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It’s an awful feeling, especially at this time of the year, when you crawl out the house, sit in your car, turn the ignition, and find that your car battery has even less inclination to go to work than you do.

No matter what car you drive from Citroen to Skoda, an Ibiza or an Aygo, all car batteries have an active life of between three and five years – depending on where you live and how you use them.

Thankfully, they do quite often give warning signs before they finally give up the ghost, so here’s what to look out for, so you know when it’s time to start looking for a replacement battery.

1. Slow To Start

Your battery has a critical job, and that is to get your car up and running. Without the battery, you have nothing; and it takes a lot of power to get a car started. Once the car is running, it’s your alternator that recharges the battery and runs all your accessories like phone chargers, sat navs, electric windows etc. But it’s your battery that sets it all off.

If your battery is on the way out you may well notice that the engine cranks, or turns over, a little more slowly than usual. This is an important sign to look out for because if the battery is that low, you may not get more than a couple of opportunities for a slow-crank start. After that, it probably won’t crank at all. If this happens you’ll probably just hear a rapid clicking sound, indicating that there isn’t enough power to crank the engine.

If you manage to get it running, make sure you leave it running for at least thirty minutes to allow the battery enough time to charge back up to a reasonable level. Assuming you’re at home or in another safe place, switch the engine off and leave it for a minute, then restart it. If it starts OK, you’re probably OK for a couple of days and the battery is getting recharged by the alternator.

Even if your car does start, don’t waste time. Get your battery tested immediately and replaced if need be.

2. Long Turn-Over, Not Just Slow

A slow turn-over is one thing, but a long one is a good warning that something’s amiss when it’s the first time in the day that you’re firing up the cylinders.

Known as “cold-cranking”, the first start of the day is the hardest time on your car’s battery. If you look at the battery, it’ll have a number stating the number for “Cold Cranking Amps” – or how many amps it can deliver to give your engine enough energy for that first start.

You know what it’s like – you sit in the car, tap the accelerator, turn the ignition, and all you get is weak grumbling turn-over sounds. Just when you think it’s all for nothing and you’re going to have to call in sick, or at least tell work you’re going to be late, it starts up and sits there idling as if nothing was ever wrong and you were a fool for ever doubting it.

If you are finding yourself in this situation on a regular basis – three or more times in a week – that’s a good sign that your battery is looking for a pipe and slippers and is ready to retire.

Bear in mind that if it’s cold out, it’s normal for your car to take longer than usual to start up. The cold affects both the battery and the engine because the oil gets thicker, the gas is harder to vaporize, and the battery doesn’t put out as much power. You need to be patient in the cold, but if things don’t get back to normal once the milder weather kicks in, you need to look at getting a new car battery in the next two or three months.

There’s always an exception to every rule, and there’s always the possibility of human error. It’s perfectly possible, especially with a second-hand car, that a previous owner or mechanic has installed the wrong type of battery for your car. This can lead to all kinds of problems and a wild-goose-chase searching for problems when the only problem is that the battery simply isn’t capable of delivering enough power to start your engine reliably. Look up your car online, or visit a local garage, and find out what “Cold Cranking Amps” are required for your make and model of car to be sure it will start and run correctly.

3. Nothing. At All. Nada.

This is an even bigger sign that your battery isn’t working properly, or is completely dead. It’s your battery that powers all the accessories, lights, and all the other electrical gizmos in your car – especially when the alternator isn’t running (i.e. when the engine isn’t running). If your car isn’t doing anything – no lights, no nothing, then your car battery is the first place to look.

It’s worth bearing in mind at this point that if your car can’t even switch on the lights or turn over the engine, it could be indicating a problem with your alternator too, as it’s your alternator that recharges the battery.

On a side note, if you find that you can’t turn the engine over but your lights and electrics are working, it may be a more interesting problem such as the starter or a mechanical issue within the engine itself.

4. The Engine Starts One Day But Not The Next

If you find that your problems are intermittent, it’s often a sign of one of a couple of things.

In the first case, it’s possible that there’s something going on with your battery terminals – they’re perhaps loose, broken, corroded or calcified. This happens on many batteries after a period of time, especially when they’re exposed to extremes of heat or cold.
The second case is that you may have what’s known as a “parasitic draw” – the power from your battery is being drained by something that shouldn’t be drawing power. It could be something like a satnav that’s remaining on when it’s supposed to be off, or it could be that a wire elsewhere, maybe in your electrical loom or near the engine, has worked loose and is touching something that it shouldn’t.

*Check the cables connecting to the battery first – this is usually where things go wrong, and it’s easy to check yourself and see at a glance if there’s a problem there.

*Make sure the cables are fitted firm and secure on the battery posts. There should be absolutely no movement or play there and you shouldn’t even be able to move them an inch if they’re tightened properly.

*While you’re there, double check the condition of the cables – if they’re frayed or falling apart, get them replaced as soon as possible.

Parasitic draws are pretty common. A key indicator is that the car is fine if you drive daily, but fails to start if you leave it for a day or so. If you’re mechanically inclined, whip out your multimeter to check your alternator, accessory lights, radio, alarm, lights, fuses and anything else that might be secretly draining your battery. Or bring your car your friendly local garage.

5. Too Many Jump Starts

If you have to jump-start more than three times in a week, it’s time to get a new battery. No matter the reason – even if it was your fault for leaving the lights on overnight or the alternator needed replacing – if you need to do it more than three times in a week, it’s time for a new one.

Jump-starting is very hard on your battery, even new ones can degrade very quickly with too many jump starts as they essentially shock the battery back to life.

It’s easy to think that just because the battery is new it won’t need replacing, but the problem is that while trying to diagnose the problem – and jump-starting in the meantime – you end up putting extra strain on the alternator, the starter, the battery, until suddenly you don’t just need to replace the battery because you’ve over-jumped it, but you need to replace the alternator and starter too. Like with so many aspects of car maintenance, a little spent in the short-term can save you a lot in the long-term.

Suffice to say, if you’ve had to jump-start three or more times in a week, you’re probably best off looking at a new battery.

Battery Warning Lights

It sounds silly, but all too often these warning lights are overlooked – especially when there doesn’t actually appear to be a problem. If the battery isn’t being recharged properly it could be a problem with the battery or the alternator, or if your “check engine” light is lit, there could be other electrical problems which may well have an impact on your battery. Whatever the case, these warning lights rarely come on for no reason, so make sure you get it checked out.

Battery Wear And Tear

A short note on normal battery operation. They normally have a life expectancy of two to three years, despite manufacturers claims of longer. If you use your battery for a lot of accessories – things other than starting the car – it’s not likely to last as long as advertised.

*Replace your battery roughly every two-and-a-half years. Do it before the problems occur.

*Keep everything serviced. The battery relies on several other components such as the alternator, starter, solenoid, the terminals, and the cables. If any of these are not working properly or are damaged, it can affect the battery life.

*Naturally, a battery’s age will affect its performance, even if it doesn’t show any obvious signs. This can affect other parts of the vehicle (as mentioned above) and ultimately lead to lots of little problems adding up to a big repair bill.

If you’re having funny electrical problems, flickering lights, or your car just won’t start reliably, give us a call down at Tameside Auto Centre. We’re easy to get to, conveniently located near Denton Rock of the M67. We stock a wide range of batteries, and with 15 years experience, we’re experts at ironing out those little problems before they become big ones.

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We are Tameside Auto Centre and specialists for car servicing and MOts in the Denton and Tameside areas. Call us now on 0161 320 3156 or click here to send an email.