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Is it possible to make a good battery appear dead?

I believe I was ripped off today. I have a honda element with 44000 miles and in the interest of time, I drove into this EZ Lube by my house. The manager escorted me to the waiting room and came in a few minutes later to tell me that my battery was dead. In fact it was dead; the car wouldn’t start nor would the radio work. I looked under the hood and saw that the battery was still hooked up properly but it is wierd because the car is so young and the battery never gave me any problems before. So I’m wondering, is there a way for these guys to make it look like the battery is dead?

Sure. He could have pulled a couple of fuses. Easy to do and undo. A battery going bad would not be completely dead like than within even an hour. It would give signs of going bad first, like slow starter or requiring a jump. Even at that stage, it wouldn’t be completely dead.

Did you see anyone do even a simple voltage check on the battery? So the answer to your question is yes. We are generally suspicious of any quick oil change place. Their business model tends to make scams a way of business.

That said, with out the chance to check it out, it is possible the battery did just die, but not a good chance.

We have to work with details that are supplied, and unfortunately, one very vital detail is missing here, namely the age of the battery. While this Element has only 44k on the odometer, that mileage could have been accumulated slowly over a period of several years, and the battery could be showing its age.

Maintenance-free batteries (such as the Element comes equipped with from the factory) are great from a convenience stand point, but they have the disadvantage of failing with no warning whatsoever. The older technology batteries to which you add water periodically will usually show signs (slow cranking, dim lights, etc.) that they are weak, but maintenance-free batteries can appear to be fine one minute, and can be–literally–quite dead a few minutes later.

So–if this is a relatively new battery, I would be suspicious of what might have taken place at Quicky Lube. If the battery was at least 5 years old, then this was just an accident waiting for a place to happen.

Easily.

If you were experiencing starting problems, including slow starts, recently, the battery might have been due. But frankly, if the car had been starting strong and running fine until you stopped there you were robbed. It’ll be impossible to prove at this point, but you may want to tell everyone you ever meet that this place robbed you. Healthy batteries don’t just suddenly drain to the point that even the radio won’t run.

mountainbike–This type of sudden failure has actually happened to me, with my '86 Taurus.

The 5 year old maintenance-free battery was seemingly healthy, and had given absolutely no signs of weakness. I came home from running some errands, had a quick bite to eat, and went out to the car to run some more errands. The battery was stone-cold dead, and this was my first lesson about this disadvantage of maintenance-free batteries.

From that experience, I learned to have a periodic load test done on my batteries once they are over 4 years old, simply because a maintenance-free battery can suddenly fail with no warning.

Hmmmmmm…that’ll teach me to avoid “absolute” statements!

You’ve piequed my curiosity…what was the failure mode? I’m not asking to challange, I have far too much respect for you to do that. I’m asking to learn. What could cause a healthy charge on healthy plates to suddenly dissipate short of a short circuit?

I honestly don’t have an explanation!

All I can tell you is that this Motorcraft battery, which had tight connections, no corrosion, and which was connected to a healthy alternator, went from acting normally to being unable to crank the engine in the matter of maybe 20 minutes of down time. The AAA guy who came to jump start me put a meter on it, and it showed a very low state of charge, although I have to say that I don’t recall the exact voltage reading.

A few minutes later, a load test at Sears confirmed the AAA guy’s opinion. I had a new Diehard put in a few minutes later, and I was back in business, but I have no explanation for exactly why the original battery suddenly died.

I did mention this incident to my mechanic a few weeks later, and had him check the alternator output. He verified that the charging system was operating exactly as it should, and he also stated that he had seen similar cases of sudden failure of supposedly healthy maintenance-free batteries. I guess that every technology has certain downsides, along with its advantages.

Weird.

No matter how much we think we know there’s always something unexplainable. Perhaps free electrons are really an intelligent life form and they found a “worm hole” through the dielectric to the “other side”.

I have GOT to stop watching so much science fiction!

Maintenace free batteries can and do fail suddenly. Those of us that live in the cold northern parts of the country expect batteries to fail in the winter, like they did in the olden days. These new batteries can fail anytime, anyplace, any temperature. Still my '03 Honda Civic is going strong on the original battery. My '04 T’bird needed a new battery in '05, so there is no rhyme or reason to this.

Still I suspect you were had by the quickie lube. There are lots of ways to discharge a battery, or fake it. You said the car won’t start and the radio was dead. That is suspect, even the maintenance free batteries that fail and are “dead” hsve enough power to run the radio (draws very little current) but not enough to crank the starter which draws lots of current. Vote that yes you got ripped off.

What do you do in a situation like this? Tell them to jump start the car and you’ll deal with the battery problem later. That will get you away from there and you can go to Auto Zone or your mechanic for a load test on the battery. I don’t remember quickie lube places selling batteries, but I haven’t used one in years. If they have batteries on hand for sale, that makes me suspect right there. If they called an auto parts store and had one delivered then I’d say they were honest with you.

What could cause a healthy charge on healthy plates to
suddenly dissipate short of a short circuit?

But isn’t a short circuit one of the ways batteries can (and do) suddenly fail?

Throughout a battery’s working life, material harmlessly falls off the plates to the open space below the plates. However, in certain conditions the material builds up enough to touch adjacent plates - causing an immediate short and killing the battery.

I understand one characteristic of longer-life car batteries is they have a larger/higher open-space area under the plates.

On a related note, I too have been burned many times by making “absolute” statements.

Update: I agree with UncleTurbo’s comments below on his suspicion of the EZ Lube place. I remember back in high school discussion of dropping something into a cell of a battery which would kill it - I forgot what they dropped in. My point is if a shop wants to, it has plenty of tricks it can use to kill your battery.

Are there any battery experts in the crowd that can elaborate?

I’m truely interested in exactly what it is that might cause maintenance free batteries to suddenly discharge without an external circuit.

MountainBike:
I’m not a battery expert. My comment above about short circuits is what I remember studying in my 2-year auto mechanics course.

I did some searching on this and found several battery sites which support this. One of them, www.batterydoctorsasia.com/About_battery.html, states:

One of the problems with the plates in a lead-acid battery is that the plates change size as the battery charges and discharges, the plates increasing in size as the active material absorbs sulphate from the acid during discharge, and decreasing as they give up the sulphate during charging. This causes the plates to gradually shed the paste during their life. It is important that there is plenty of room underneath the plates to catch this shed material. If this material reaches the plates a shorted cell will occur.

Interesting. It sounds like not all batteries are designed with sufficient capacity under the plates to catch the shed materials. Bummer. This is new knowledge for me.

While a shorted cell would still run the radio, it is not a far reach to envision numerous cells being shorted simultaneously via this method.

Thanks Joe.

Joe, you make a good point. I’ve never had a battery suddenly fail that didn’t give me warning with weak starts and/or other signs of losing strength, but I never really gave battery failure modes much thought. Until today. It’s a good day. I;ve learned something.

Perhaps the quickie lube deserves the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I judged them too quickly.

Thanks guys. I’m glad this thread produced some good discussion about batteries. I wanted to say that, fyi, the car is a 2005. At that age, it is plausible that the battery went dead. How lucky for me that I was at shop that sold batteries just when it happened! If it had happened any place else, I would have had to go all the way down to AutoZone to buy a battery for half the price. :wink:

Seriously though, last night I spent some time researching this chain and found out that they had been closed down in the past for selling unneeded services and also for not doing what they said they would do. They also filed for bankruptcy last December. The funny thing is that they offered WiFi and I could have looked up all of these details while I was in their waiting room. Anyway, on the bright side, I have a shiny new battery the age and mileage of which I will always know.

Too bad all of the info about the car, age of the battery is not given. With an aged battery it’s prone to failure at any time and even the age of the battery may not mean anything. I’ve had brand new batteries fail within 2 days.

The OP did not even state what happened after he was informed of this battery problem. Replaced the battery, eventually started, or what?

A couple of years ago my daughter drove my Lincoln while I was doing maintenance on her car one weekend and she called me a few hours later from the mall.
The 2 year old battery in that car had decided to go south and there had never been a problem up to that point.
(Charged and tested the battery; sure enough. Bad.)

The ONLY way a battery can fail like this (makes no difference what type of battery) is if an internal cell connector opens up and the battery will will suddenly have zero volts across the terminals. All 12V batteries have 6 cells connected in series internally. If one of those 6 connections fail, the battery dies instantly. This is uncommon, but it does happen…

“last night I spent some time researching this chain and found out that they had been closed down in the past for selling unneeded services and also for not doing what they said they would do.”

If you are actually surprised by what you found, then at least you now know why the veterans of this board consistently advise that people avoid quick lube places. And, if this did not surprise you, then the question arises of why you went to a quick lube place. But, that is all water under the bridge at this point.

These places may be more convenient, but that one advantage is greatly outweighed by the negatives, including many damaged (pick one or more):
engines/transmissions/differentials/brake hydraulic systems

And, as you found out, these places are not even cheap. All-in-all, a bad bargain.

I’m not entirely surprised. I knew they would try to upsell me and I was prepared for that, but I was not prepared for a dead battery scam. I’ll never go to one of these places again but I used to go to one that basically did a good job -they always tried to sell me more than I came in for but never to the extent that would actually cheat me as was done yesterday.

Further, I was in a hurry and this played very well into their scheme. They knew it would probably be easier for me to buy a new battery than it would be for me to wait for a tow truck to jump start me. I’ve learned a lesson there too. Don’t do maintenance when your in a hurry!