How long do car batteries last?

Batteries, like tires, are wear-and-tear parts that need to be replaced periodically. I’ve never seen or heard of a battery that lasted for the full life of the car it was originally installed in. How long it holds a charge depends on several factors, like the type of car it’s installed in, the number of miles put on it daily, and the climate it operates in.

On average, a new battery lasts about five years in ideal conditions, though your mileage may vary. By ideal conditions, we mean that the car’s electrical system is in tip-top shape, that the battery regularly goes through full charging cycles, and that it’s not subjected to extreme temperatures on a regular basis.

To elaborate, your car’s electrical system consists of many parts like the alternator, the voltage regulator, plus a real latticework of wires and grounds. An issue with any of the above could shorten your battery’s life expectancy if it’s ignored. Preventive maintenance goes a long way. Keep an eye out for early warning signs, like headlights that dim when you turn on the heater, or instrument panel lights that are markedly dimmer than the day you bought the car.

As for full charging cycles, keep in mind your car’s 12-volt battery dispenses a significant amount of electricity to zap the starter motor into motion every time you start the engine. If your commute is half a mile long, the alternator might not have time to recharge the battery before you reach your destination and turn off the engine. We’re not saying you should live further from work, but if you only drive short distances, take your car on a 20- to 30-minute trip every now and then to ensure the battery gets the full charge it needs.

The effect that freezing-cold temperatures have on a car battery are relatively well known. An engine requires more energy to start when the thermometer dips into the 20s, or below, partly because the oil gets thicker. At the same time, the cold makes the battery less effective. It’s weaker, yet it needs to work harder, and that’s not a good combination. What many motorists don’t realize is that hot weather takes an even greater toll on their car’s battery, and the cause of a dead battery in November might be the July heat. While starting is often easier in the summer, rising temperatures under the hood — where many batteries are located — cause the water in the electrolyte solution to evaporate, and cause the plates to corrode.

This is less of a worry if your battery is in the trunk, or under the rear seat, though it will still get hot. And, ultimately, there’s not a lot you can do to keep it cool. The best measures you can take are to test your battery regularly, preferably in the spring and in the fall, and to keep a set of jumper cables in the trunk, or under one of the front seats.

What happens if your battery dies?

how to change a car battery
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

A dead car battery is no reason to panic. Even if you don’t know much about cars, there are tons of solutions you can work through to get you and your vehicle to a local shop or back to your house. 

If your car has a manual transmission, you can start it by pushing it, putting it in second gear, and releasing the clutch once you’ve built up enough speed. Note you’ll probably need at least one helper to pull this off. Alternatively, a good set of jumper cables and a second car will channel enough electricity to your battery for it to turn the starter motor. There are also jumper packs that achieve the same result without needing the second car.

Lastly, changing a car battery is easier than it sounds. In most cases, you should be able to get your car going in a matter of minutes with a few basic tools and a little bit of knowledge backing you up.

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