The life of a car battery is all about its ability to energetically start an engine and keep itself charged over time. If a battery can’t maintain these basic qualities, it is unceremoniously declared “dead.”
How long a given battery can stay “alive” depends on many factors. Of course, the quality of the battery is key but other factors such as the environment are equally important throughout the battery’s life cycle.
Conditions such as temperature, humidity, installation, maintenance, operating environment, and other environmental factors have a major impact on a car battery’s longevity.
In a Perfect World, a Car Battery Will Last Six Years
To get things started, a baseline under ideal conditions is helpful. For this starting point, ideal conditions are assumed. That is, there are no crazy high or low temperatures, humidity isn’t excessive, the battery is installed properly, and the operating environment isn’t harsh (e.g., off-road racing or frequent starts).
In general, under these ideal conditions, one can generally expect the battery to last approximately six years.
Considering “average” conditions that include some extremes, the margin is wider at about two to five years.
Temperature and Humidity
If the operating environment is hot and humid, the lifespan is reduced due to chemical corrosion processes and water loss.
Contrary to popular belief, cooler northern climates actually increase a battery’s life as long as it is fairly mild and there aren’t extremely cold arctic-like conditions. Because cold weather conditions require more cranking power due to factors like oil viscosity in cold engines, many erroneously think that the battery is at fault. It is more about the strain on starter motors and other components that cold engines cause.
Installation and Maintenance
Like most anything else, it’s always an advantage to get things rolling with the proper installation. The cable connections must be clean and free of dirt or corrosion. The connections must be tight and not loose to the point that they can be easily moved by hand.
Lead-acid batteries are often heavy and somewhat bulky. As such, the battery itself needs to be secured in a frame that doesn’t allow movement while driving. This is usually accomplished with a clamp-like mechanism that firmly attaches to the base of the battery.
Having adequately installed the battery, the next thing of paramount importance is the maintenance of the battery during its use. This important aspect is where most fail to follow-through and thereby drastically reduce a battery’s life.
There are two main aspects of battery maintenance: fluid replacement and maintaining a charge. Most car batteries contain a mixture of water and acid that circulate among lead plates. Over time, some of the water is reduced due to evaporation and heat.
Many batteries are sealed units and do not require fluid replacement as evaporation is contained. Others require periodic water replacement. These types of batteries typically have caps on the top to allow for water refills. Checks and maintenance should take place with other fluid checks such as those associated with oil changes or coolant maintenance. For do-it-yourself people, battery water replacement is best done using distilled water to avoid contaminants and minerals present in tap water.
The other important aspect of battery maintenance is in keeping the battery fully charged. Car batteries don’t like being completely drained or periodic “hibernation” phases. While the occasional light being left on can’t be avoided, it is important not to let a battery become fully discharged.
It is also not healthy for car batteries to sit unused for long periods of time. This causes a slow drain as the battery remains “in the loop” and just the connections can cause drainage due to electrical resistance. Some people disconnect one side of the positive/negative connections if they know their car will be going into winter storage.
The Operating Environment
Temperature and humidity have already been discussed but there are other environmental aspects to a battery’s life. For those that have special needs such as off-road driving or very frequent start-stop use, it is important to buy the right battery in the first place. For example, if one lives in a rural environment or maintains a cab service, attention needs to be paid to buying a battery that is heavy-duty from the start. While this may be more expensive at first, it will pay off in the long term.
It is clear that battery life depends on many factors. Where one lives, installation adequacy, maintenance discipline, and usage characteristics are the factors that determine how long one’s battery will happily provide that “get up and go” engine start. If a little attention is paid to these factors, a number of years can go by before that dreaded battery replacement.
Whether you own a gasoline, diesel or hybrid vehicle, the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies to keeping car batteries in the game for many years.