The Buzz on Batteries

Dec 2, 2009

Batteries are the original “plug and play” part. Customers buy one and trust it to do the job. Batteries are also one of the fastest evolving products we sell and we need to tout those new advances. And there are many. From getting away from the original lead-acid construction to, yes, carbon fiber, this product is rapidly changing. We asked a number of the players in this market for their input and it proved to be quite illuminating.

What’s Selling?

First, we asked what’s selling these days. Kaylan Jana of Odyssey Batteries hit the major points, “Reliability and cost of ownership. Most consumers recognize that in general you get what you pay for and there are no free lunches. A technically superior product will likely cost more initially but that extra cost is ultimately recovered because it lasts much longer than its cheaper rival. A product that costs one and a half times its competitor but delivers double the life is cheaper in the long run. And that precisely is the kind of price/life relationship that is winning over more and more consumers to Odyssey batteries.”

Brian Turk of Turbo Start Batteries says, “The biggest items that are selling are the 16 volt sealed maintenance-free racing batteries and the restoration batteries for your show car. The Turbo Start 16 Volt Racing Battery is the original 16 Volt Battery made in America and has led the industry for over 15 years. The reproduction batteries are also big sellers for the customer looking for that 100 point show car or just a great battery that looks original for the local weekend car show. These batteries are available for cars from the 1900s to 1974.”

Cam Douglass of Optima Batteries touches on product sales by saying that his company’s Optima YellowTop battery sales are very good right now.

“Even though our industry is challenged with tough economic times, consumers are still spending money. The opportunity is to ensure the consumer is well informed on how his purchase will make his dollar last longer. Buying the right, high quality components will always support higher purchase satisfaction.”

Some customers are in the market for new, innovative products. Ray Ferreira of Braille Batteries says that ultra-lightweight carbon fiber batteries are a big seller.

“The six-pound battery is selling to the die-hard racer who is looking to shave off every ounce possible on his racecar. The 11.5- and 15-pound batteries are selling to the racer with a larger displacement engine that needs a little more reserve to power some accessories. This consumer may be driving his car on the street and is a weekend racer with a four- or six-cylinder engine. This type of battery is the hottest seller with the tuner crowd, as it looks great and has a dual purpose.”

Ferreira continues by explaining that the 21-pound is going in drag and big block v8 racecars. They are also original equipment on some special Pratt & Miller Corvettes and are used by winning NASCAR and American Le Mans teams.

“This battery is our second most popular because it is half the weight of a traditional battery and has more power,” says Ferreira. “The custom car audio industry is also taking advantage of this type of battery as it has more power, can be mounted anywhere and the carbon fiber design adds to the overall look.”

Common Mistakes

Next, we asked about the most common mistakes with batteries. Gale Kimbrough of Interstate Batteries provides one with, “A battery is a battery, correct? No! Battery types are built very vehicle-specific. You can choose a good, better or best in some situations. However, do not purchase a battery that doesn’t: 1) meet the vehicle’s starting requirements in CCA (Cold Cranking Amps), and 2) physically fit the design parameters of the vehicle even though it may be cheaper to purchase. The vehicle’s electrical/electronic system may not function or perform correctly if the battery is not the correct size and performance for the vehicle.”

Turk believes the most common mistake is the customer looking for the highest cold crank and thinking he’s getting the best battery he needs.

“The other mistake I see is customer maintenance and not taking care of the battery during storage or when they have an off-season.”

Optima’s Douglas lists three mistakes, the first of which is choosing the wrong type. “One of the most common mistakes is using a ‘starting’ battery in an application where the battery is in deep cycle. The eventual result of choosing a starting battery in a deep cycle application is short battery life.”

Storage and maintenance is another issue, according to Douglas. He says if you are using your battery in an application where your vehicle is not used daily and you do not use a battery maintenance device, chances are good that your Optima is never receiving a full charge.

“Starting your vehicle for short durations a couple of times a week during storage is actually worse for the battery than letting it sit,” explains Douglas. “Unless you actually take the vehicle for an extended drive at highway speeds for a decent amount of time, the energy it takes to start the car may exceed the energy you are putting back in. With that said, no matter what type of battery you use, it is highly recommended that you use some type of ‘battery maintainer’.”

Finally, Douglas says charging can be a common mistake.

“An Optima Battery is not a ‘Gel’ battery nor is it a regular flooded acid battery,” he says. “A deeply discharged Optima Battery (less than 10.5 volts) will not test or recharge properly if treated as a regular flooded battery or Gel battery.”

Jana agrees that charging can sometimes be an issue. She says, “Improper charging is without a doubt the most common mistake madewhen it comes to batteries. Unless a battery is correctly charged one cannot expect the battery to last as long as it was originally designed.”

And, lastly, one major misidentification with batteries is the belief that bigger is better. Ferreira says, “With new batteries weighing half of traditional batteries and putting out more power, it is one of the best ways to make a car more efficient by saving weight, which also means better fuel economy.”

What’s New?

Finding about what’s new is something customers are always thirsty for. Turk sees the newest trends as “everyone going green and getting away from acid and lead.” Axion Power Battery/Turbo Start is currently working on the newest technology in the industry and that is replacing lead with carbon.

“The other new trend that has caught on is the AGM (Absorbent Glass Mat) battery,” continues Turk. “This battery is a sealed maintenance free battery that is not flooded with acid.”

Kimbrough of Interstate tells about new styles. “Some of the batteries offered today are AGM batteries that offer high cranking power, zero maintenance, and additional vibration resistance for on-road and off. They are completely sealed and can be placed in various areas in the vehicle where some batteries may be restricted. Some vehicle manufacturers have chosen to place batteries in various places like in the trunk, under the passenger seat or the rear seat. Many of these require an AGM-sealed battery.”

According to Jana the big movers are batteries that are versatile and abuse-tolerant at the same time.

“By versatile, Imeana battery that can deliver high engine cranking amps at extreme temperatures as well asprovidea significant number of deep discharge cycles. Traditional battery design focuses on one or the other characteristic. Batteries designed for high cranking amps such as conventional starting, lighting and ignition (SLI) applications do not cycle and reactbadly when forced to do so. Conversely, batteries designed for deep cycling do not offer high cranking amps as a standard feature.”

Douglas believes that in order to understand what’s new in batteries, we need to understand that we are using automotive batteries differently than we used to.

“Nickel metal, lithium ion and some other high tech solutions are obviously big in EV and hybrid cars,” says Douglas, “but lead acid technology is so good (performance, cost and environmentally friendly) that it will remain the standard for cars with a fuel engine.”

Douglas summarizes by saying the newest technology is AGM batteries with both high CCA and greatly enhanced cycle life. But he says we also can’t forget new sizes as space requirements and weight is a big concern. Optima has just released a true group 78 battery for GM vehicles and a new group 27 will be released about the time this article will be printed.

The Future

This all leads up to the question about the future of batteries. Jana believes that, “Based onthe continuing successof Odyssey batteries, one can assume more sizes will be built, offering more customers the proven benefits of the TPPL technology in extreme conditions or much longer life and reliability in more benign applications.”

Turk points back to the issue of technology as batteries are being built with other materials besides lead and acid.

“This also opens the market up to the lightweight battery with the same power as the standard lead acid battery,” he says. “The lightweights that we see now are generally batteries with less lead or less plates or even smaller plates with plastic in the bottom of the case to fill the void.”

Douglas sees the future with more AGM batteries with deep cycle capability in more sizes. “Smaller sizes are always on our most requested items list. We are working on them.”

According to Ferreira, the future is literally changing by the day with new battery technology. “At the moment, the AGM style battery is the evolution of the old lead acid type. The next trend will be in lithium ion batteries. The key to success for this type of battery will depend upon the type of material used and its lifecycle as well as concerns over the impact of its material on the environment. Cost is also a factor as these batteries are expensive to produce, but this will change as technology advances. Most of the advances in this type of technology are for hybrid vehicles. With the recent demand for hybrid vehicles, automotive manufacturers are working on producing more models with this option. Braille Battery is in the process of developing batteries for a hybrid racecar which will benefit the average hybrid consumer. Throughout history, new ideas in race technology have furthered the development of passenger cars, and we believe the success of a hybrid racecar will help to launch a revolution in hybrid technology.”

“Batteries are continuing to improve through chemical and structural technology,” says Kimbrough. “Continued improvements on lead-acid batteries as well as newer chemistries like lithium ion and nickel-based batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles are becoming more widespread in today’s market.”

Another aspect comes from Douglas as he points out that, “Other important battery related items are upgraded alternators and battery chargers. When the customer is in your shop it is typically the best time to add accessories. Even though our company does not have a charger line yet, I always recommend that racers and enthusiasts have a good quality battery charger. The best way to extend any automotive batteries life is to keep it fully charged. AGM batteries hold their voltage better during storage but they will self discharge. Heat will accelerate this. Any battery that sits unused for any extended period should have a battery maintenance charger. These chargers are not expensive but they typically have good margin.”

Matt Ingram of CTEK Power Inc., who makes chargers and accessories, defines the market even further, “Battery chargers used to be something to use when you already had a problem – a dead battery.The designs reflected that; big, bulky and with uncontrolled power. They sparked, and this happened close to a potential bomb. Oxy-hydrogen gas in a container of lead and sulfuric acid, that’s tough as it is, and then bringing a device that could spark!The leap was to decide that it was better to avoid the problem instead of reacting when it has occurred. The modern designs of battery chargers reflect this, pioneered by CTEK. The goal was to provide a unit with: Superior charge algorithm, to increase the life and performance of the battery. Simplified and flexible handling. Elimination of sparks and fear of incorrect connection. Made for both outdoor and indoor use.”

Consider yourself fully charged, Sparky.