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Dead Car Battery? Cold Weather, Electronics Could be Your Problem

AAA: The life span of an automotive battery has historically been defined as 3-5 years. However, with the increase in electronics within vehicles the full life is moving a lot closer to 3 years.

At zero degrees, a car’s battery loses about 60 percent of its strength, yet the engine needs about twice as much power to start. (Photo courtesy of AAA)
At zero degrees, a car’s battery loses about 60 percent of its strength, yet the engine needs about twice as much power to start. (Photo courtesy of AAA)

Originally posted by Mary Ann Barton (Editor) 

Successive bouts of frigid temperatures are delivering a devastating knockout punch to car batteries across the region. As a result, the number of emergency roadside assistance service calls for battery troubles across the region to the switchboard at AAA Mid-Atlantic’s nerve center has skyrocketed throughout the week.

Dead or dying batteries are always the biggest reasons for the tremendous surge in roadside assistance calls during a cold snap.  Adding to our battery woes this cold snap – those always-on electronic devices and smartphones plugged into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter socket. Those plug-in devices are straining and draining our car batteries, warns the auto club.

“When temperatures plummet, automotive failures skyrocket. Calls for battery jump starts and assistance with frozen locks are the top ranked reasons for calls to AAA,” said John B. Townsend II, or AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs.  “In frigid weather like this, weak car batteries are the first to go, so it’s worth having your battery checked – and if you’ve postponed vehicle maintenance, now is the time to take care of it.”


Cold weather is especially hard on car batteries.  According to AAA’s Automotive Research Center, at 0°F, a car’s battery loses about 60 percent of its strength and at 32°F it loses 35 percent. During cold temperatures starting an engine can take up to twice as much current as needed under normal conditions.  It is advisable to have your battery tested, as well as your starting and charging systems prior to the deep cold of winter.

“The life span of an automotive battery has historically been defined as 3-5 years. However, with the increase in electronics within vehicles the full life is moving a lot closer to 3 years,” explained Jack Reynolds, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Battery Program Manager. “Surprisingly, although heat causes more damage to batteries than cold weather, starting a vehicle in cold weather puts more strain on it.  The cumulative impact of various factors over time allows cold weather to ultimately end the useful life of a battery.” 

 Warning signs that you are at risk for a battery related breakdown include the following:

  • You hear a grinding or clicking sound when you turn on the ignition,
  • Your vehicle cranks slowly when attempting to start.
  • Your headlights dim when idling but brighten when the engine is revved.
  • Your battery is more than three (3) years old.

Car batteries are an electro-chemical process so they have inherent limitations and are impacted by endless variables impacting their performance. For example, the life of a battery depends on the climate you live in, length of time electronic accessories are plugged into your vehicle, and how far and often you drive your vehicle.

While three to five years is a typical life span, various internal and environmental conditions impact a battery’s long term health.  Periodic inspection, testing, and cleaning are suggested and monitoring the use of accessories and electronic devices when your car is not running can help maximize its longevity. When your car is not running, the battery continues to supply power to the clock, the anti-theft system, and the other conveniences in modern cars. Accessories, like smartphones and tablets, can add to the drain.

 “Unplug mobile phones, tablets, chargers and other electronic devices when you don’t need them, especially when the car is turned off,” says Reynolds. “While the car battery does not ‘run down’ immediately if a device is being charged while the engine is not running, it’s capacity over time can decrease from the cumulative effect of multiple devices drawing current from it.”

 CAR BATTERY FAST FACTS

 Why do car batteries die?

  •  It is a fact of life: cold weather is a battery killer.  Make sure the battery terminals and cables are securely attached and free of corrosion.  A load test performed by a qualified technician will help determine if a car’s battery is strong enough for cold weather starts.
  • At zero degrees, a car’s battery loses about 60 percent of its strength, yet the engine needs about twice as much power to start!
  • Add to the mix extra items we plug into our cars (cell phone chargers, upgraded audio, and GPS devices) and a battery’s life can be drained even faster.  Even at 32 degrees, a battery is 35 percent weaker. 

AAA Mid-Atlantic offers battery replacement service through its roadside assistance operations and at select Approved Auto Repair (AAR) facilities throughout the region.  To request service call 1-800-AAA-HELP or for a battery price quote visit https://midatlantic.aaa.com/Automotive/MobileBattery.

AAA Mid-Atlantic advocates on behalf of its nearly four million members in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It provides a wide range of personal insurance, travel, financial and automotive services through its 50-plus retail branches, regional operations centers, and the Internet.  For more information, please visit our web site at www.AAA.com.           

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