Extreme cold can spell disaster for car batteries in winter. Hot summers kick things off by causing important fluid in a battery to evaporate, then winter comes knocking and forces the battery to work harder by slowing down its chemical reactions. Many batteries will survive winter, but others won’t be so lucky. Find out why car batteries fail in the winter so you can get ahead of the cold.
First, a quick refresher on the science happening inside a car battery. Lead-acid batteries are the most common car batteries because they’re inexpensive and fairly dependable. They’re made of a plastic case that houses a series of lead plates immersed in a pool of electrolyte—a mix of water and sulfuric acid. Each pair of plates makes up one “cell.” When fully charged, each cell in a lead-acid battery produces 2.1 volts. So, a 12-volt battery consists of six cells and is technically a 12.6-volt battery. A battery that only has 12 volts is not likely going to be able to start your vehicle.
The lead-acid battery doesn’t produce a charge but receives and stores an initial charge through a chemical reaction between the cell’s lead plates and the electrolyte. But as the chemical reaction occurs, the positive and negative lead plates are slowly coated with lead sulfate. This process is known as sulfation, and it reduces your battery’s ability to hold a full charge. To complicate matters, lead-acid batteries experience self-discharge, a natural loss of charge over time. Left too long without a fresh charge, a battery can discharge beyond recovery.
Imagine trying to suck molasses through a straw. That’s kind of how your car battery feels in winter weather. Your engine’s oil thickens as temperatures drop. The thicker the oil, the more power your car battery requires to move it to where it needs to be. This can be particularly challenging for batteries three years old or older.
Pro-Tip: Check your battery’s age by looking at its case. Some brands use a numeric date, others use a code with a letter for the month and a number for the year. So “A6” would mean “January 2016” while “H5” would mean “August 2015.”
Avoid this cold weather culprit by making sure your battery has the right CCA number, or “cold-cranking amps,” for your climate. This number speaks to the battery’s ability to start an engine during frigid weather. The higher a CCA number, the better it will hold up in cold temperatures. Going with a synthetic motor oil with a higher cold tolerance can also help give your battery a break.
You learned this one in gym class. Warm muscles contract better than cold muscles, which is why warming up before exercising helps prevent injury. Car batteries in winter aren’t much different!
In the typical lead-acid battery, there’s a chemical reaction that needs to occur for the battery to have and hold a charge.
“Just as heat speeds up chemical reactions, cold temperatures slow them down. That’s why you might feel your battery can become sluggish in winter, even though its state of charge may remain unchanged,” notes the National Roads and Motorists Association.
Installing a battery blanket can help nip this cold weather problem in the bud. These low-cost blankets can be purchased for as little as $20 online or at a local auto parts store. Simply plug it in, wrap the blanket around your battery, and enjoy an easy start on a frosty morning! As always, consult your owner’s manual and the battery blanket’s instructions before installing.
Many things tax your car battery life. Don’t ask it to do even more! Turn off your headlights, radio, and heat before starting your car in the cold. It’s also a good idea to limit how many gadgets you ask the car battery to charge while driving.
Your battery won’t always warn you before it fails, but here are common signs to watch for:
Cold weather is often fingered as the culprit when car batteries die in winter, but warm temperatures do the most damage to them. High temperatures quicken corrosion of internal plates and vaporize the electrolyte faster. But car batteries in winter usually go dead in cold weather mostly because the damage done during the summer doesn’t show up until the battery is more taxed. A cold battery has reduced cranking power, and cold temperatures thicken motor oil, making it harder to turn the engine over. Modern electrical and fuel systems can mask a weak battery by starting an engine with a minimum of cranking, but when a weak battery is further compromised by cold conditions, it’s more likely to fail.
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