Car Doctor | What's that 'yuh yuh click' sound my car makes in winter?

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Modern batteries are reliable, but need to be kept charged. If a car is left standing for too long, damage to the battery can be the result.
Modern batteries are reliable, but need to be kept charged. If a car is left standing for too long, damage to the battery can be the result.
Stuart Johnston

• A car's battery can succumb under the pressures of winter.

• We list several ways owners can ensure the longevity of their car's battery.

• It is advisable that owners invest in a battery charger if their cars are parked for long periods.

For more motoring stories, go to Wheels24

One of the comedy sketches that I often recall from my youth shows a typical bank heist sequence, with two scruffy hooligans clutching canvas bags charging for their getaway car to the sound of alarm bells shattering the silence of the financial district. They leap into the car, the driver twists the ignition switch, and the next sound you hear is a noise from the engine bay that goes: "Yuh Yuh Yee-aw Click."

There is nothing quite like the sinking feeling that accompanies the death groans of a flat battery. And even in this modern era of amazing motor-related reliability, batteries still fail, more often than not, when you need to get somewhere in a hurry.

Whilst modern batteries require little in the way of maintenance - they don't even require topping up anymore - the demands on batteries have increased along with all the electronics fitted to modern cars. It is particularly true of vehicles equipped with stop-start systems where the engine automatically switches off at traffic lights and starts up as soon as you take your foot off the brake.

Then there are alarm systems that continue to draw current from the battery after you've locked up and put your car and yourself to bed. And in this era of lockdown where so many people are working from home and staying isolated, many car batteries have been known to go into 'sulk mode' due to the lack of attention.

car battery
This is a heavy-duty battery from a luxury SUV. Replacement costs can run to over R5 000 for this type of battery.

So what can you do to keep your battery charged?

With a modern car, the best way to keep the battery charged if your car stands idle for an extended period is to use a modern trickle charger. These can be bought for around R1 000 and can be connected to the battery without removing it from the engine bay.  Some can also be used via a power socket, such as a cigarette lighter socket, on the car.

Consult your local dealership on the best way to connect one of these chargers to your car's battery. Some modern vehicles have very inaccessible batteries, but these cars usually have additional terminals inside the engine bay to enable a quick jump-start from another battery. Wherever you connect the charger, it is a good precaution to place the charger outside the car, just in case there are any short circuits.

READ: How a fouled spark plug can cause stuttering fibrillations and tribulations in a classic Merc W123

Note that with some sophisticated modern cars, if the battery is disconnected, a certain amount of re-programming of the electronics may be needed once the battery is reconnected.

With older cars (and some low-cost modern cars) using simple electronics, an easy way to preserve battery life is disconnecting the battery earth cable. That's the cable that goes to the negative terminal on the battery denoted by a minus (-) sign, whereas the positive terminal has a plus (+) marking alongside it.

car battery
Clean battery terminals like this promote great connectivity.

Why disconnect it?

You disconnect the earth cable because if you accidentally slip with your spanner on the positive terminal, you can cause sparks to fly if the battery is still earthed. So disconnect the earth cable. Usually, you will need a 10mm or 13mm spanner to do this, but today some manufacturers have battery connectors that don't even require a spanner for connection or removal.

If you are only using your older car very sporadically, it is also a good idea to purchase a battery charger to ensure your car's battery remains charged. In the case of older cars, a much simpler and cheaper battery charger can be used, so ask your local spares shop which charger will be suitable for your vehicle.

READ: Non-OEM workshops can now service your car, but customers must respect the rules

Allowing a battery to run flat actually damages the lead plates inside the battery, to the point where if the battery runs flat too often, eventually the battery won't accept a charge. So as a top-up job, it's a good idea to charge the battery if your car has been left standing for long periods before drawing a whole bunch of current from the car's starter motor.

You can still buy relatively cheap chargers from spares outlets for a few hundred rands. Using a simple charger, you will need to remove the battery from the car. You should ensure you connect the red cable on the charger to the positive terminal and the black cable to the negative terminal before switching the charger on. An overnight charge should get the battery up to full charge.

car battery
Modern batteries are reliable, but need to be kept charged. If a car is left standing for too long, damage to the battery can be the result.

Modern chargers

Even on old cars, the modern, more sophisticated (and expensive) chargers will enable you to charge your car's battery without removing it. And there are very sophisticated chargers on offer that can rejuvenate a tired battery by exciting the particles in the battery, effectively cleaning up the lead plates so that they can accept a full charge.

But it is not a bad idea to remove a car's battery now and again for maintenance purposes on older cars. The battery platform in the engine bay is often subject to severe corrosion, so it is wise to remove the battery and the battery tray (if fitted) and do a thorough clean up. Using bicarbonate of soda mixed with a little water in a thick paste will react on any acid and neutralise it (you'll see the acid bubbling away). You can then clean this off thoroughly with water, coat the metal surface with an oil-based lubricant and replace the cleaned-up plastic battery tray.

READ: Car Doctor | What's that grinding noise coming from my vehicle? Here's how to fix it

Before replacing the battery, you should clean the terminals on the battery with gritty water paper and clean the clamps and battery cables in the same way, as it will promote good contact between the battery cables and the battery terminals. Also, coat the terminals and clamps with a lubricant to deter corrosion from forming.

Once you've done this - it would represent a leisurely Sunday-morning's work - your car will be good to go. And again, take that extra time out to ensure that your car's battery remains healthily charged.

car battery
If your car stands idle for long periods, it is worth investing in a battery charger to protect the battery.
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