The Fechino Files: 12 Volt Batteries

Words: Steven Fechino

Steven Fechino

When you have any type of equipment, you have batteries… battery issues are more like it.  When you own equipment, diesel and gasoline trucks there is actually a big difference in required batteries and the performance of the batteries.

There are always issues if you try to swap a battery to get things going during the day.  I always act like the mistakes that I try to discuss are something I would never do, but in reality, most discussed mistakes I own.  For instance, I had a truck have a battery go down last week. In my infinite wisdom, I decided to rob a battery from another truck and swap it out to get it going.  Well, after I unhooked the battery, carried it for what seemed like 210 miles, I got it into the truck with the dead battery, just to find out that the terminals were opposite of the required battery, therefore the cables were too short.   I ended up going to Deka and picked up what I needed but should have done that all along.  And yes, if you read this far into this article… you have a similar story.

There are two basic types of batteries that I wanted to mention, you have a Starting battery, and you have Deep Cycle Batteries.  In a pinch, you can get started with either, but the proper battery will always offer better service ultimately and be less expensive. 

A Starting battery is just that, it provides a large amount of current to the starter for short bursts.  It is never recommended to keep turning over a starter on a hard to start engine for two reasons, it heats up the starter and really creates unnecessary wear as it draws so much current from the battery that the draw creates heat and evaporation of the battery fluids (acid and water), which wears the battery to premature failure. Older engines with carburetors and single computers tend to require more starting current than the newer engines found today where everything is electronic fuel injection.  

Starting is not the only thing to consider when selecting a battery.  If you are in a cold or extremely hot environment, frequency of use and overall health of the engine that you are operating.  Cranking amperage or sometimes just noted on the battery as CCA- cold cranking amps, CA-cranking amps and MCA- marine cranking amps are something that have a numerical range that may or may not be worth the money.  For instance, on my old International flatbed I purchased a 964 CCA battery because I do not drive it often, it has a carburetor and it has a good size engine, the CCA’s are important.  On a F-350 where it is electronic ignition, fuel injected and computerized, I can get away with a smaller CCA rating which also saves money.

Starting batteries have a series of plates that are separated within the plastic casing of the battery.  The plate's thickness will vary between the type of battery they create power for.  A starting battery has multiple thin plates, a deep cycle battery has fewer thicker plates, both batteries provide 12-volts of power with various cranking amperes, but though they can be interchangeable for short periods of time, but a deep cycle and a starting battery will not provide premium performance when placed in the wrong application.

Marine batteries are basically a split between a deep-cycle and a starting battery.  Anyone who goes on the water understands this, but the value of the marine battery is the ability to draw down and recharge.  Why is this even mentioned?  Well, I bet someone reading this has something they operate that has a poor or non-existent generator or alternator. Other than making the repair, which may or may not make financial sense, offers a good choice in battery selection, which will provide better service that a standard starting battery.  

Batteries have ratings that are usually calculated in years.  You get batteries with a one-to-six-year rating with all levels of pricing.  What will determine the lifespan of the battery has more to do with the engine and driver than the battery.  When you draw down a battery to say 50% versus 20 %, you are doubling the life of the battery, so better running and properly serviced engines are typically not as hard on the engine as something that runs poorly and needs an overhaul.

When you suspect a battery of being weak or bad, it is always easier to check a battery with a voltage meter rather than unbolting the terminals and lifting the battery out.  So, what are you looking for? To check the battery, put the voltage meter on dc voltage and read both the positive and negative terminals.  A reading of over 12 volts is required for most engines starting with normal starter rotation. 12.7 volts would be considered a normal strong battery, something in the 6-to-8-volt range may be able to be charged, but if the alternator is working this would be an indication of a bad cell and a non-functioning battery. Starting batteries have a big range in cycles, anywhere from 30 to 150 cycles, but that can also mean that the battery cycles over 200 times or more before failure.  

Keeping batteries in mid-range temperatures, 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees Fahrenheit will also extend the life of the battery.  On vehicles that are not often driven, trickle chargers are a must, as they will keep the voltage at the proper level as it allows for constant charging with very low heat allowing evaporation of the battery acids to be at the lowest minimum possible. 

There are also economical options when a battery is needed but the money is not abundant.  Options are, you can go to a box auto part store and here you will pay a premium price.  Deka has batteries and often have commercial battery seconds that are about half to one third the price of a new battery. Auto part scrap part yards often sell batteries anywhere from $30 dollars and up without any sort of warranty, scrapped from a salvaged or wrecked car.  Here is where you really need to pay attention to what side of the battery and the placement of the terminals.  

Batteries are great when they work, but a real pain when they fail.  A little maintenance can help you keep things running.

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