by Paul Williams
Want your car to keep going and going and going? Don’t we all.
Getting a good battery makes sense, but today’s automotive batteries haven’t changed much from years ago. Typically they get the job done, and you don’t pay attention to them until your car won’t start.
But you know that if your battery’s going to fail, it’ll do so at the worst possible time.
Most automotive batteries are wet cells, also known as lead-acid batteries. Shake one and you can hear the liquid sloshing about. Inside you’ll find a half-dozen rectangular lead/calcium alloy plates. The plates are suspended in a corrosive mixture of sulfuric acid and water, known as electrolyte.
If you remember your high-school physics, you know it’s the chemical reaction between the lead and the electrolyte that makes electricity. The more lead, the better. But shake it too hard and the plates may contact each other, shorting out the battery.
A quality wet-cell battery should last 3-5 years, depending on use.
But be careful with these things. People usually take the safety issues associated with wet cell batteries far too lightly. Overcharge them and the electrolyte will boil, sometimes bulging the case. Occasionally, they blow up.
Tip them and they leak. Believe me, you don’t want sulfuric acid on your hands, or in your engine bay. It’s nasty stuff.
Wet cells are also prone to “gas”, which, like you and me (well, me anyway) is caused by excessive consumption. That would be pizza in my case, and voltage from recharging in the battery’s.
Every time the battery vents gas, which it does a lot, and every time you start the car, the battery loses some of its ability to hold a charge.
At the other extreme, if the wet cell battery sits for too long without recharging, the electrolyte begins to eat the lead plates (called sulfation). You can’t recharge it after that. It’s a dead battery.
Don’t get me wrong. Wet cell batteries do the job. They are, after all, the industry standard. But they’re messy, low-tech, volatile devices.
Is there something better? Well, yes there is. It costs more, but you expected that, right?
Rick Swan, Regional Manager of Colorado-based Optima Batteries, thinks his company’s product is a major step forward. “In terms of market penetration, we’re talking one, maybe one-and-a-half percent,” he says proudly. “You have to understand, we’re the Rolls-Royce of batteries.”
Optima makes a line of automotive batteries that have significantly improved on the wet cell design. In technical terms, an Optima is an absorbed electrolyte, gas recombinant battery.
It’s a dry cell battery. The main difference is that lead plates are not suspended in a liquid. In fact, Optimas don’t use plates and there’s no liquid to slosh around at all.
Instead of plates, Optima batteries use thin strips of lead. During the construction process, a layer of absorbent glass material is added to one side of the strips. Then they’re rolled into six tight spirals. Kind of like a Swiss Roll.
These spiral cells are compressed into the case, completely filling it. This construction technique enables Optima batteries use more lead than wet cell batteries — a good thing. Finally, the electrolyte is put into the case, where the glass mat, like a sponge, promptly absorbs it.
Consequently, you can tip the battery upside-down, mount it sideways, even rupture the case, and it can’t leak.
It’s strong, too, and unlike wet cells, it doesn’t vent gas. This is a key feature of the battery. During normal use, gas that would be vented to the atmosphere in a wet cell battery is recombined with the electrolyte. This means the battery can be fully sealed, and its active contents continuously recycled.
But does it work any better? Apparently, yes.
First of all, the internal design of the Optima means that it can sit without use for six months and lose only 0.2 volts of charge. Leave it for a year and it’ll still start your car.
Not only does it discharge more slowly, but it recharges much more quickly than a wet cell. It’s also vibration-proof, so off-roaders particularly like it.
In terms of its starting power at -18 degrees Celsius, the typical wet cell battery is rated between 375-650 cold cranking amps (C.C.A.). The Optima is 800 C.C.A.. It’s also more effective in the heat of summer.
In use, because it’s recombining its contents, the Optima lasts two to three times as long as conventional battery. You should easily get 6-9 years out of it.
According to Rick Swan, it’s safer, too. “You can take a rifle and shoot a bullet into our battery. We’ve actually done this at demonstrations. You’ll put a hole in it, but it still works fine.”
Mike McGaher, Manager at Interstate Batteries in Ottawa was amazed as he watched one being cut in half at a company demonstration. He was amazed because the battery being cut in half was actually powering the tool that was cutting!
Mr. McGaher cautions that the Optima won’t solve charging problems, though. “If you’ve got something wrong with your electrical system, like a faulty alternator, for instance, no battery’s going to fix that. Otherwise, there’s no doubt that these are the most superior units on the market.”
Optimas come in several models, but only two sizes. They’re a direct replacement for 75% of vehicles on the road, and may be adaptable to more.
The Red Top is designed for general automotive use. The Yellow Top is a “deep cycle” battery for special applications where the battery is subjected to extended power drain or harsh vibration. Off-roading and using a winch are the examples given in the Optima literature. The Blue Top covers marine applications.
To compare prices, the equivalent sized Interstate wet cell retails for $98.00. The Optima Red Top will set you back about $180.00.
Interstate Batteries and East-Penn/Power Batteries distribute Optima Batteries in Canada. Check www.optimabatteries.com for a local dealer.