Understanding your battery...
Understanding your battery and its components will go along way to ensuring you don't have a problem, and will also help save you some money over the long haul.
I happened to incur irony at its finest last weekend. You see, last weekend for us was our second race of the year and, while running seventh about 75 laps in to our 250-lap race, the engine sputtered like it was out of gas, and then shut off. I thought for certain I had blown it. We checked and checked for a problem underneath the hood and then finally someone thought to change the battery. Bang! The engine fired right back up. I remember thinking to myself, Wow this is ironic. When I get home from the race I have to write a story called "Battery Basics." It turns out that it wasn't necessarily a battery problem, but rather an alternator problem. However, I can assure you that the battery and alternator will not go unchecked from here on out.
The truth is, I should have been able to diagnose the problem even before we got to the racetrack, but it got me thinking about how many people have encountered problems such as this. Truth be told I'm sure that it's more than just me. In fact, if someone hadn't thought to change the battery we might have had the problem next week. Understanding your battery a little better could go a long way to ensuring that you don't have these types of problems.
These GM-style battery terminals...
These GM-style battery terminals are ideal for dirt racing. They can withstand the rough and bumpy environment thanks to their screw-in design. Cables can come loose from traditional post terminals, making for a long evening.
I caught up with Cam Douglass, Director of Product Development for Optima Batteries to get some very important questions answered regarding batteries. These questions might seem basic, but I believe if you can grasp the basics of battery maintenance, storage, and charging, then it will not only extend the life of your batteries, but will also help save you money. Optima Batteries makes batteries for every application; and are the choice of many racers around the country, not only for their race car, but also for their tow vehicle. So without further ado, let the questions begin.
1. What makes up a battery and what type do I need?
Ramey Wormer, a writer for Circle Track once described the battery as "the fuel tank for the wiring and electrical system." There are a few different designs when it comes to batteries, but the big three are Wet Cell (flooded), Gel Cell, and AGM. These are all versions of the lead acid battery. The Wet Cell comes in two styles: serviceable and maintenance-free. Both are filled with electrolytes. The downside to the wet cell is they have a tendency to leak if they are involved in an accident or get turned the wrong way.
Now the Gel Cell and the AGM batteries are specialty batteries that typically cost twice as much as a premium wet cell. However, what you give up with the cost you gain back in increased safety. They store extremely well and don't tend to sulfate or degrade as easily as a wet cell. There's little chance of a hydrogen gas explosion or corrosion when using these batteries.
When mounting your battery...
When mounting your battery ensure that it is securely fastened to the battery box. The battery on our Dirt Late Model uses a piece of angle that extends the length of the front of the battery.
2. What do I need: 16-volt or 12-Volt?
Well that depends on the application. If you're planning on running a Street Stock without the alternator, then I would suggest a 16-volt battery because it will provide a better and hotter spark to the engine for a longer time. That hotter spark could require a jet change in the carb to deliver more fuel to the cylinders in order to maximize combustion.
On the flip side, we run a 12-volt Optima Red Top in our Project Dirt Late Model. The 362ci motor doesn't have an alternator and we have two years of trouble-free performance from the red top. If you have questions, the best thing to do is speak to your engine builder to determine what battery to run.
3. What does AGM mean?
AGM stands for Absorbent Glass-Mat. Manufacturers have developed AGM technology, which provides long life and less chance for failure due to the elimination of the plates normally found in a battery. The AGM battery is sealed and poses no risk of acid leakage. This allows for teams to mount the battery whichever direction is best and easiest for them without worries of the battery leaking.
4. I don't need to charge the battery because the alternator does it for me . . . right?
Understand, alternators are not chargers. Don't rely on your alternator to do the work of a charger. An alternator is meant to maintain a battery, not charge it. If you're running an alternator you really need to throw the battery charger on it after every weekend. This will not only ensure that you show up at the track with a charged battery but it will help keep your battery holding a consistent charge.
Choose a racing battery based...
Choose a racing battery based on its ability to withstand harsh racing conditions. The Optima Red Top we run on our Project Dirt Late Model has given us years of trouble-free service. Because we'll be running longer races with our new Late Model under construction, we'll be switching to the deep cycle Yellow Top.
5. My battery is dead, can it be saved and make it one more week?
Think twice before you recycle a battery that you think is bad. That very same battery might be able to be saved. In many cases, Optima batteries that are assumed to be bad may actually be perfectly fine, just deeply discharged.
The great thing about AGM batteries is that they have incredibly low internal resistance. This allows very high amperage output and for the battery to accept a charge very quickly.
The best method for recharging a deeply discharged AGM battery is to purchase a modern charger that has kept up with battery technology. Many chargers now have AGM-specific settings and desulfation steps that help recondition and recover deeply discharged AGM batteries. These are becoming more common, and they work well for all lead acid batteries. They have the additional capability of doubling as a battery "maintainer" for vehicle storage. Some come with additional wiring to permanently attach leads from your battery to an accessible spot on your vehicle. This makes it easy to hook up when you store your car.
6. How do I properly charge my battery?
Remember, newer chargers keep up with battery technology. Many newer battery chargers, or Smart Chargers, have microprocessors that collect information from the battery and adjust the current and voltage accordingly. Some have different settings for charging wet cell, gel, and AGM batteries. But if you can't afford a new charger, low and slow is best. A low-amp charger (1 to 10 amps) is always the best choice for charging any lead acid battery. It's quicker to charge at higher amperage, but it also generates a lot of heat, which reduces the life of a battery, just like the raging heat of summer.
Naturally, after every race...
Naturally, after every race you should carefully clean your battery. We're about halfway there after a visit to North Florida Speedway in Lake City, FL.
7. What is Sulfation?
Sulfation is the battery's performance limiter. Sulfation is quite simply the formation of lead sulfate crystals upon discharge. All lead acid batteries can experience sulfation. Look for a charger with a desulfation mode to help condition your battery and keep it performing at its best.
8. If I'm not planning on racing for a long period of time, how do I store the battery?
All batteries gradually lose their charge when stored over long periods of time. However, AGM batteries lose their charge much more slowly. This helps to prevent the battery from becoming overly discharged during storage, but it won't completely protect it from damage. You could take the battery out of the car and store it over the winter but first check the voltage to ensure the battery has a full charge. If it's not fully charged, give it a boost prior to storage.
Then, you can either loosen the negative terminal and disconnect it from the battery, or take the battery out of the vehicle. Either way, all the electrical draw on the battery will cease and your battery will be protected. In spring, the battery will have drained some but should still have enough power to start your vehicle. Don't leave it up to the alternator to fully recharge the battery though; that's not what it's for. Instead, use a battery charger to top it off. You'll extend the life of the battery by doing this.
9. Batteries will be good for a lifetime right? Unfortunately, batteries eventually die. Batteries are a consumable product. No battery will last forever. The goal is to consistently maintain your battery to get the most life out of it. If you keep a steady eye on the charge and store it properly you can extend the life of your battery and save yourself money over the long haul.
This modern charger is compact...
This modern charger is compact in size and allows you to choose between different amperage settings.
10. Can I charge my battery at the racetrack?
I would hope you would. This could help eliminate problems at the track. But there are some circumstances that would prevent you from charging the battery in the pits. If you are "bumping" the engine over to adjust the valves, this will cause the charger to surge and can blow out the circuit board in the charger. The charger is constantly sensing the voltage and adjusting it while it charges. When you turn the engine over, this causes the voltage in the battery to drop very quickly, which will in turn signal the charger to increase the amperage immediately and could harm the charger. Also, if you're warming up the engine, this could lead to the same type of damage from bumping the engine over.
Most battery problems result from someone not taking the time to properly maintain the battery. Yes, batteries will eventually die on you, but if you monitor your charge, and keep a close eye on what is happening to them you can avoid these common and basic problems. And when that battery does finally give up, make sure that you dispose of it properly. Millions of batteries end up in landfills every year, leaching toxic chemicals into the environment. County recycling centers will happily take your dead battery for free, and auto parts retailers will take your old battery when you buy a new one.