You go to start your vehicle and discover the engine won’t crank since the battery is dead. Now what? You get somebody to give you a jump start, or you connect the battery to a charger and charge it up until it has enough juice to crank your engine.
The next morning you go to start your engine again, and the same thing happens. The battery has gone down and the engine won’t crank. What is the cause?
WHY A VEHICLE BATTERY RUNS DOWN
A vehicle battery can run down for any of several reasons:
- You mistakenly left the lights on or some other accessory that drains power from the battery even when the ignition key is off.
- The battery is not being recharged while the car is being driven (you have a charging problem)
- There is a key off parasitic electrical drain on the battery since a relay is sticking, a module is not shutting down (going into “sleep mode”), or there is a shorted diode in the alternator.
- Your battery is old and will not keep a charge anymore. The battery needs to be changed.
CHECK THE BATTERY VOLTAGE AND STATE OF CHARGE
The first things you want to inspect are the battery and the output of the charging system (alternator). One way to perform this is to turn on the headlights. If the headlights come on with normal brightness, the no-crank problem is probably not the battery, but a bad starter relay or solenoid, a poor wiring connection between the relay/solenoid and starter, or a bad starter. If the headlights are dim or do not come on at all, you have to check battery voltage and charging output.
For this, you will require a voltmeter. Select the 12 or 20 volt scale, and connect the volt meter red positive test lead to the battery positive (+) terminal, and the black negative test lead to the battery negative (-) terminal.
Checking base battery voltage with a voltmeter.
A fully charged battery should read over 12.6 volts. If the battery reads 12.45 volts or less, it is low (less than 75 percent charged) and has to be recharged.
Battery Voltage and State of Charge:
12.66v . . . . . . . . . . 100%
12.45v . . . . . . . . . . 75%
12.24v . . . . . . . . . . 50%
12.06v . . . . . . . . . . 25%
11.89v . . . . . . . . . . 0%
(NOTE: these readings are at 80 degrees F. Battery voltage readings will drop with temperature roughly 0.01 volts for every 10 degrees F.)
(At 30 degrees F. a fully charged battery will measure about 12.588 volts, and at zero degrees F it will measure about 12.516 volts.)
CHECK BATTERY CHARGING VOLTAGE
After charging the battery or jump starting the vehicle, connect the voltmeter to the battery the same as before and not the charging voltage. A charging system that is operating normally should generate about 13.8 to 14.3 or more volts at idle. If the charging voltage is less than 13.0 volts, the alternator is not putting out enough voltage and current to keep the battery charged. You should have the alternator tested (or bench tested at an auto parts store). If the current output is not up to specifications, change the alternator.
Charging voltage with engine idling should be 13.5 to 14.5 volts.
After the battery has been recharged, the battery should equally be tested to see if it is capable of holding a charge. This can be carried out with a hand-held electronic battery tester or a conventional load tester . The tester will indicate you if the battery is good or bad. NOTE: Load testers need the battery to be fully charged for accurate test results. By comparison, most electronic testers will offer reliable test results even if the battery is not fully charged. If the battery fails a load test, it needs to be changed.
The average service life of a wet cell lead-acid car battery is only about four to five years, and can be as little as three years in really hot climates (like Arizona and Florida). AGM batteries are better and typically last 6 or more years. So if you have a conventional wet cell battery that is more than four or five years old, chances are it has approached the end of its useful service life and needs to be changed if it is not accepting or holding a charge (and the charging system is functioning normally).
KEY-OFF CAR BATTERY DRAIN
If your vehicle battery is less than six years old and tests okay, and the charging system is working well, your battery may be running down because of a key-off current drain (also called “parasitic battery drain”).
When you turn the ignition off, switch the lights off and remove the key from the ignition switch (or the smart key fob from the car), the electrical load on the battery should drop to almost nothing. On older cars that do not have computers or other onboard electronic modules, the key-off load on the battery is typically only a few milliamps (if it has a clock or a digital radio), or it may drop to zero (no load at all). However, on late model vehicles with computers and many electronic modules, the key-off drain on the battery can range from 20 to 50 milliamps, and as much as 300 to 400 milliamps on some applications. On some Fords, the electrical system will continue to draw as much as 850 milliamps (almost 1 amp) for up to 20 minutes or more after the ignition has been turned off.
The key-off current drain is used by the modules to keep their memories alive. The chips that store certain settings and learned information are known as the “Keep Alive Memory” (KAM).
Many modules have internal timers that either turn off the module to put it into a “sleep mode,” or power down the module to a “standby mode” to lower the parasitic power drain on the battery after a predetermined length of time when the key is turned off. Some of these modules power down in steps and time out at different rates. It may take up to a half hour before all of these modules lower their current drain on the battery to minimum levels.
If the battery goes down (or is disconnected), KAM information can be lost. Computers and modules may reset to a “default” setting after the battery is recharged or reconnected, but you may observe some changes in the way your vehicle runs and drives, and you may have to reset the radio channels, clock and other memory presets. Worse yet, on some cars the climate control system, power windows or radio may not function at all until they are reset using a special “relearn” procedure or a dealer scan tool. On many BMW, Audi, Acura and VW models, for example, the radio won’t work if the battery has been disconnected or run dead until the factory security code has been reentered.
WARNING: When disconnecting or changing a car battery on a late mode vehicle, you should always maintain voltage to the car’s electrical system to preserve learned module settings. This can be done by plugging a backup battery into the cigarette lighter, or attaching a backup battery or battery charger to the car’s battery cables BEFORE the cables are disconnected.
Key-Off current drain should be less than 50 mA after 1 hour.
As a rule, the parasitic drain on most late model cars should be less than 50 milliamps one hour after the cars has been shut off and left undisturbed. But this is a rule of thumb only. Always refer to the cars manufacturer’s key-off electrical drain specifications if available (some vehicle manufacturers have no published specifications).
Bear in mind, though, that opening a door, the trunk or turning anything on can wake up various modules and start the timer countdown all over again. So if you want to check the parasitic draw on the battery, leave the hood open (or the trunk if the battery is found in the back).
How To Measure Key-Off Battery Current Drain
Any of the following methods can be used to measure key-off current drain on the battery:
Check for Voltage Drop: Use a digital volt meter to check and measure voltage across individual fuses with the key off. This method does not need removing any fuses or disconnecting the battery. Set the voltmeter to the millivolt (Mv) scale. No current flow through a circuit should indicate a zero reading on the voltmeter when the probes are connected to both sides of individual fuses. Any reading other than zero (typically a few tenths of a volt) would show current flow in a circuit and a potential drain on the battery.
Use an ammeter with an amp probe to measure key-off current flow at the battery: Connect an inductive amp probe to your ammeter or digital multimeter, then clamp the probe around one of the battery cables. Set the meter to read milliamps (mA). If there is a key-off current drain on the battery, the meter should show the current. Make sure the amp probe you are using is one that is calibrated to detect small milliamp currents, not large multiamp currents.
Use an ammeter to measure key-off current flow at the battery: This method needs disconnecting one of the battery cables and connecting the ammeter in series between the battery and cable so any current flow will pass through the meter. Make sure you offer backup power to the electrical system before disconnecting the battery. As before, use the milliamp scale.
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF EXCESSIVE KEY OFF CURRENT DRAIN
Causes of excessive current drain from a vehicle battery include things like lights that remain on (trunk and hood lights, interior lights, brake lights, etc.) and also relays that may be stuck on, or modules that are not going to sleep or powering down. Keyless entry systems and anti-theft systems can often be the source of a significant key-off current drain on the battery.
A fuel pump relay that sticks on may keep the fuel pump running after the engine is shut off. A switch or relay that powers a rear window defogger can stick on, pulling current from the battery after the ignition is off. An electronic suspension module, ABS module or keyless entry module may remain active long after it should have powered down.
An accessory such as a DVD player, game console or cell phone charger left plugged into a rear seat power receptacle may be dragging power from the battery. So before you spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the amps are disappearing, check all of the cars power receptacles to see if something is plugged in that may be using power.
DISCOVERING THE CAUSE OF A KEY OFF CURRENT DRAIN
If the key-off current reading is above specifications (typically, more than 50 mA one hour after the car has been shut off), the current drain is too high. It’s time to begin pulling fuses and relays to find the fault.
Remove fuses and relays one at a time to discover circuit that is draining the battery.
Or, use a voltmeter to check for a voltage drop across each fuse. A voltage drop reading would show current flow in the circuit.
Refer to your car owner’s manual or a wiring diagram to identify the fuses and relays. Then pull the fuses and relays one at a time until the current reading drops. Stop pulling the fuses for the PCM or other KAM-sensitive modules until you have inspected all of the other circuits.
Once you’ve discovered the circuit that is causing the excessive current drain, check the relay, switch, module or other components in the circuit and change as needed.
Sometimes a bad alternator diode can cause a vehicle battery to run down. A good diode should only pass current in one direction. If it leaks current in the opposite direction, it may keep the charging circuit on when the engine is not running, making the battery to run down. This kind of issue can be diagnosed several ways. If your voltmeter has an AC (alternating current) scale, switch to that scale and observe the charging voltage with the engine running. If the meter indicates any AC voltage, one or more diodes are leaking and the alternator needs to be changed. The alternator’s output can also be observed as a waveform on a digital storage oscilloscope (DSO) or an alternator tester that measures ripple voltage to detect this kind of issue. Or, just disconnect the alternator overnight and see if the battery stills run down. If the battery drain stops, you have discovered the problem. Change the alternator