What Causes Car Batteries to Fail?
Driving habits rather than battery defect are often the cause of battery failure.
A German manufacturer of luxury cars reveals that of 400 car batteries returned under warranty, 200 are working well and have no problem. Low charge and acid stratification are the most common causes of the apparent failure. The car manufacturer says that the problem is more common on large luxury cars offering power-hungry auxiliary options than on the more basic models.
In Japan, battery failure is the largest complaint among new car owners. The average car is only driven 13 km (8 miles) per day and mostly in a congested city. As a result, the batteries will never get fully charged and sulfation occurs. The batteries in Japanese cars are small and only provide enough power to crank the engine and perform some rudimentary functions. North America may be shielded from these battery problems, in part because of long distance driving.
Good battery performance is important because problems during the warranty period tarnish customer satisfaction. Any service requirement during that time is recorded and the number is published in trade magazines. This data is of great interest among prospective car buyers throughout the world.
Battery malfunction is seldom caused by a factory defect; driving habits are the more common culprits. Heavy accessory power when driving short distance prevents a periodic fully saturated charge that is so important for the longevity of a lead acid battery. According to a leading European manufacturer of car batteries, factory defects amounts to less than 7 percent.
The battery remains a weak link and the breakdowns on 1.95 million vehicles six years or less are as follows:
15% flat tire
7% fuel injection
6% heating & cooling
6% fuel system
A breakdown due to the battery remains the number one cause.
* Source ADAC 2008 for the year 2007
Acid stratification, a problem with luxury cars
A common cause of battery failure is acid stratification. The electrolyte on a stratified battery concentrates on the bottom, causing the upper half of the cell to be acid poor. This effect is similar to a cup of coffee in which the sugar collects on the bottom when the waitress forgets to bring the stirring spoon. Batteries tend to stratify if kept at low charge (below 80%) and never have the opportunity to receive a full charge. Short distance driving while running windshield wiper and electric heaters contributes to this. Acid stratification reduces the overall performance of the battery.
Figure 1 illustrates a normal battery in which the acid is equally distributed form top to bottom. This battery provides good performance because the correct acid concentration surrounds the plates. Figure 2 shows a stratified battery in which the acid concentration is light on top and heavy on the bottom. A light acid limits plate activation, promotes corrosion and reduces performance. High acid concentration on the bottom, on the other hand, artificially raises the open circuit voltage. The battery appears fully charged but provides a low CCA. High acid concentration also promotes sulfation and decreases the already low conductivity further. If unchecked, such a condition will eventually lead to battery failure.
The acid is equally distributed from the top to the bottom in the cell and provides maximum CCA and capacity.
The acid concentration is light on top and heavy on the bottom. High acid concentration artificially raises the open circuit voltage. The battery appears fully charged but has a low CCA. Excessive acid concentration induces sulfation on the lower half of the plates.
Allowing the battery to rest for a few days, applying a shaking motion or tipping the unit over tends to correct the problem. A topping charge by which the 12-volt battery is brought up to 16 volts for one to two hours also reverses the acid stratification. The topping charge also reduces sulfation caused by high acid concentration. Careful attention is needed to keep the battery from heating up and losing excessive electrolyte through hydrogen gassing. Always charge the battery in a well-ventilated room. Accumulation of hydrogen gas can lead to an explosion. Hydrogen is odorless and can only be detected with measuring devices.
The challenge of battery testing
During the last 20 years, battery testing lagged behind other technologies. The reason: the battery is a very difficult animal to test, short of applying a full charge, discharge and recharge. The battery behaves similar to us humans. We still don’t know why we perform better on certain days than others.
Even by using highly accurate charge and discharge equipment, lead acid batteries produce disturbingly high capacity fluctuations on repetitive measurements. To demonstrate the variations, Cadex tested 91 car batteries with diverse performance levels (Figure 3). We first prepared the batteries by giving them a full charge and a 24-hour rest period. We then measured the capacity by applying a 25A discharge to 10.50V or 1.75V/cell (black diamonds).
This procedure was repeated for a second time and the resulting capacities were plotted (purple squared). This produced a whooping +/-15% variation in capacity readings across the full population. Some batteries had higher readings the second time; others were lower. Other chemistries appear to be more consistent in capacity readings than lead acid.
From the beginning, load testers have been the standard test method for car batteries. The year 1992 brought us AC conductance, a method that simplified battery testing. Now we are experimenting with multi-model electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) in a portable version at an affordable price.
Getting a fast and dependable assessment of a failing battery is difficult. Most battery testers in use only take cold cranking amps (CCA) and voltage readings. Capacity, the most important measurement of a battery, is unavailable. While taking the CCA reading alone is relatively simple, measuring the capacity is very complex and instruments offering this feature are expensive.
The Spectro CA-12 by Cadex Electronics is the first in a series of high-end battery testers capable of measuring capacity, CCA and state-of-charge (SoC) in a single, non-invasive test. The technology is based on multi-model electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS). The system injects 24 excitation frequencies ranging from 20 to 2000 Hertz. The sinusoidal signals are regulated at 10mV/cell to remain within the thermal battery voltage of lead acid. This achieves stable readings for small and large batteries.
During the 30-second test, over 40 million transactions are completed. A patented algorithm analyses the data and the final results are displayed in capacity, CCA and state-of-charge.
EIS is very complex and until recently required dedicated computers and expensive laboratory equipment, not to mention chemists and engineers to interpret the readings. The hardware of a full EIS system is commonly mounted on racks and the installation runs into tens of thousands of dollars.
The tough choice
No battery tester solves all problems. Entry-level testers are low cost, simple to use and capable of servicing a broad range of batteries. However, these units only provide a rough indication of the battery condition. A lab test at Cadex demonstrates that a battery tester based on EIS is four times more accurate in detecting weak batteries than AC conductance. Conventional testers often misjudge the battery on account of low state-of-charge. Many batteries are replaced when they should have been recharged, while others are given a clean bill of health when it should have been replaced.
Acid stratification is difficult to measure, even with the EIS technology. Non-invasive testers simply take a snapshot, average the measurements and spit out the results. Stratified batteries tend to show higher state-of-charge readings because of elevated voltage. On preliminary tests, the Spectro CA-12 also shows slightly higher CCA and capacity readings than normal. After letting the battery rest, the capacity tends to normalize. This may be due to diffusion effects in the stratified as a result of resting. Little information is available on how long a stratified battery needs to rest to improve the condition, other than to note that higher temperatures will hasten the diffusion process.
Ideally, a battery tester should indicate the level of acid stratification; sulfation, surface charge and other such condition and display how to correct the problem. This feature is not yet possible. Much research is being done in finding a solution that offers a more complete battery evaluation without the need for a full discharge. The knowledge gained on lead acid batteries can then be applied to other battery systems, such as traction, military, marine, aviation and stationary batteries.