We’ve probably all had this experience at one time or another. You head out to the garage to start up your boat, motorcycle, ATV, UTV or snowmobile for the first run of the year, turn the key, and hear that dreaded “click, click, click,” or worse yet, nothing. A dead battery can spoil a day you hoped would be the start of your season, but there are a few things you can do to prevent it from happening to you.
Here are 10 tips to help avoid the dreaded dead battery:
The number one way to prevent dead batteries is by keeping your vehicle plugged into a low-amperage battery maintainer or “trickle charger” whenever it’s not in use, even during the season. These “smart” chargers constantly monitor the voltage and level of charge in the battery and cycle on and off only when needed to keep the battery fully charged. There are many brands and styles of these, ranging from as small as 1.5 amp all the way up to 200-amp-and-higher units capable of charging larger batteries and jumpstarting dead batteries in cars and large trucks. For ease of use, wire a quick-disconnect harness directly to the battery terminals so all you need to do is plug the wall charger into the harness rather than fussing with removing body panels or battery clamps to hook it up. On a boat, opt for an onboard charger that you can plug in every time you return home and leave connected.
A portable multimeter that measures AC and DC voltage and amperage is handy for measuring the state of battery charge, the functioning of the charging system and checking for shorts and drains. It’s a must-have for the DIYer.
A dead battery can be a one-time problem or a symptom of a larger issue, such as a power drain or malfunctioning charging system. If you suspect your battery is not being fully charged when the engine is running, a simple way to check it is with your multimeter. Hook up the leads to the positive and negative terminals and check the voltage with the engine off and again when running. A fully charged battery should read at least 12 volts when the engine is off and about 14 volts when the engine is running. Voltage that does not increase when the engine is running or revved up is a sign of a malfunctioning alternator.
A common cause of battery-related issues on powersports equipment running multiple aftermarket accessories is an inability of the vehicle’s charging system to keep up with the load from all those extra power demands, especially at idle and low speeds when the alternator output is lower. Accessories such as heated grips and seats, GPS units, phone chargers, fish finders, accessory lights and more can easily overpower the ability of the charging system to keep up with the load. If you suspect your charging system can’t keep up, you may need to remove some accessories or investigate if a higher capacity optional alternator is available for your vehicle.
Even if your battery is fully charged, loose, damaged or corroded battery cables, or a bad ground connection to the engine or chassis, can cause starting problems. Before suspecting the battery itself, make sure all connections are tight and clean and that there are no frayed or corroded wires.
Factory and aftermarket accessories such as radios, clocks and other devices that are “always on” even when the ignition is switched off can create a constant drain on the battery whenever the vehicle sits unused. This isn’t usually a problem for vehicles that see frequent use, but for those that sit unused for long periods of time, these small amp draws can cause even a healthy battery to go flat. An easy way to check for drains is to disconnect the negative battery cable and connect a multimeter set to measure amperage between the battery’s negative terminal and cable terminal. Any reading above zero amps indicates some parasitic battery drain is present. To isolate the source, pull fuses one at a time to identify the related circuit.
When removing or replacing the battery, always clean the terminals on the battery and cables with a stiff wire brush, sandpaper or coarse steel wool to ensure the connections are free of corrosion and making good contact.
A great way to keep your batteries protected is to install a cutoff switch in the main powerline between the battery and vehicle. This will help prevent any parasitic power drains from discharging the battery during long-term storage. Fish finders especially will continue to “ping” the transducer when not in use. Installing a cutoff switch on that circuit is a good addition when wiring up a boat. A switch also makes vehicle maintenance easier and safer by eliminating the need to disconnect the main connections when working on the engine or chassis.
Most newer vehicles use fully sealed AGM lead-acid or lithium ion batteries, but many older models still use refillable batteries with external vents. Over time, battery acid can leak or evaporate out of the case, causing the internal lead plates to be exposed. As part of your annual maintenance, check the acid level and top off as needed.
If you have access to heated storage, batteries can be left in the vehicle on a maintenance charger during the off season. However, if you only have cold or outside storage, it’s better to remove the battery and keep it in a warm, dry location such as a basement.
Age and use will inevitably take their toll on your powersports equipment batteries, requiring occasional replacement, but following these basic tips can go a long way toward preventing unexpected headaches when outdoor adventures call.