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Requirements of the vehicle battery

Vehicle batteries

The vehicle battery is used as a source of energy in the vehicle when the engine, and hence the alternator, is not running. The battery has a number of requirements, which are listed below broadly in order of importance.

  • To provide power storage and be able to supply it quickly enough to operate the vehicle starter motor.
  • To allow the use of parking lights for a reasonable time.
  • To allow operation of accessories when the engine is not running.
  • To act as a swamp to damp out fluctuations of system voltage.
  • To allow dynamic memory and alarm systems to remain active when the vehicle is left for a period of time

The first two of the above list are arguably the most important and form a major part of the criteria used to determine the most suitable battery for a given application. The lead-acid battery, in various similar forms, has to date proved to be the most suitable choice for vehicle use. This is particularly so when the cost of the battery is taken into account.

Choosing the correct battery

The correct battery depends, in the main, on just two conditions.

  1. The ability to power the starter to enable minimum starting speed under very cold conditions.
  2. The expected use of the battery for running accessories when the engine is not running.

Positioning the vehicle battery

Several basic points should be considered when choosing the location for the vehicle battery:

  • Weight distribution of vehicle components.
  • Proximity to the starter to reduce cable length.

As usual, these issues will vary with the type of vehicle, intended use, average operating temperature and so on. Extreme temperature conditions may require either a battery heater or a cooling fan. The potential build-up of gases from the battery may also be a consideration.

Lead-acid batteries

Even after well over 100 years of development and much promising research into other techniques of energy storage, the lead-acid battery is still the best choice for motor vehicle use. This is particularly so when cost and energy density are taken into account. Incremental changes over the years have made the sealed and maintenance-free battery now in common use very reliable and long lasting.

This may not always appear to be the case to some end-users, but note that quality is often related to the price the customer pays. Many bottom-of-the-range cheap batteries, with a 12 month guarantee, will last for 13 months

Battery rating

In simple terms, the characteristics or rating of a particular battery are determined by how much current it can produce and how long it can sustain this current. The rate at which a battery can produce current is determined by the speed of the chemical reaction. This in turn is determined by a number of factors:

  • Surface area of the plates.
  • Temperature.
  • Electrolyte strength.
  • Current demanded.

Ampere hour capacity

This is now seldom used but describes how much current the battery is able to supply for either 10 or 20 hours. The 20-hour figure is the most common. For example, a battery quoted as being 44 Ah (ampere-hour) will be able, if fully charged, to supply 2.2 A for 20 hours before being completely discharged (cell voltage above 1.75 V).

Reserve capacity

A system used now on all new batteries is reserve capacity. This is quoted as a time in minutes for which the battery will supply 25 A at 25 ° C to a final voltage of 1.75 V per cell. This is used to give an indication of how long the battery could run the car if the charging system was not working. Typically, a 44 Ah battery will have a reserve capacity of about 60 minutes.

Cold cranking amps

Batteries are given a rating to indicate performance at high current output and at low temperature. A typical value of 170 A means that the battery will supply this current for one minute at a temperature of 18 ° C, at which point the cell voltage will fall to 1.4 V (BS – British Standards).

Note that the overall output of a battery is much greater when spread over a longer time. As mentioned above, this is because the chemical reaction can only work at a certain speed.

Last word

By far the majority of batteries now available are classed as ‘maintenance free’. This implies that little attention is required during the life of the battery. Earlier batteries and some heavier types do, however, still require the electrolyte level to be checked and topped up periodically.

Battery posts are still a little prone to corrosion and hence the usual service of cleaning with hot water if appropriate and the application of petroleum jelly or proprietary terminal grease is still recommended. Ensuring that the battery case and, in particular, the top remains clean, will help to reduce the rate of self-discharge.

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