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BATTERY FACTS

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If you are shopping for a new battery, it is usually because your last one failed. Why did it fail? The most likely reason is neglect or abuse. Premature failure of a battery often has very little to do with the brand of the battery. Once you get past the first week (which should always be covered by full warranty), all automotive starting batteries should far outlast their advertised pro-rata warranty period, if they are used properly.

What does that mean? How do we treat a battery right? Batteries must be used as they were designed to be used, or they will perform badly, and quickly fail. Starting batteries must be kept fairly close to fully charged all the time.

Automotive starting batteries are designed and intended for "starting" duty. They are sold by Group Size and rated in Cold Cranking Amps. When we go shopping for a battery, we want the best we can afford. Most of us will look for the highest CCA rating that will fit in the brackets. I've done that myself. Tim Allen syndrome sets in (er er er), and we have to buy the biggest and baddest battery they have in the store. Buying the highest CCA rated battery is probably NOT the best choice for your tractor battery and maybe not the right choice for your car either. Once we have found a battery that meets the minimum CCA specification for our vehicle, more is not necessarily better.

How do you use your tractor? Does it often sit for several days, weeks, or even months between chores? If so, a less expensive battery, with a lower CCA rating, will often be the best choice! Why? The less-expensive battery, will often last longer because of the way we will be using it.

In order to get maximum CCA ratings, the lead plates must be designed to have a very high surface area. Lead plates designed for starting duty are thin, light, and may have surfaces that almost look like a sponge. In normal starting duty, cranking the engine draws down less than 5 percent of the total charge in the battery. Any reasonably well-maintained vehicle will very rarely use more than 5 percent of the total capacity in a typical starting battery. Then, the battery is not even left in this slightly discharged condition. The battery is almost immediately "topped off" by the charging system. This is very short discharge, and immediate recharge is considered "starting duty". Battery manufacturers come up with some very aggressive plate designs to squeeze lots of CCA out of a small battery case.

However, when we let that starting battery sit in our tractor, boat, motor home, generator, or lawn tractor for several days, weeks, or months, it will self-discharge as much as 5 percent per week! After only two weeks some starting batteries may already be down to less than 90 percent charge! Once we drop below 90 percent, this is considered "Deep Cycle" duty. The very aggressive lead plates designed for starting duty are not intended to be used in a deep cycle application. Every time we dip into deep-cycle duty with a normal starting battery, we shorten its life, and may just kill it. This is exactly why a fairly new dead battery will suddenly fail to take a charge. Typical starting batteries are not designed to withstand the rigors of deep-cycle duty.

True Deep-Cycle batteries are rated in Amp-Hours, and are usually much larger, heavier, and more expensive than starting batteries for the same CCA rating. A deep-cycle battery is a much better choice for most tractors, equipment, and many vehicles from a performance standpoint. When we look at the cost, it can be very hard to justify buying a deep cycle battery. Some Marine and Tractor batteries are a hybrid design that falls somewhere between starting, and deep-cycle duty. These types of batteries will usually have a stronger, more durable case and are designed for the weekend warrior type of duty they will see. The tractor and marine batteries are also more expensive.

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Look at the choices we are given. Supply and demand is what determines pricing and value. They sell a lot more automotive starting batteries than any other type. There is plenty of competition between various brand names. Competition keeps prices loser, so the best value is nearly always going to be a standard automotive starting battery. Batteries with a lower CCA rating are generally going to have a slightly less aggressive plate design. The less-aggressive design should be stronger, and more forgiving of the occasional foray into deep-cycle mode.

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My tractors are rarely used more than 2 or 3 times a month, and can occasionally go as long as two months without being started. So, my choice is to buy the least expensive starting battery I can find from a large-volume retailer. Choose the battery that fits, and meets the minimum CCA specification for my vehicle. Don't get talked into spending more money for a higher CCA rating, or premium battery. Then, I keep all my equipment batteries on automatic trickle-chargers. These small battery-maintainers use very little power and keep your battery fully charged no matter how long you let it sit. There are even solar-powered versions that cost nothing to operate.

BATTERY MAINTAINERS

A battery maintainer is nothing more than a very small, fully-automatic, battery charger. They are generally way too small to charge a weak battery in a reasonable amount of time. They are usually only intended to keep a battery at full charge. There are many brands, but if you want to buy a good one that will last, buy the original "Battery Tender" brand name product. Yep, they cost a little more, maybe even twice as much as the really cheap ones, but this is one case where you do get what you pay for. Buy the cheap ones, and you will soon be tossing the broken junk in the trash and buying new ones. This is another lesson learned the hard way.

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These are my two "Die Hard" brand maintainers that I bought because they were dual voltage. They could be used to maintain 6-volt or 12-volt batteries. I thought that was a good idea, since I have an assortment of 6 and 12 volt batteries. I made these cool little overhead shelves, so the cables would always be handy when I park my tractors. All of the maintainers should come with a set of clip-leads, and a set of terminals that can be hard-wired to the battery. I wired one of the connectors to each of my batteries, so I can quickly plug-in my battery tenders. Make them convenient, and they will be used more often. Sadly, both of these Die Hard maintainers failed before they were 12 months old.

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There are several different models of the better maintainers. Two of them are pictured above; the Battery Tender Plus, and a Battery Tender Junior. I have had one of the Junior models for years. I should have known better than to buy some other brand, when a product has been this durable. I now have a new pair of the Battery Tender Juniors hanging in my tractor shed.

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I also have a few of these solar chargers. These are great any place you don't have an outlet handy. Of course it does need to be a spot that gets some sun. I use one for our generator and another for the lawn tractor battery. We have a spare that we put on the dash of the car any time we leave a car sitting somewhere for more than a few days. It's nice to take "dead battery" off the list of things we might have to deal with when we get back from a trip.

June 2016 - I just had to buy a new battery for my Sears Craftsman lawn tractor. This lawn tractor was purchased new in April 2011 and this is the first replacement battery. That is 5 years of service out of a 3 year lawn tractor battery.

BRAND NAME MYTHS

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Ask any group of people about car batteries, and there is no shortage of favorite brands. Few people realize that most of the brands being praised were all made by the same company. At this time Johnson Controls makes nearly all of the most popular brand name batteries, as well as many of the OEM battery brands in new cars. Some people paying premium prices for a premium brand battery might be surprised to learn that my $39 battery from Wal-Mart was also made by Johnson Controls.

Two other two large battery manufacturers are Exide and Delphi. Combined, these two do not sell as many automotive batteries as Johnson Controls, but just to make things as confusing as possible, Exide and Delphi do make some of the same brands that are made by Johnson controls. Some battery sizes and types in a brand name brand product line are made by different manufacturers. Batteries are ordered by national retailers in large quantities. Those orders and contracts often vary by region, and they do change from time to time. There is no guarantee that the brand name battery in the store today was made by the same manufacturer as the four-year old battery in your car. The specifications and performance do vary between some of the premium brands, but for most of the common brand name batteries, the only real difference is the color of the plastic, and the decal or logo printed on the case.

BATTERY LIFE and AGE

All automotive batteries sold by every major retailer should last about as long as their pro-rata warranties say they will last, unless they are abused. Treat any battery just a little better than average, and it will last MUCH longer than the pro-rata warranty. There is no reason most 3-year batteries shouldn't last 6 or more years if they are treated well.

When buying a battery age is much more important than the brand name. A "new" battery might have been sitting on that dealer's shelf for a year or longer. Always buy batteries from a place that sells a lot of them. If they move a lot of product through the store, they should have new batteries on the shelf. Beware of batteries on SALE. They may be on sale because they have not been moving off the shelf fast enough. Check the "born-on" date yourself. All automotive batteries should have date codes stamped in the case that will tell you the date of manufacture. The date may be in plain English, or it may be a code. Look for something like "A-14" In this case the letter "A" probably means "January", and the number "14" would be "2014". Never buy a battery that has a "Born On" date more than six months old.

THE CONCRETE FLOOR MYTH

Did anyone notice the concrete backgrounds on all the battery photos? The truth is that setting a modern battery on a concrete floor does not hurt the battery. A concrete floor is no better or worse than any other common floor or construction material for modern batteries in plastic cases. Setting them on the floor isn't the problem, neglect is what kills them. All automotive type Lead-Acid batteries will self-discharge over time, regardless of what we set them on. For some types of batteries this self-discharge is as much as 15 percent per month! This has nothing to do with the floor; self-discharge is normal for these types of batteries. Keeping the battery case clean helps a little, but we cannot prevent the internal self-discharge, unless they start selling Lithium car batteries. As a minimum, we should be topping-off our idle batteries at least twice a month.

There are some good reasons not to set batteries or anything else directly on the floor. It is much easier to sweep the floor if everything is stored on sturdy shelves. Also, it can be VERY inconvenient if a piece of hot welding slag rolls across the floor and melts through a plastic battery case, oil bottle, or gas can! No, I'm not a genius. I learned most of these things the hard way. In my case it was a 5-quart oil container. By the time I realized what had happened, about 3-quarts of oil was making a pond on my floor.

BATTERY STATE-OF-CHARGE

Some people get a volt meter and think 10 volts on a 12 volt battery is pretty good. It's more than half, right? Wrong. As we can see from this chart, 10 volts is nothing, and many starting batteries are not going to come back from a discharge condition this low.

The following voltage chart is for typical starting batteries. It indicates the relative charge percentage for each voltage reading. These are static voltage readings taken with the engine off, and no-load on the battery.

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BATTERY CHARGING

All new batteries should be fully-charged before putting them in service. I know, most dealers will claim their batteries are fully-charged, but that depends on how often they service their inventory. New batteries will usually be charged enough to start the engine, and take a charge, but if you check, I guarantee most new batteries are something less than full charged. It's a lot easier on your charging system if the battery is fully-charged when installed.

If you don't have an automatic type charger, get one. My 12 volt battery charger is an automatic type with two settings, 2 and 10 amps. I always use the 2 amp setting for charging batteries. Battery charging should only be done in a well-ventilated area. If it's indoors, open windows and doors to get some cross-ventilation going, or better, set your charger up where you can run the leads outside. Hook the leads up to the battery, plus-to-plus and minus-to-minus. The red insulated lead is usually plus. Check your charger manual, or look for a label on the charger. Make sure you are connecting plus-to-plus and minus-to-minus. Turn the charger on. It should have status lights or a meter that will tell you what it's doing. Automatic chargers start out at a higher rate and slowly ramp down as the battery reaches full charge.

It should only take a few minutes for the charger to top-off the charge. Longer if the battery has been depleted. If it appears to be functioning normally, just leave it for a while. Leaving an automatic charger ON after the battery reaches full charge won't damage the battery. I tend to get distracted doing other things (that untreated ADHD thing again), so automatic is the only way to go for me.

JUMP STARTING

In spite of our best efforts, sooner or later, we will be faced with a dead battery. If you can wait, the best thing to do is put a charger on it. If you cannot wait for that, or the battery won't take a charge, Pull-Starting is an option. Pull or Push-Starting is simply using another vehicle or a few friends to get the tractor rolling in gear, then letting the clutch out to help crank the engine. If you are working alone, jump-starting may be the best option. If your tractor is 12-volts, jump-starting is no different than jump starting a car. If your tractor is 6-volts it can be a little more complicated if the only available vehicle is 12-volts. PLEASE DO NOT connect a 12-volt battery to a 6-volt battery. Battery explosions are rare, but connecting twice the rated voltage, to a battery that is obviously in less than ideal condition, is one of the best ways I know to create conditions for an explosion. What follows are the safe ways to jump-start your dead tractor.

BOTH VEHICLES = SAME VOLTAGE Most people already know how to jump start when the systems are the same voltage. The vehicle with the good battery should be running at a fast idle. With two batteries of the same voltage ALWAYS connect Plus-to-Plus, and Minus-to-Minus. The last connection should never be made directly to the battery. It will likely spark, and we don't want to be making sparks around a battery. That's another way to create one of those rare battery explosions. Decide which vehicle you want the last connection to land on. It does not matter which vehicle. Look at the battery in that vehicle to see which post is grounded to the vehicle frame. That is the clamp that will be connected last, and we will connect it to a solid metal part of the vehicle at least a few feet away from the battery. That will be electrically the same as connecting to the grounded battery post, but a lot safer. Once the cables are connected the good vehicle will begin putting a charge on the dead battery. I usually wait a minute or so at this point, because the more charge we put in the dead battery, the better. Finally step on the clutch and start the dead tractor as you normally would. Once it's running, disconnect jumper cables one at a time. Check your amp gauge, if it's charging, you should be able to go ahead and do whatever you were originally planning to do.

DEAD 6-VOLT TRACTOR USING 12-VOLT VEHICLE OR BATTERY - It's better if the 6-volt battery still has some charge in it. If the solenoid goes CLiKKK or BuZZz, when you hit the start button, it probably has enough charge to run the ignition. In this case polarity does not matter, because we are NOT going to connect the two electrical systems together. Polarity makes no difference to the starter motor. It can't spin backwards; it always turns the same way. In this case, there is little benefit to having the donor vehicle running. Make absolutely sure the tractor transmission is in neutral, and then block the clutch pedal down. This does two things. Disengaging the clutch removes a good bit of load from the starter, so the engine will crank faster. Blocking the clutch is also double insurance that the tractor cannot run you over. Connect one jumper cable from either post on the good battery to the power lug on the starter motor. Make sure this cable clamp only touches the electrical connection, not the metal starter housing. Turn fuel and ignition ON. Connect the second jumper cable from the second post on the good battery and just touch it to any good ground on the tractor. Usually the foot peg or foot board will have enough paint rubbed off. That where I usually touch the second cable. The starter should immediately crank the engine when you touch that cable. Use your third hand to work the choke, throttle, or whatever else you usually do to start it.

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Content and Web Design by K. LaRue — This Site Was Last Updated 31 MAR 2017.
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