For work trucks to perform their jobs, they need a dependable battery. A truck battery provides the power to crank the starter and start the truck as well as run a number of accessories and/or liftgates that aid truckers in getting to their destinations and delivering their payloads. If the truck battery fails, the truck sits idle, which leads to costly downtime.
“The total cost of breaking down can vary greatly and grow exponentially. Costs can include parts and repair to towing as well as costs incurred because a load is late,” said Smokey White, vice president of sales and marketing for Pulsetech and sister company, Zamp Solar. “The cost of a dead truck battery could run from $1,000 to many thousands of dollars.”
There’s never a good time for a truck battery to die. When batteries die, it’s in a fleet manager’s best interest to get the truck back on the road as quickly as possible.
Getting quickly back to business starts before problems occur. The savvy fleet manager familiarizes him or herself with available batteries, selects the right truck battery for the fleet's application and vehicle, and then correctly maintains the truck battery over its entire lifecycle.
Undersanding Truck Battery Types
The medium-duty Class 6-8 truck industry relies mainly on Battery Council International (BCI) Group 31 batteries, which comprises three main product classifications:
- Starting (wet/flooded).
- Cycle Service (flooded).
- AGM (Sealed Absorbed Glass Mat).
Each truck battery type has its place, and the one a fleet manager ultimately selects depends on the application, the environment the battery operates in, and the fleet budget.
Flooded batteries that offer high starting and minimal cycle service are starting batteries. Many types of trucks, such as day cabs, dump trucks, line haul, mixers, and loggers, can function on starting batteries, according to Joel Brady, marketing communications manager for East Penn Manufacturing Co.
Though flooded batteries work well in many applications, they come with a downside.
“Flooded batteries are the most inexpensive, and they are also the hardest to maintain because you have to service them when needed, adding water and physically cleaning the battery and terminals to ensure proper service and long life,” White explained. “You must be careful not to add too much because overfilling will cause increased corrosion and overfilling. When acid gets on the battery terminals it can cause corrosion, leading to poor charge acceptance and battery failure.”
Vicki Hall, director of Transportation Technical Solutions at EnerSys, warned that conventional flooded batteries would only “reach their potential lifespan if they are maintained properly.” She stressed maintenance must include checking electrolyte level checks, refilling distilled water, and inspecting and cleaning truck battery terminals every month.
When accessory power requirements and anti-idling restrictions put demands on work trucks that standard flooded batteries cannot handle, flooded cycle service or dual-purpose batteries may be a better option. Flooded cycle service batteries can withstand multiple electrical loads while providing plenty of cranking power to start the engine.
Brady noted flooded cycle service batteries work well with sleeper cabs, day cabs, delivery trucks, school buses, and trucks with liftgates and reefer units, because the truck battery readily handles additional cycle service requirements.
“Newer trucks are even harder on batteries,” Brady said. “They cycle the battery often and have more hotel loads.” Newer trucks, he added, often require even more advanced battery technology.
The AGM, or Absorbed Glass Mat battery, is a step up from the flooded battery. AGM batteries offer premium cycling and starting power. AGM batteries absorb the electrolyte in glass mats inside the battery, making them more durable for cycling and better able to withstand vibration. These valve-regulated batteries are sealed for easier maintenance.
AGM batteries work well with heavy-duty trucks, including day cabs, sleeper cabs, dump trucks, reefer trucks, line haul, mixers, and trucks with liftgates.
Michael Moeller, president of Remy Battery Co., noted, “AGM batteries are cost-effective considering the amount of work they perform in any vehicle, especially work trucks. AGM batteries are more durable, perform better, and last longer in rugged and high vibration applications compared to their wet lead-acid counterparts.”
Interstate Batteries Lab Manager Jeff Barron explained that there are two types of AGM batteries; one uses pure lead product while another uses recycled lead. He said he recommends pure lead products over recycled lead.
“With the pure product, there are no impurities still embedded in the material like you’d have with a recycled lead product,” he said. “Recycling removes 98-99% of the contaminants. You wouldn’t think that 1% would make a difference, but it does in cycle life comparisons. When you’re abusing the truck battery, a pure lead battery is the way to go.”
Hall suggested selecting AGM batteries featuring advanced Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) technology. She said they offer many advantages in commercial applications.
“AGM TPPL battery design, such as the Odyssey battery from EnerSys, begins with 99% pure lead plates, not lead alloy,” she said. “The pure lead components do not corrode, unlike conventional flooded and standard AGM batteries. We can make the TPPL plates thinner than lead alloy plates, allowing us to use more plates, resulting in a greater surface area for the chemical reaction to occur. More surface area equates to more power and higher cranking ability.”
New Truck Battery Options
New battery technologies are on the horizon.
Liz Dunham, marketing communications specialist for batteries, gasoline, spark plugs, and bulbs at Robert Bosch, predicted lithium-ion will become a standard issue for many work trucks. Lithium-ion batteries last up to five times longer and offer up to 10 times deep-cycle resistance of comparable lead-acid batteries, along with low self-discharge, reliable power, durability, maintenance-free operation, fast recharge, and lighter weight.
“These batteries are great for vehicles with start/stop systems and regenerative braking while operating in extreme weather and requiring high electrical demands,” she said.
But lithium batteries come with a few concerns, safety being a big one. Chad Hall, vice president of sales and marketing at Ioxus Inc, explained that while lithium-ion batteries are entering the market, their ability to perform in cold temperatures and their safety concerns in a crash makes them a worrisome choice.
“Their ability to perform safe charging over their life is also a concern. And they are expensive ($600-$1,000),” Ioxus’ Hall said.
Moeller of Remy recommended proceeding with caution when selecting lithium-ion batteries. “Lithium is a very volatile material when exposed to air or water or moisture, making it difficult to contain or control during battery failure or battery damage.”
Other battery chemistries offer promise, he said. These include nickel-zinc batteries and solid-state battery technology developed by John B. Goodenough and his colleague Maria Helena Braga.
“Nickel zinc batteries have existed a long time, but there have been some interesting advancements in this age-old battery chemistry that we can adapt to the vehicle market,” Moeller said. The batteries offer similar advantages to lead-acid batteries. They are safe; they can perform in starting, cycling, and standby applications; they are made from cost-effective materials, and they are 100% recyclable.”
He added, “Solid-state batteries seem to be a promising technology, but they are still in the research phase. It may be 10-20 years before there are viable production applications for this technology.”
Pick Your Power
According to Hall at Ioxus, truck battery costs can range from $90 to $1,200 depending on the battery selected.
When selecting batteries, begin by referring to the original equipment specification printed on the battery label. This specification will list the recommended cold cranking amps (CCA) value.
“You should never put a truck battery in a vehicle that is lower than the OE specifications,” Barron said.
He also advised staying within CCA tolerances when selecting a truck battery that has a higher CCA. Going 10% higher, he explained, might be OK. But, if the CCA tolerances are too high, the material in the battery won’t activate enough and start to harden. Over time, he said, there might be less capacity than needed to start the vehicle.
Pick the right technology for the application, too.
“Picking the right technology can lead to massive savings for unique applications that require a high number of starts per day (delivery vehicles or fleets trying to implement start/stop or idle reduction policies),” Moeller said. “Picking the wrong technology may lead to a shorter battery life, which ends up costing much more in the long run. As the battery voltage goes down, it causes strain on other components. The engine might turn over, but some systems do not come on if the voltage gets too low and this damages electronics and hardware.”
Brady of East Penn, which recently introduced Fahrenheit batteries for commercial truck applications, provided the following application examples and truck battery solutions to help you spec the right battery for the job:
- Dump trucks. Dump trucks undergo intense vibration during service. This extra vibration can be hard on a truck battery. In this application, AGM batteries are a good fit because they withstand intense jolts and vibration.
- Liftgates. Liftgates put additional demands on the truck battery. Any extra auxiliary power drain will shorten battery life if the battery is not equipped for cycle service or a deeper discharge. The battery may experience a loss of amperage from having the power for a liftgate run to the back of the vehicle.
“If a battery is simply starting the truck, it is a fairly light application,” Moeller said. “But when we add additional accessories like a liftgate on a delivery truck, then we place more demand on the battery to power these accessories, and therefore we should consider a battery with more reserve capacity.”
Ioxus’ Hall added, “A capacitor-based system would vastly improve the lift capabilities, life and cyclability of all batteries.”
- Delivery trucks. When a truck starts and stops for deliveries, the application doesn’t give the alternator much time to recharge the battery. It also takes a lot of power to restart the engine over and over. Cycle service is essential to consider in these situations, Brady said.
- Sleeper cabs. Sleeper cabs run multiple electronic accessories and cabin comforts. Also, parasitic loads and high-temperature battery boxes can affect truck battery life.
“[All these things] have created a huge demand for energy,” said Hall. “Separate the sleeper from the starting batteries and use a battery with high deep cycle capabilities and a high energy reserve. Starting the truck only requires a small battery with a capacitor or a good set of batteries to handle charge acceptance.”
- Extreme weather. All interviewed agree fleet managers must consider the weather when spec’ing a battery. When operating in a cold-weather environment, Barron said, trucks need a high-CCA battery with higher reserve capacity. In hot weather, fleet managers might get away with a lower CCA battery – but they still require a higher reserve capacity.
“Cold affects batteries the same way it affects engines and starters — it makes operation more difficult,” Hall explained. “All batteries have a CCA rating and during the winter, you need as many available CCAs as possible.”
Hall concluded, “Remember, batteries have a finite amount of power and energy to deliver. The more you cycle your batteries, the less life you will have.”
Make Truck Battery Maintenance a Priority
In most cases, batteries last three to five years, depending on the weather conditions they operate in, electronic demand, driving habits, and maintenance.
Knowing when a truck's battery might fail has become more difficult than it used to be. New chemistry makeups in batteries make the signs less obvious than years ago, according to White.
Even so, there are a few warning signs that can indicate a truck's battery is reaching the end of its useful life, said Hall of EnerSys. These include a slow-starting engine, electrical issues with onboard accessories, corroded terminals, and aging effects because of excessive use.
She added that batteries can fail for several reasons. Topping her list are application-related issues rather than truck battery problems, which include being exposed to cold temperatures, deep cycling with inadequate charging, and improper care.
Truck battery maintenance should occur as vehicles come in for regular preventive maintenance. Maintenance measures should include:
- Checking and confirming the hold-downs. When technicians do not secure the battery properly, Brady said, the extra vibration and jolting will damage the battery.
- Cleaning all terminal connections (Group 31 studs or posts or cable lugs). Road dirt, grime, and grease will reduce charge acceptance, Brady said. He also recommended testing battery cables for wear and damage and replacing them as necessary.
- Use charging adapters on all stud battery posts when recharging. Technicians must screw the adaptors tight on the stud so there is a good lead-to-lead contact between the post busing and charging adapter.
Moeller recommended one final step. “Have the battery tested annually or semi-annually. Most companies that sell and install batteries will provide this service for free.”
Remember to Recycle Your Truck Battery
When truck batteries fail, an essential part of maintenance is recycling them properly.
“It is important to recycle your batteries with someone you can trust,” said East Penn's Brady. Return batteries to a core return program that partners with a recycler compliant with state and federal regulations and has environmentally sound facilities.
While this article is far from a comprehensive discussion on batteries, if you follow the key considerations listed, you will be well on your way to ensuring you have power when you need it, and downtime because of battery failure is a thing of the past.