Thursday, 22 March 2012

Batteries – can’t live with ‘em and can’t live without ‘em.

BatteryIn prepping my bike for the new year I went through all the basic maintenance activities – fluids, tires pressures, checking for loose nuts and bolts, etc. Then I came to the battery and I realised that beyond keeping a charger on it over the winter I had no idea if it was being properly maintained or not
The battery is an indispensible part of a modern motorcycle, and so battery failure is not an option. At one time it wasn’t that big a deal with kickstarters on all motorcycles, engine displacements in the 150 to 750 cc range, and few powered accessories requiring a fully charged battery. But just try bump-starting a modern 900-lb, 103-ci  Electra Glide!  Nope, isn’t gonna happen, so if your battery fails on the road you’re stranded.
And wishing you’d paid more attention to the health of your battery.
In my early days as a backyard mechanic one of the items in everyone’s basic tool kit was a hydrometer. This handy little device was an essential tool for measuring the specific gravity of the electrolyte in your battery. Those measurements (one per cell), combined with a fully-charged voltage reading provided a pretty good indication of the health of your battery. And checking the battery was a normal part of the maintenance routine.
But today’s batteries are so reliable we tend to view them as foolproof, essentially ignoring them until the day they don’t work (see ‘stranded’ above). So what can you do to minimize the risk of battery failure while maximizing your battery’s life, and just how much maintenance does your battery really need?
Well to answer those questions James over at Battery Stuff has offered up a few thoughts.
“Proper lead-acid battery maintenance involves periodic mechanical inspection, cleaning, and proper charging using a smart maintenance charger. Flooded (wet) batteries should have water levels checked routinely, particularly in hot weather and topped with distilled water if necessary. Terminal connections should be checked routinely, and any corrosion should be neutralized with baking soda and water, and removed. Battery post cleaners or small wire brushes can help with this process.

All motorcycle batteries, including the sealed AGM batteries, like to be kept fully charged when not actually being cycled. There is NO benefit to fully discharging lead acid batteries as part of maintenance or use. The newer microprocessor chargers allow long term maintenance with a float mode, which will not overcharge batteries. Batteries used infrequently and not on a float charger should be topped off about once a month if possible. This helps prevent sulfation build up, the number one cause of early battery failure.

When a battery is improperly charged or allowed to self discharge, as occurs during storage, sulfation builds up on the battery’s storage plates and can harden, preventing the battery from ever being fully charged and therefore able to deliver their full power. Routine charging or maintaining with a floating charger helps reduce and eliminate this process. Batteries that sit unattended for extended periods are subject to internal discharge and the degradation of capacity that sulfation introduces. There are electronic devices and battery chargers that address sulfation issues, but the best practice is proper battery management with a microprocessor controlled charger to prevent it in the first place.”
So now you (and I) know. You might also want to stop by Battery Stuff’s YouTube channel and check out some of their videos for even more battery information.


  1. Canajun,

    Running the old Honda is a breeze, even if it's completely flat - no big deal, kick it and keep the revs up. My Beemer won't run, at all, with a dead battery. Not at all, no roll starting or jumper cables or whatever. Nothing. Don't leave the keys turned on and walk away anymore...

    Behind Bars

  2. And, I'll bet your BMW is fuel injected. No battery juice, no fuel pump, no fuel pressure, no ride...

  3. Brady - Exactly. I got home more than once with a dead battery in my old CB550. Not possible any more.

    Anon@07:31 - Yup.

  4. Canjun:

    I always have a Float Maintenance Charger connected to my bike, all year around, winter summer. All the time it is parked, it is plugged in and connected to my bike so I hope my battery is healthy

    Riding the Wet Coast

  5. Bob - "always" might be a bit of overkill, but it seems regular charging is the right way to go.

  6. Dear Canajun:

    Welcome to the spring ritual. I never regard a motorcycle battery as "foolproof." And among the stuff that is always somewhere in my riding stuff I carry bikers jumper cables. In the years that I have had these, I have used them 5 times. In each case, I was jumping a much larger bike whose owner pushed his luck.

    It was great reading this and nice to see you in the saddle again.

    Fondest regards,
    Twisted Roads

  7. Jack - Having a set of jumper cables is probably not a bad idea. I'll check it out. And thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  8. Good stuff, great information. It's nice to be thinking of these things again. Ride safe.


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