Anyone who has ever found themselves stranded in a car that won't start has surely wondered if there's a definitive answer to how long car batteries last. The short answer? It depends. "I’ve had some customers go ten years without any problems," says Thomas Piippo, mechanical division director for the Automotive Service Association and owner of Tri-County Motors in Rudyard, Michigan. "Yet other customers, their batteries only last three to five years." Battery power is essential because not only do you need it to start your car, it affects all kinds of systems as cars are becoming more electronic every year. Steering used to be hydraulic, and now it’s electric, for example. "Every system in the modern car depends on electricity, and the battery is at the heart of it all," Piippo says. And low voltage from a failing battery may cause the unexpected shutdown of systems like anti-lock brakes, the heater controls, and airbag function.
What can shorten the life of car batteries?
The type of vehicle affects how long car batteries last more than anything, Piippo says. More vehicles are equipped with features such as automatic headlights and in newer cars, most of the interior functions stay active until you open the car door. "That battery’s draining down pretty quickly with the lights on and the radio playing," he says. And it’s not only vehicles with many sophisticated features. The Chevy Cruze, for example, has a lot of electronic content that depends on battery power. "Batteries have a limited lifetime, so age and use matters,” says John Burkhauser, an auto repair specialist and director of education at Bolt On Technology. “Every time a battery is used to start your vehicle, it loses a little life even though it should be charged back up right away." In addition, the temperature can play a role in how long car batteries last. "Extreme cold and extreme hot temperatures will shorten the life of your battery," says Lauren Fix, the Car Coach. "It has to work harder in order to start the vehicle." And car batteries can also just fail unexpectedly. Watch for these other signs your car is about to die.
How can you tell when car batteries are going dead?
Fortunately, there are some signs that your battery is running low on power. Your car might take longer to start over time. Or you may see that your lights dim as you come to a stop. "The battery might not have as much power to keep the lights bright as it did when it was new," Piippo says. Another energy drain? Your phone. That's why you shouldn't charge your phone in your car. One more indication that your battery is losing power? If you have your key in the ignition but don’t have the motor turned on and power starts to falter within five minutes, it’s definitely a sign that it’s time to get a new battery. A battery with full power should go 20 minutes to a half hour without a problem, Piippo says. And, there are some drivers who should be especially wary, like those with shorter commutes. "A short-trip commuter may have more battery problems that someone who drives an hour to work," Piipo says. Once the engine is on, the alternator will recharge the battery while you drive and provide the energy your car needs to run. Want to play it safe? “It's a good rule of thumb that if your battery is around four years old, it is time to consider replacing it,” Burkhauser says. “Even if it seems OK. They always seem to fail at the most inconvenient times.
How can you make car batteries last longer?
Every year, you should have your mechanic test your battery and clean the terminals. And if it’s time to replace the battery, Piippo recommends that you buy one that’s at least as powerful as the one that originally came in the car. "If your car came from the factory with 650 cold cranking amps, the discount store may sell you a battery that has only 550 cranking amps but is still the correct physical size," he says. Your mechanic will be able to tell you how much power you need in a new battery. A final thing to keep in mind: your battery has a warranty. "All automotive batteries come with a warranty and should be expected to last at least the life of the warranty," says Jill Trotta, vice president of the automotive team for RepairPal.com. The longer the warranty, the more you should expect to pay." Now that you know how long car batteries last and how to make them last longer, make sure you also use these 74 other maintenance tips to extend the life of your vehicle.