“I don’t trust these battery sales companies. I bought a maintenance-free battery only find that it is dry after some time. They pull the wool over our eyes and don’t sell what they advertise!”
Does this sound like you? This is often the sentiment of dissatisfied customers, made all the worse should a dry battery occur just as the summer holidays are about to kick off.
Barnabas Gwarisa, head of environmental and quality control at Probe, South Africa's largest importer of automotive batteries with fifty years of experience in distributing and providing aftermarket support for many international brands, shares some important information that will help customers understand what can cause a dry battery.
The importance of electrolyte
The perception that most people have is that when they purchase a maintenance-free battery, the electrolyte will remain the same and nothing will change given that no additional water is required to keep the correct electrolyte strength. For those who are not aware of what electrolyte is, this is the catalyst that straddles (extends across) the electrodes of a battery and makes electricity flow.
The truth of the matter is that a maintenance-free battery will perform and maintain its electrolyte strength and level ceteris paribus (all normal operational conditions being the same as prescribed by the manufacturer). But there are certain conditions that must be upheld by the customer in order to ensure that this is the case.
There are a couple of reasons why any battery - whether maintenance-free or normal automotive battery - would see a drop in the level of electrolyte or lose the electrolyte completely. These can be universally applied.
Safe handling and regular inspection
The first reason anchors on the fact that it is the responsibility of the customer to ensure the battery is handled in the best possible way to avoid damage of the battery casing. Examples of poor handling would include dropping a battery, storing the battery below heavy suspended objects which could fall and hit the battery, or any impact that has the ability to crack the battery casing. All these mishaps have the potential to cause electrolyte leakage.
Even the smallest crack in the battery casing can be enough for the electrolyte to seep through when the battery is in operation. This loss of electrolyte will occur whether the battery is a maintenance-free battery or not.
The problem for batteries that may be stored in hidden places is that should the crack occur at the bottom, one may only realise the problem after the electrolyte is complete depleted.
How can you guard against leakage? Regular inspections are required for any battery installation to ensure leakages are identified on time.
It is important for customers to know that should a battery have been dropped and then reinstalled into the vehicle, this damage will not be honoured by battery suppliers as a warranty claim.
The second reason for loss of electrolyte is due to overcharging, which can also affect any battery, including maintenance-free batteries. It’s important to note that overcharging is not an honoured warranty claim as it has nothing to do with a factory fault on the battery.
Each battery has an electrolyte which is provided at the correctly-determined strength for the battery performance. However, the battery must maintain a state of equilibrium regarding the strength of electrolyte.
The technical explanation is as follows. Hydrogen gas evolution in the battery is regulated specifically so that it can recombine again into the electrolyte to ensure that the battery’s chemistry remains balanced. The vents on the battery casings enable only excessive pressure in the battery to give off the hydrogen gas. In the maintenance-free battery, the vents are designed to encourage the hydrogen to ‘get back’ into the electrolyte to promote any reversible reaction.
However, a situation where the vehicle, generator or manual charger pumps more current into the battery than is prescribed - either due to faulty alternator systems or ignorance of the charging specifications in the case of manual charging - will result in overcharging.
To simplify this, if overcharging continues and more gas is released, the electrolyte becomes more concentrated as it loses water and the electrolyte level drops. The consequence is a ‘dry’ battery that will heat up over an extended period of time. Eventually the battery will die after the electrolyte is depleted or when the electrolyte levels cannot sustain the battery performance.
Overcharging damages the battery plates which then become soft and shed the paste which is the active material that enables the chemistry of the battery to be optimized. No one can tell when overcharging will occur for a connected battery, but regular checks of charging systems and ensuring compliance to charging specifications goes miles in helping to avoid this problem.
The truth about truly sealed batteries
Some battery suppliers claim that their batteries are truly sealed batteries, when in fact, this is not strictly the case. Probe is able to reliably make the promise of a truly sealed ‘fit and forget’ maintenance-free battery.
However, even maintenance-free batteries still require good customer care. This includes checking compliance of your appliances’ charging systems as well as meeting required charging specifications where charging is required.
Your battery seller should be there for you!
You should be able to get help from the supplier of your battery. For example, at Probe’s branches, technical staff are able to assist with free testing of vehicle charging systems and sales representatives can also visit the customer sites to assist in training with charging as well.
Caring for your maintenance-free battery is easy and being aware of the things to watch out for will ensure that a dry battery won’t keep you from making this a summer to remember!