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When is the time for a new battery?

Midsize sedans, on average, weigh roughly 3,350 pounds (1,520 kilograms). The average SUV weighs about 4,440 pounds (2,014kg), the average pickup truck around 4,700 pounds (2,132kg), and the average SUV close to 4,800 pounds (2,177kg).

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And all of them rely on a single item that typically weighs between 30 and 60 pounds (13.6 and 27.2kg)—a battery. Without a good battery, every vehicle is left at a standstill.

So what about the battery in your vehicle? Is it in good shape? Have you had it tested recently? Will it give you any auto alert that it is close to failing?

The answer is sometimes, but not always. Too often, one day out of the blue, it will simply not have the power to turn your engine over.

Take a few moments to consider some key questions about automotive batteries:

What is the typical lifespan of a battery?

Battery warranties vary by the manufacturer. A large percentage of new batteries are sealed, maintenance-free, and most basic batteries include a warranty that promises two years of failsafe service under normal drivinbg conditions.

If a basic battery is not exposed to extremes of heat or cold or other out-of-the-ordinary demands, it can deliver three or more years of reliable service. Batteries with longer warranties may also last one to two years beyond the warranty period, and potentially more. Any battery that last beyond five years, and some do, are an exception. If you are driving on a battery that has exceeded five years of service, consider yourself fortunate—and recognize that sudden battery failure is a possibility.

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 What causes a car battery to fail?

Temperature extremes, particularly heat: Battery manufacturers estimate that a typical battery’s life may last 18 months shorter if it is regularly used in very warm regions such as the American Southwest. Higher heat under the hood can potentially accelerate internal corrosion or cause water in the battery’s liquid electrolyte to evaporate. This will weaken (and thus shorten) a battery’s ability to start an engine.

Frigid cold can also degrade a battery’s lifespan. A battery puts out only one-third of its power when temperatures reach freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 Celsius), and less when temperatures fall even further. Cranking a battery morning after morning in temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.2 Celsius) puts considerable strain on a battery’s cold-cranking capacity. Attempting to do start a vehicle morning after morning in frosty weather weakens a battery and can shorten its life both on a short- and long-term basis.

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Too many brief drives: A battery recharges while you drive, and piling up too many short drives (those lasting less than 20 minutes) inhibits a battery’s ability to restore itself to full power after an initial startup.

Disuse: People who drive their vehicles every day, particularly if those drives last 20 or more minutes, help their batteries sustain good health. A battery that sits unused for three or four weeks, meanwhile, is likely struggle to come to life and may have trouble maintaining a charge.

Time: The vitality of the electrolyte in any battery simply diminishes over time.

The bottom line: The fewer extremes you cause your battery to endure, the better.

What are some signs your battery is close to failing?

Here are some auto alert signs remind you that your battery is nearly at the end of its life.

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Lights are dimmer than usual: If you notice your car’s interior-cabin lights are not as bright as you are accustomed to seeing, or your headlights go dim while you are idling, your battery may be tipping you off that it is on its way to failure. Another auto alert sign: Your vehicle’s clock has lost time after going undriven for a few days.

If you notice any of these issues, have your battery tested as soon as possible, either on your own using a volt meter or by visiting a mechanic or auto parts store and requesting a test. Many parts stores, eager to sell you a new battery, offer free battery testing.

Engine hesitation when turning the key: If you notice a hitch during your customary engine-ignition process, that is a clear auto alert message being delivered by your vehicle. You should not hesitate to have your battery tested. (And until you do, make certain you carry jumper cables or a jumping device in your vehicle.)

Check Engine light comes on: Drivers often ignore this warning light when it appears, but it might be alerting you to an electrical problem involving the alternator, which regulates the battery. If the light simply will not vanish after four or five days, it is probably a good idea to have your battery tested or ask a mechanic to give your engine a diagnostic test.

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Sudden, unexpected failure: Sometimes batteries simply quit without warning. Getting no response (or just a tiny rattle from under the hood) is one of the saddest moments a driver can experience.

Even if this happens, it’s possible the battery is not a total goner at this point. The solution might be something simple. Maybe the connection to your battery’s terminals may have become loose or corroded. Take a look at how snugly your cables are attached to the two posts on your battery. Those posts should be clean, and you should see no slack in the connection.

Also look around to see if something unobvious might be draining your battery. Maybe the glove-box door or trunk latch are not closing entirely, and their courtesy lights stay illuminated after you have parked your vehicle and walked away. Even tiny lights such as those can drain a car battery after several hours.

Repeated need for a jump: If your car needs a jump, take it out for an extended drive immediately after the jump takes place. Take an extended drive, one of at least 25 minutes. This gives a battery sufficient time to have its customary charge restored by the alternator.

After doing so, if the battery still needs a jump the next morning—and perhaps the morning after that—it is on the verge of failure. Repeated jumps are not healthy for a battery. Three or more jumps in a short period of time are tough on a battery’s components. You’re likely due for a new battery if you are repeatedly begging for a jump.

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How do you choose a new battery?

Group size: Batteries are grouped according to the dimensions and terminal locations needed for various vehicles. Batteries are identified by letters and numbers that can work with various vehicle makes, models and engine types. Seek out a replacement guide that identifies a battery group size suited to your vehicle. Parts stores provide these guides. Major battery-makers many times offer online guides for their specific brands.

Cold-cranking amps (CCA): This rating indicates a battery’s ability to start an engine in cold weather. The higher the CCA rating, the greater starting power a battery can offer in cold conditions. If winters are long where you live, think seriously about choosing a battery with a high CCA rating.

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Reserve capacity: This indicates how long a new, fully charged battery can continue to operate if the vehicle’s alternator fails. It identifies how many minutes a battery can provide a constant current of 25 amps at 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 Celsius) without falling below the minimum voltage (1.75 volts per cell) needed to keep an engine running.

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