When it comes to your high-performance vehicles, one of the most overlooked upgrades is the battery. While the type of battery under the hood is not going to shave any time off your quarter-mile times (though there are some battery mods that will), getting the best performance from your charging system is always a good bet, especially if you have upgraded electronics. This guide will break it down for you so the next time you need to pick up a battery you will know which one to grab and which ones to leave on the shelf.
CA- Cranking Amps, this is the rating of cranking amperage measured at 32 degrees F.
CCA- Cold Cranking Amps, this is the amperage rating the battery can provide at 0-degrees F for 30 seconds without dropping below 7.2 volts. This is the most important measure of a battery, and is the typical rating used for selecting the appropriate battery for a vehicle.
RC- Reserve Capacity, measured in minutes, this is how long the battery will provide 25 amps until the battery voltage drops to 10.5 volts. This is used on both starting and deep cycle batteries.
AH- Amp Hour, typically used for deep-cycle batteries, this illustrates the amperage capacity. A battery with 150 amp hours rating would provide 15 amps for 10 hours, 10 amps for 15 hours, or 150 amps for 1 hour.
While most batteries are of the same age-old lead acid (LA) design, there are many ways to put them together. The main types are Flooded, Gel, and AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat). All lead acid batteries use the same overall concept-lead plates (one is lead, the other is lead oxide) are submerged in an electrolyte solution of sulfuric acid. Each of these plate groups is called a cell; a group of individual cells is called a “battery.” As the battery discharges, the lead electrodes become lead sulfate, and the electrolyte dissolves into water. This is why batteries freeze during the winter, which can cause the lead plates to touch (short-circuit), effectively destroying the battery. While charging a lead acid battery, through electrolysis, the battery generates oxygen and hydrogen gas, which can be explosive, which is why batteries are typically mounted under the hood, where they dissipate and do not become condensed. When installing a battery in the trunk, a firewall must be installed to protect the passengers; the battery box must also be vented to the exterior of the vehicle.
Flooded- This is the most common type of LA battery but there are a couple of sub groups–conventional and sealed. Sealed flooded batteries are designed to be maintenance-free, meaning you don’t have to add water at any time, they are sealed. In a conventional battery, such as a “tar-top” battery in a classic car, each LA cell is separated and each group has its own electrolyte. Over time, the process of charging and discharging uses up the electrolyte and it has to be replaced with distilled water. Some modern batteries still require this kind of maintenance.
Gel- The platform is the same, but instead of using plain old water as the base for the electrolyte, they use a thickened version (like Jell-O) to keep the electrolyte from leaking in the event of a cracked or broken box. This also makes the battery more stable in terms of vibration and installation location, as the gel doesn’t move, which ensures the plates are always covered in electrolyte. One of the drawbacks for gel cell batteries is that they are more susceptible to voltage irregularities and they can’t be refilled, once the electrolyte degrades, the battery is toast.
AGM- AGM or Absorbed Glass Mat batteries are the most efficient of the lead-acid design. AGM batteries use a fiberglass separator to keep the electrolyte between the lead plates. This makes AGM-style batteries extremely stable in any position, even upside down. The most well-known AGM battery is the Optima brand. Optima batteries use a spiral-wound core with AGM electrolyte separators, making it impossible for the plates to touch. These batteries last much longer than a conventional or gel-cell battery. “OPTIMA batteries are ideal for Mustang and Ford owners because our RedTop and YellowTop batteries for automotive applications are maintenance free,” said Cam Douglass, director of product development and marketing for OPTIMA Batteries. “OPTIMA batteries are completely sealed, meaning they can be mounted in any position, even upside down, and can be placed in various areas in the vehicle where some batteries may be restricted.”
Both gel and AGM batteries de-gas like flooded batteries, but since they are sealed, the gasses are reabsorbed into the electrolyte, keeping them functional longer. Both types of batteries can release their charge faster than flooded batteries, which is an important function. In order to provide a larger level of cranking amperage, a flooded battery must be much larger, as a typical flooded battery is limited in how much charge it can release at one time. Gel and AGM batteries can release more charge at once. This means that gel cell and AGM batteries can fit in a smaller case while providing more amperage.
There are two sub-classes for all batteries – Starting and Deep-Cycle. Starting batteries, which have higher cranking amps for heavy, short bursts of energy, use a larger number of thinner plates to release more amperage. The thinner the plate, the more amps it can release in a burst. The side effect of this is that the plates get hotter faster, which causes them to warp and pit, particularly when they are fully discharged. Conventional (flooded) Deep-cycle batteries use thicker plates, so they store more energy, but there are less plates overall, so they can’t release the energy as fast. Only 25 percent of the rated amperage can be released at one burst. Deep cycle batteries are used for long-term constant draw situations, such as boats, golf carts, and show cars (lights and stereo systems). Flooded style deep-cycle batteries should not be used for starting; they do not have the cranking power. AGM deep-cycles, such as the Optima brand, can be successfully used as starting batteries, in fact, I have personally used one in an early ’70s muscle car, which was driven daily and used as a car audio demo car for many years. That deep-cycle Optima lasted over five years with hundreds of full discharge cycles – it was abused.
New battery designs
There are a couple of newcomers to the automotive battery realms, specifically lithium Ion (Li) and Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMh). These batteries are commonly used in rechargeable applications for cell phones, cameras, and other portable devices. They are very stable and hold a charge for a long period of time, with the ability to release that charge quickly. Both types are very efficient, lightweight and have a long life, but they are very expensive. A single lithium ion starting battery can cost over $1,500.
NiMh- This design uses hydrogen-absorbing alloy as the negative electrode, and nickel oxyhydride as the positive side. NiMh batteries charge fast, but they have a faster discharge rate when idle. These are the type of batteries used in hybrid vehicles.
Li- Lithium batteries are very similar to NiMh batteries, but Li Ion batteries are slightly more efficient and hold a static charge for longer periods. These batteries are becoming more prevalent in high-performance applications where every pound is critical. Swapping a 40-pound LA battery for a 13-pound Li-ion unit has a definite advantage. In fact, Porsche recently swapped out conventional batteries for Lithium Ion, with a replacement cost of $1,700. Using an Li battery in cold weather is not advisable though, as they can be damaged in below freezing temperatures.
Flooded batteries require more maintenance, but all batteries have needs. Lead acid batteries must be charged constantly to maintain that charge. Leaving an LA battery on the shelf for six months will degrade the battery, especially if it is in cold weather. You must protect your batteries from freezing. In severe cold weather, a battery can freeze, which will short out the plates and the battery will no longer charge. When a battery freezes, the sides of the box will bulge.
Charging– When storing a battery long term, you should consider a trickle or maintenance charger. These low-amp chargers keep the battery from discharging over time without boiling the electrolyte, which can ruin the battery. There is another side to that coin though. A dead Flooded (this does not work for gel or AGM types) battery that won’t hold a charge can sometimes be “jump-started” by boiling the electrolyte with a heavy high-amperage charge. This is because over time and charge/discharge cycles, the electrolyte crystallizes (Sulfation) on the plates. Boiling the electrolyte can reabsorb those crystals, making the battery useful again. This does not work for batteries that have shorted cells. The process for reviving AGM batteries is a little more complex, involving multiple batteries chained together.
Corrosion– Corrosion is a problem with all batteries. Moisture, metal and electricity together cause electrolysis, the same process at work inside the battery, but in an uncontrolled manner. That fuzzy stuff on your battery terminals is bad. It is the by-product of electrolysis, which is like rust for lead. Preventing it is fairly simple and there are some methods that work better than others. Felt pads and anti-corrosion spray work, but not for very long. The key here is keeping moisture out while promoting a solid connection to the cables. A little Vaseline on the terminals goes a long way to protect against corrosion. Another solution is liquid electrical tape, which creates an airtight seal, but it has to be cut off before removing the battery cable.
Water Level– Flooded batteries require water to function; over time, the water level decreases. While many flooded batteries are labeled “maintenance free,” not all are. You should periodically check the water level in your battery. If the water is below the top of the water holes, add some distilled water. You have to be careful, the water in the battery is highly-corrosive.
Cables and Terminals– The battery can only do its job when the connections are good. Corroded cables and terminals, loose fitting terminals, etc. limit the alternator’s ability to charge the battery and provide juice to the car. All terminals must fit tight, if you can wiggle it by hand, it’s not tight enough. You have to be careful with side-post terminals, as you can strip the threads and actually break into the case, causing electrolyte to leak out.
A daily-driven econobox doesn’t need a high-performance lithium-ion battery, while a show car needs a battery that can sustain long periods of use without charging. Find the right battery for your needs and it will serve up the juice you need for a long time.
Every battery has a description tag with the voltage and amperage ratings. This conventional battery provides 630 Cranking Amps, and 525 Cold Cranking Amps. This battery has the juice to start your average stock small-block. Add in more compression, and it may have a hard time spinning the starter fast enough. Note the warranty, cheap batteries don’t last as long as the more expensive quality brands, so take the warranty into consideration before you buy, especially if the car will sit for long periods.
This is a conventional flooded battery with maintenance caps, which are the two blocks at the top. This is the most common type of battery you will encounter.
This trunk-mounted Optima red top is an AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) battery. It can be mounted upside down. When mounting a battery, you must always ensure the battery is secure. In this case, a metal bar will go across the top and bolt to the floor of the trunk.
This is a Braille ML30C Lithium/Carbon fiber battery. Encased in carbon fiber, you get nine pounds worth of cranking power (1300 amps). It is designed to provide long stretches of run time without an alternator and can be mounted anywhere since it has no acid at all. All this for only $1,995, with a one-year warranty. 2k, for a battery. If you are racing, 30 pounds of weight savings might make the difference.
Flooded batteries require maintenance, which consists of checking and filling the water level. These two caps pop off and you can see the water level inside. If this were a maintenance-free battery, it would be labeled as such and not have any access caps.
At rest, a properly functioning and charged battery should read between 11.5 and 12.9 volts. If you get much below 11.5 volts, the battery could fail to turn over the engine. When the car is running, this would read around 13.5 to 14.4 volts, because the alternator provides more voltage. If the battery has been fully charged but is showing less than 11 volts, it probably has a bad cell. The tool shown here is a Power Probe, which is a very versatile voltage and circuit tester.
To keep your battery tip-top, a maintenance charger should be used when the car will sit for a month or longer. The Battery Tender (we got ours from Eastwood) provides 1.25 amps to keep the battery at 12 volts, once it reaches the proper voltage, it shuts off and doesn’t kick on until the voltage drops again, keeping the battery safe from overcharging and sulfation.
This side of this battery is bulging, which is a sign that it has frozen. That does not mean it won’t function, but it won’t last as long as it could have. If it froze hard enough, it is possible that the plates inside have shorted, which would mean the battery is toast.
The battery needs a good connection to function properly; this is a crimp-on ring terminal that has been properly crimped using a sledgehammer and a drift punch. You can buy a specialized crimp tool for these large terminals, but it isn’t necessary.
These are properly installed battery terminals, with clean connections. This is what it is supposed to look like.
This is a bad day waiting to happen. The terminal broke and instead of fixing it, the owner rigged it. While this will get you home, it needs to be fixed, and quickly before you get stranded in an intersection or catch the car on fire.
For race cars and trunk-mounted batteries, you should install a cut-off switch for the battery. This breaks the circuit, so the battery stops providing juice to the car, eliminating drains and possible shock and spark hazards in the case of an accident.
Proper connections are the key to any battery installation, note the shrink wrap and wire loom protecting the exposed terminals from shorting.
Sometimes you need multiple battery connections, but there is only so much room on the battery terminal. In this case, a distribution block is used to provide additional direct connections to the battery. These are available in fuse and non-fused versions.