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Higher-Cost Car Batteries: Better Batteries or Ripoffs?

13 September 2017

Motorists often trade horror stories about the coldest, snowiest nights their starters failed due to a dead battery. Many would agree that they don’t think about their car’s battery until they hear that dreaded click when turning their ignition key. While most consumers opt for relatively inexpensive flooded lead-acid batteries, there are other types worth considering as well.

Function and Design

Car batteries are also known as SLI (starting-lighting-ignition) batteries. Their main function, as evidenced by the S and I in SLI, is starting the vehicle. Because a vehicle’s alternator powers its electrical systems while the engine is running, car batteries are designed to release a burst of current and then quickly recharge via the alternator. While the vehicle is running, the battery functions as a reserve power source in case the vehicle’s electrical requirements exceed the charging system’s capacity, and also as a stabilizer to even out voltage spikes.

A cross-section of a lead acid battery. Source: Ben Cossalter / CC BY-SA 3.0A cross-section of a lead acid battery. Source: Ben Cossalter / CC BY-SA 3.0Automotive batteries are not designed for deep discharging. A typical start drains less than three percent of a battery’s capacity. A deep discharge, which can occur when a vehicle’s lights or other electrical components are accidentally left on for a long period, can drastically reduce the battery’s life and capabilities.

Types and Costs

Wet/flooded lead acid batteries are by far the most popular auto battery and typically cost between $80 and $200. This design uses six cells consisting of lead plates submerged in a sulfuric acid electrolytic solution. A chemical reaction in the cells causes an electron-releasing chemical reaction, and as the battery discharges the acidic electrolyte reacts with the lead plates, forming lead sulfate. Recharging the battery reverses this reaction, restoring a lead dioxide coating to the anode plates.

Wet lead acid batteries are economical and effective but are particularly susceptible to failure due to deep discharge. A single deep discharge coats the lead plate electrodes with sulfate deposits, reducing their effectiveness during future uses. The highly toxic and corrosive acid electrolyte can also leak as a result of extremely cold weather, overcharging or battery damage.

While lead acid batteries are widely accepted as car batteries, there are several other types that attempt to improve on their shortcomings.

Valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries are a subtype of lead acid battery with safeguards against electrolyte leakage and cost between $120 and $250. They contain integral pressurized safety valves that contain the gas in the battery and stop fluid loss. Gel-type VRLA batteries integrate fumed silica into the electrolyte, making it gel-like to reduce electrolyte evaporation and spillage and to increase shock resistance. A second type, absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries contain the electrolyte in glass mats rather than flooding the plates. This enables better self-discharging characteristics and reduces leakage. Quality AGM car batteries typically cost between $150 and $300.

Calcium-calcium batteries are also essentially enhanced lead acid types that replace the antimony in the plate grid with calcium. This modification reduces electrolyte loss, reduces self-discharge and extends shelf-life. Unfortunately, they reduce electrolyte loss by minimal gassing during recharge. Because gassing helps mix the acid, calcium-calcium batteries often experience uneven acid weight within their electrolytes, which can lead to even worse deep discharge characteristics and premature failure. Calcium batteries usually cost slightly more than a conventional lead acid battery.

Porsche's lightweight lithium-ion starter battery. Source: PorschePorsche's lightweight lithium-ion starter battery. Source: PorscheLithium-ion batteries are rare as starter batteries, but certain high-performance or luxury cars employ them. In 2009 Porsche announced the first lithium-ion starter battery as an option on certain 2010 911 and Boxster sports cars. The battery offers several advantages over lead-acid ones. Weighing less than 13 pounds, the new battery is more than 22 pounds lighter than a conventional 60 Ah lead battery Because the lithium-ion battery’s electrolyte composition is independent of its charge status, it offers nearly 100 percent of its total capacity compared to 30 percent in a lead-acid type.

This specialized performance comes at a steep price, though: Porsche listed the option at $1,700 in 2009.

Used Batteries

Some retail outlets and auto shops resell used car batteries for significantly less than new ones. As with buying any used item with a set end-of-life, this is a risky proposition.

Many used battery retailers claim to test batteries before reselling to ensure they still work. Even if the resellers did test the batteries, battery load testing is not always reliable and many bad batteries actually test as good. Conversely, though, many discarded batteries tested to be bad are actually good for more use, so a consumer could get lucky by retrieving a thrown-out battery assumed to be bad.

A major upside to buying new batteries is that they are usually under warranty. Battery manufacturers usually stand by their products and often offer a no-questions-asked free replacement, often up to three years or more post-purchase. While a $25 used battery beats a $100 new one, most motorists would gladly pay an extra $75 to avoid the likelihood of being stranded with a dead vehicle.

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Discussion – 5 comments

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Re: Higher-Cost Car Batteries: for trucks -- ultracapacitors
2017-Sep-21 11:47 AM

Consider Maxwell Technologies ESM12300031 Ultracapacitor Engine Start Module -- Although it is expensive, This product will allow a truck or generator diesel engine to start with a completely discharged battery system at -20C to start. The charge is stored on several 3000 Farad (yes Farad) ultra-capacitors. An integrated circuit balances the discharge of the capacitors as they discharge when the starting load is called for. The unit replaces one of four batteries typically installed in a Truck or Gen-set. Check it out!

Re: Higher-Cost Car Batteries: Better Batteries or Ripoffs?
2017-Sep-21 10:56 PM

Lead acid batteries are Junk,they always have been Junk, (Sulphation) is the Big problem,and when you Desulphate them,you must also remove the Non returned, Lead Sulphate, from the electrolyte/Acid,you must then add new electrolyte/Acid, to clean it up after removing it.They are temperature sensitive, to Sulphation above or below 78 Degrees F. Nickel Iron Batteries Ni/Fe from China, ordered via the Alibaba website has been the way Most Solar off Grid homes, are going,Chinese manufacturers make a 12 Volt vehicle Ni/Fe Battery.The Price of US Ni/Fe Batteries is why were forced to buy them from China.There is only one Edison type Ni/Fe Battery manufacturer in the US in Montana, and they are very expensive.The Maxwell Ultra Capacitor modules, are a nice, alternative to Batteries, but there expensive as well. We need the Standard Nickel Iron Edison type Battery for Cars,Better yet a (DIY) a Do It Yourself version, which uses High Nickel Stainless Steel, and Iron version, we can make our selves.For both Cars, and for Off Grid Power Storage Batteries. Now if someone can make a Ultra Capacitor Module, which can pulse it's current out, in a Steady state current,from several UC Banks, say Like a Mosfet H- Bridge setup,in a dual Battery/UC Module,and this module could sustain a steady current,while charging the UC's,Maxwell's Modules do this,but not cheaply,and there not large enough,for Off Grid Storage.Battery/Inverter systems which need a great deal of Capacity the Ni/Fe from China are Rated up to 1000 Ah's.Yes need an (Economical) replacement for the Lead Acid Battery, and we need it Now.

Re: Higher-Cost Car Batteries: Better Batteries or Ripoffs?
In reply to #2
2017-Oct-02 10:21 PM

the nife batteries have a very long life time , we used to repair them after they get shorts, we used in eastern Europe Russian made nife batteries in the end of the past century which we salvaged from WWII tanks, here in the US the last nife factory was closed down after a led-acid battery manufacturer purchased it ad closed down the formidable competitor --the nife battery does not fit the America business model it last to long, environmental friendly and if it is produced in large quantities it is much less expensive that the led acid battery, also are much more robust, more reliable, because of that aircraft, telecommunication companies and railways still using it. It requires a bit different charging system that led-acid batteries, but with modern solid-state circuits it is not one issue.

Re: Higher-Cost Car Batteries: Better Batteries or Ripoffs?
2017-Sep-22 12:52 PM

John Goodenough, a Professor at the University of Texas, and his Team,of Engineers, has developed a (Solid State Battery) which uses a Glass Electrolyte I,am assuming a Doped Glass?,for use of the Ions in the Glass at the Junctions somewhat like a Transistor . If this SSB can be coupled with, Maxwell Ultra Capacitors, to form an Ultra Capacitor Module/Battery, this would be a Better Battery.The Article is at ( it's just a non technical article. We need to use a "Reverse Bias Semiconductor", in a NON Destructive Breakdown,or Avalanche current mode. I propose using Cintered Nano Carbon,for it's massive surface area, the Maxwell Ultra capacitors, should also use the Nano Carbon spheres as well,for the pocket plate material,this would then have a uniform size, and uniform pocket plate area, which at present the pocket plate material used in the Maxwell UC's material, does not yet use at present,also the 6 electrical contact points of carbon, ensure contact with surrounding (Nano spheres),since Carbon Nano Tubes are not yet able to be manufactured on a large scale. A doped Glass electrolyte, and the Nano Carbon coconut shell Carbon spheres,which are one of the cintered electrodes,i would also use plates, made of many micro machined,Taylor cones, Taylor cone 1/2 angle Sharpened points,used as a (Lens),(Lensing) charges into a Coherent Beam,or cooper pairing, were any two or more Likes, can attract.To increase the Charge energy/Density.

Re: Higher-Cost Car Batteries: Better Batteries or Ripoffs?
2017-Nov-01 12:29 PM

While we wish for something better than the venerable lead-acid battery, most of us must still put up with them in our motor vehicles. I have found that the greatest reliability issue is corrosion of the terminals and cable ends. The source of this corrosion appears to be leakage of small amounts of battery electrolyte through microscopic cracks in the seal around the battery posts. The cracks are caused by radial (sideways) torque on the battery posts generated while tightening or loosening the battery clamp bolt. I've had very good success preventing the cracking and corrosion by firmly gripping the cable end of the terminal and applying a counter-torque to the force exerted by the wrench on the clamp bolt (think of it as preventing the battery post from bending, and you'll get the proper direction and magnitude of the counter-torque). Of course, if you already have terminal corrosion issues, the horse has left the barn, and you'll have to remember this when you replace the battery.

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