Battery Basics 101: 15-Minutes To A Good Start

© 2006 Bruce W. Smith

Hearing that click-click-click when you turn the key to start your pickup or SUV is really frustrating. The sound is that of a bad battery—one unable to provide enough current to spin over the engine’s starting motor.

Frustration turns to embarrassment when you have to pop open the hood and stand by with jumper cables in-hand until someone stops to give your vehicle’s “dead” battery a jump.

Most people immediately think they need to replace the battery, which costs not only more time, but an unexpected $50-$100 depending on the style and type of battery in your truck.

But there is a bright side to the dead-battery issue: The battery may not be dead at all. Many battery problems are caused by dirty and/or loose battery cable connections, bad battery cables or clamps, or a combination of both. The good news is all can be remedied with a little do-it-yourself battery maintenance.  

Battery maintenance is an important issue. Batteries are a natural dirt magnet, and dirt between the posts, if it’s bad enough, can cause the battery to discharge over time. Corrosion is an even bigger problem.

Corrosion is a natural process in an automotive battery as the natural gases from the battery condense on the posts and cable ends as the battery goes through its normal cycles of being used. Such corrosion causes bad connections resulting in—you guessed it!—an engine that won’t start.

There’ a good chance your “dead battery” can be brought back to life with nothing more than a good 15-minute cleaning and retightening the cable connections. Here’s how to do it.

What You’ll Need:

  • Baking Soda (or Battery Cleaning Kit)

  • Water

  • Quart container

  • Rubber gloves

  • Battery Terminal/Post Brush

  • Old toothbrush

  • Vaseline (or petroleum jelly)

  • Felt battery post washers

  • Wrench

Step 1 Mix 4 tablespoons of baking soda in a quart of water. Put on your rubber gloves and slowly pour a little of this mixture over the battery. The baking soda water will neutralize the acid and corrosion on top of the battery, starting the cleaning process.

Step 2 Use an old toothbrush (or rag) to thoroughly clean around each battery terminal and the top of the battery to loosen any corrosion. Pour a little more of the baking soda solution over the battery and continue to brush away any remaining corrosion.

Step 3 Use the appropriate wrench to loosen the clamp that holds the Negative cable to the battery post and remove the cable. Do the same on the Positive side. Always remove the negative connection from a battery first and reconnect it last to prevent shorting the wrench in case it touches nearby metal objects.

Step 4 Pour the remaining cleaning solution to pour over the loose battery cable ends and exposed terminal posts. Clean thoroughly, rinse with clean water, and wipe battery dry with paper towels. Then use a wire-brush-style battery terminal/post to clean the posts and inside the battery cable clamps until they are shiny.

Step 5 Coat both sides of the special felt battery post washers with Vaseline, or petroleum jelly, and place the washers over the posts. Coat the cable ends with Vaseline and re-attach them to the posts—positive terminal first, negative last—making sure the connections are tight. (If you bought a battery cleaning kit [$10], it will come with spray-on battery protection. Apply this red coating to the battery posts/cable clamps after they are in place.) 

Step 6 The last step is to carefully remove the battery filler caps and check the fluid levels. The electrolyte should come up to the bottom of the filler cap, or at least near it. If the level is down, especially if the plates are exposed, add distilled water.

Warning: Watch Out for Battery Acid

Warning! The acid and corrosion on and around a battery is very corrosive. Battery acid will not only corrode electrical connections, it will also remove paint, eat holes in your clothes, and do damage to your eyes if any should splash in them.  

So, always wear old clothes, eye protection and rubber gloves when working around a vehicle battery.

Also, battery cables may not slip easily off the posts. To make removal easier, use the tip of a flat screwdriver to spread the terminal clamp apart; never strike a battery terminal (or cable end) with a hammer in an attempt to loosen it. This force could easily loosen the terminal itself and totally ruin the battery.—BWS