok, this is what you came here for, so let’s get to it.
The straight answer is – there is no straight answer. There are so many variables at play, there is no way to know with certainty how long it will last. Some of the factors that affect a car battery’s lifespan are:
- Temperature (both heat and cold can shorten it’s life)
- Terminal post condition
- Level of demand (more electrical components means more work)
- How often it is charged (if unused and not charged often it won’t last as long – in which case, use a battery maintainer to prolong it’s life.)
That being said, the average gas- or diesel-powered car battery should last about four or five years.
Again, that’s just an average, and you might get more or less out of yours. If you live in a hot climate, expect a noticeably lower average life expectancy.
Based on this average, some mechanics recommend replacing your battery every four years just to be on the safe side.
That seems excessively cautious, and even with modern recycling methods, it’s still best to keep batteries out of the waste stream. Better to keep tabs on yours and do the job only when it’s absolutely necessary.
Check Your Warranty
It’s a pretty good rule-of-thumb that your warranty will be shorter than the manufacturer expects the battery to last. This applies to all consumer goods.
So, if your battery came with a 3-year warranty, you should expect at least that much out of it.
By the way, you’ll usually find a pretty direct correlation between cost, quality, and warranty length.
How Can I Extend the Life of My Car Battery?
When it’s your battery’s time to go, it’s going to go, and there’s nothing you can do to keep it alive forever.
There are, however, ways to try and get the most life out of it you can. Here are some simple tricks for extending your car battery’s life:
- Keep the terminals clean
- Take the occasional long drive (shorter drives don’t allow a full charge)
- Turn off your lights and accessories when the engine is off or idling
- Keep it fully charged by running it often or using a quality car battery charger. You can find more details on the charging process in our guide on how long it takes to charge a car battery.
- Disconnect it if it won’t be used for an extended time
- Store your vehicle indoors if possible
- Ensure it is tightly secured to minimize damaging vibrations
All Good Things Must Come to An End
Hopefully, now your car battery won’t be so much of a mystery to you. It’s a vital part of your vehicle, and it’s important to give it some love now and then.
The time will come when it needs replacing, but, armed with your new knowledge, it may not come as such a surprise.
If you’re in the market for a new battery, you should check out our article on battery types, groups, and sizes as part of your research. There’s more to the mystery!
As always, we’re glad you found us and trusted us to answer your most burning automotive questions. Thanks for reading!