Motorcycle Battery Basics

Battery maintenance or trickle chargers are a good idea to keep your battery alive and wellThe commercial use of the lead acid battery is over 100 years old. The same chemical principal that is being used to store energy in your battery of today, is basically the same as when our Great Grandparents used the first batteries on their original Ford Model T’s. What exactly is a motorcycle battery anyway? When it comes to off road, or even on-road vehicles, it is the little device that can either start out, or end, your day of fun and recreation aboard your favorite off road toy.

Basically,  a battery, in concept, can be any device that stores energy for later use.  Even a rock, pushed to the top of a hill, can be considered a kind of battery, since the energy used to push it up the hill (chemical energy, from muscles or a combustion engine) is converted and stored as potential kinetic energy at the top of the hill.  Later, that energy is released as kinetic and thermal energy, when the rock rolls down the hill (hitting your riding buddy in the head of course). So in theory at least, that rock you just ran over and launched at him is a battery. With your help, of course.

ME A BATTERY? NO WAY

The common use of the word “battery,” however, is “an electro-chemical device that converts chemical energy into electricity, by use of a galvanic cell”. A galvanic cell is a fairly simple device consisting of two electrodes (an anode and a cathode) and an electrolyte solution. Car-type, lead/acid batteries are most common among all off road vehicles.

You might even remember in school, when you did the potato battery experiment. The potato science experiment involved sticking finger-length pieces of copper and zinc wire, one at a time, into a raw potato to create a battery. The wires carry a very weak current, thanks to Mr. Potato Head, which can be used to power a small electrical device. Of course, potato power, does not work so hot  on your dirt bike, ATV, or UTV.

SOME BATTERY TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW

All charged batteries will slowly lose their charge over time, even if they are not connected to a vehicle.  Moisture in the air, and the slight conductivity of the battery housing, will serve as a path for electrons to travel to the cathode, discharging the battery. The rate at which a battery loses power in this way is called the SELF DISCHARGE RATE.

Next, the CYCLE LIFE  of a battery is the number of discharge/recharge cycles the battery can sustain, with normal care and usage, before it can no longer hold a useful amount of charge. Check these out before you purchase a replacement battery for your ATV, dirt bike, or UTV.

BATTERY INFO

Here is what you can look for on any battery you purchase:  The name of the manufacturer. The ANSI Number (American National Standard Institute) -a voluntary standards system.  The date — this is the month and year that the battery was manufactured or the month and year that the battery “expires” (i.e., is no longer guaranteed by the manufacturer).  The Voltage — the nominal battery voltage of the battery.  The Polarity — which sides are the positive and negative terminals. The terminals must be clearly marked.  And finally, the Warnings –these pertain to warnings and cautions related to battery usage and disposal.

BATTERY PROPERTIES

Battery applications vary, as do considerations for selecting the correct battery for each application. When it comes to selecting a replacement battery for your off road vehicle, here are some things to consider.

*A: Chemistry — Which kind of battery chemistry is best for the application? Different chemistries will generate different voltages and currents.
*B: Is it Primary or Secondary — Primary batteries are most appropriate for applications where infrequent, high-energy output is required. Secondary batteries are most appropriate for use in devices that see steady periods of use and non-use.
*C: Standardization and Availability — Is there an existing battery design that meets the application needs? Will replacement batteries be available in the future? .
*D: Flexibility — Can the battery provide high or low currents over a wide range of conditions?
*E: Temperature Range — Can the battery provide adequate power over the expected temperature range for the application?
*F: Good Cycle Life — How many times can the rechargeable battery be discharged and recharged before it becomes unusable?
*G: Costs — How expensive is the battery to purchase? Does the battery require special handling?
*H: Voltage — What is the voltage of the battery? (Most galvanic cells produce voltages of between 1.0 and 2.0 volts).
*I: Safety — Battery components range from inert, to mildly corrosive, to highly toxic or flammable. The more hazardous components will require additional safety procedures to dispose of.
*J: Hidden Costs — Simpler manufacturing processes result in lower cost batteries. However, if a battery contains toxic or hazardous components, extra costs will be incurred to dispose of the battery safely after its use.

BATTERY CHARGERS AND TENDERS

Battery Tender offers a wide variety of tenders for dirt bikes, atvs, and even utvsIn general, lower charge rates will extend the overall life of your lead-acid battery. A battery can be damaged or de-graded if too much charge is administered at once. For lead acid batteries, a variety of slow, or trickle chargers are also available. Trickle chargers are generally insufficient to fully charge a dead battery. They are usually only applied after a battery is fully charged (using a greater charge rate) to help offset the self-discharge rate of the battery. Rather than simply leave your machine sitting in the garage, attaching a trickle charger can keep it up to par, without the slow discharge that any lead-acid battery will suffer from over time. Batteries on a trickle charger will maintain their full charge for months at a time. It is usually recommended that batteries on a trickle charger be fully discharged and recharged once every 6 to 12 months.

When a battery is in the final stages of charging, the current must be reduced to prevent damage to the battery. Many chargers offer current-limiting devices that will shut off or reduce the applied current when the battery reaches a certain percent of its charged potential. Slow charge rates  are the most-often recommended charge rate, since a battery can be recharged in less than a day, without significantly damaging or degrading the battery.

Slow charge rates can be applied to a battery for an indefinite period of time, meaning that the battery can be connected to the charger for days or weeks with no need for special shut- off or current-limiting equipment on the charger. The key issue in charging a battery is knowing when to stop charging. That is the value of using a trickle or  “Battery Tender” style charger. They have current- limiters built into them, that will slowly reduce the current as the battery is charged.

CHARGING & MAINTAINING LEAD-ACID BATTERIES

You can get battery chargers and tenders that fit into a compact kit that easily stories on your off road vehicleConstant potential charging, with current limiting, is usually recommended for sealed lead-acid cells. Due to the sloping voltage profile of a lead-acid battery, the voltage of the battery is a reliable indicator of its state of charge. In modern practice, current limiting is accomplished with integrated circuits on most lead-acid battery chargers.Battery maintenance is also an important issue. The battery on your off road vehicle should be cleaned using a baking soda and water solution; simply add a couple of table spoons of baking soda to a pint of water.  All the cable connections need to be cleaned and tightened, as battery problems are often caused by dirty and loose connections.

A serviceable battery needs to have the fluid level checked. Make sure you use only mineral free water, Distilled is best, as all impurities have been removed, and there is nothing in it that could contaminate your cells. Don’t overfill battery cells, especially in warmer weather, because the natural fluid expansion in hot weather can push excess electrolytes from the battery.

To prevent corrosion of cables on most top post lead-acid batteries, use a small bead of silicone sealer at the base of the post, and place a felt battery washer over it. Coat the washer with petroleum jelly (Vaseline), and then place the cable on the post and tighten.  Coat the exposed cable end with the grease.

BATTERY TESTING

Battery Testing can be done in more than one way. The most accurate method is measurement of specific gravity and battery voltage. To measure specific gravity, buy a temperature compensating hydrometer, available at most auto parts stores. You will  also need  to measure voltage, using a digital D.C. Voltmeter. A quality load tester can be purchased, if you need to test sealed batteries.

Before you do any tests, you must first fully charge the battery, and then remove the surface charge. If the battery has been sitting several hours , you may begin testing. To remove the surface charge, the battery must be discharged for several minutes. A good trick for this is to use a headlight (set on high beam). That  will do the trick. After turning off the light, you are ready to test the battery.

Amazingly, 80% of all battery failure is related to sulfation build-up. This build up occurs when the sulfur molecules in the electrolyte (battery acid) become so deeply discharged, that they begin to coat the battery’s lead plates. Before long the plates become so coated, that the battery dies. The causes of sulfation are numerous, but undercharging the battery, high heat, low electrolyte levels, and the lack of a energy minder, or Battery Tender, when not in use, are primary culprits.

NEW AGE BATTERY TECH

Another new battery technology, that is fast gaining in acceptance among recreational vehicle users, are Lithium-based batteries. These are ultra-lightweight and offer increased cranking power for the money. They also have two to four times the life span of conventional lead-acid batteries, so we can easily see why they are becoming popular with motorsport enthusiasts in these cost crunching times.

SHORAI LITHIUM-IRON BATTERIES

Pronounced “show-rye”, the Shorai LFX eXtreme Rate batteries are the latest generation lithium-based batteries on the marketplace. These new age powersport batteries offer  one of the best energy-to-weight ratios, no memory effect,  and a slow loss of charge when not in use. Lithium based batteries have been growing in popularity over the last few years. They are used for everything from military use, to electric vehicles, and even in aerospace,  primarily due to their high energy density, light weight, and faster recycle times.

Shorai LFX batteries contain  Lithium Iron prismatic cells, which contain no poisonous lead, no dangerous acid, and do not create explosive gasses during charge, as traditional lead-acid batteries can. When compared to lead-acid batteries, the Shorai LFX lithium batteries are also extremely lightweight, weighing almost 1/5 of what a conventional lead-acid battery does. They also  have much lower self-discharge, do not sulfate, and are environmentally friendly.

Another handy thing with these batteries is their easy fitment. The Shorai LFX lithium batteries either offer a perfect drop-in fit, for many vehicles, or you can use the high-density, adhesive-backed foam shims that are included in the package to get a precise, snug fit for most any battery size. These  shims are easy to install and can be applied to your vehicles battery box in a few minutes, to insure a perfect fit.

Cost-wise, they are comparably priced to most replacement OEM batteries, so you get a substantial savings in weight, with improved performance, and get  two to four times the longevity of a conventional lead-acid based battery.

BATTERY SAFETY TIPS!

*DO NOT: Let batteries sit too long between charges. As little as 24 hours in hot weather and several days in cooler weather can affect your battery life.
*DO NOT : Forget to make sure your battery is stored using some type of energy input.
*DO NOT: “Deep cycle” an engine starting battery. Remember these batteries can’t stand deep discharge.
*DO NOT: Undercharge a battery to only 90% of capacity, as this  will allow sulfation of the battery using the 10% of battery chemistry not reactivated by the incompleted charging cycle.
*DO NOT: Incure heat of 100 plus F., as this increases internal discharge. As temperatures increase so does internal discharge.
*DO NOT:  Allow low electrolyte level – battery plates exposed to air will immediately sulfate.
*DO NOT : Use incorrect charging levels and settings. Most cheap battery chargers can do more harm than good. Get a good unit, like a Battery Tender, or other name brand. See Chaparral catalog.
*DO NOT:  Use unregulated high output battery chargers to charge batteries.
*DO NOT:  Disconnect battery cables while the engine is running (your battery acts as a filter).
*DO NOT: Put off recharging batteries.
*DO NOT: Add tap water as it may contain minerals that will contaminate the electrolyte.
*DO NOT: Discharge a battery any deeper than you have to
*DO NOT: Let a battery get hot to the touch and boil violently when charging.
ALSO:

* Be aware of “Parasitic drain” which  is a load put on a battery with the key off. Most vehicles have clocks, engine management computers, etc. These can drain even a fully charged battery over time.
* Batteries made from lead (or other heavy metals) can be very large and heavy and can cause damage to equipment  if improperly handled. Make sure you install them according to manufacturers directions.
* When using lithium batteries, a “Lith-X” or D-Class fire extinguisher should always be available. Water-based extinguishers must not be used on lithium of any kind, since water will react with lithium and release large amounts of explosive hydrogen.
* Vented batteries must be properly ventilated. Inadequate ventilation may result in the build up of volatile gases, which may result in an explosion or asphyxiation.
* Do not attempt to solder directly onto a terminal of the battery. Attempting to do so can damage the seal or the safety vent.

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Comments

  1. Jeff Mccoy says:

    Good info on battery maintenance, didnt know high summer heat discharges batteries, thought only cold weather killed batteries, (trickle charge a batteries life support). hope it helps someone.

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