Car Q&A: Battery life, oil usage, engine cleaning

Kevin writes: My F150’s battery failed with almost no warning after three years. Is there something I could have done to extend its life?  

Mike: Modern batteries often fail before three years of age with the electrical load placed on batteries nowadays. Government requirements require battery manufacturers to use significant amounts of recycled lead, which I believe is part of the problem. It’s a reality we have to deal with, so  I recommend replacing your battery at 30 months of age. If you read my column often, you will notice that I get a significant number of questions concerning batteries.

Roger: My Honda uses about a quart of oil between changes, and I have just started adding an extra quart when I do the oil changes. Is that wrong to overfill it by a quart?

Mike: Yes, it is. Overfilling can cause the oil to rise into the spinning crankshaft, where air bubbles will get churned into the oil. (this is called foaming) Your engine’s oil pump can’t properly circulate oil with air bubbles, possibly resulting in severe engine damage. Too much oil can also foul your sparkplugs. Overfilling is a bad idea with all automotive fluids. Just check it more often.

Ted asks: Is it a good idea to clean the engine on my classic car? A friend suggested it, but I don’t know if it is a good idea.

Mike: There are several reasons to wash your engine at least every year or two. A clean engine will make it much easier to spot leaks and perform maintenance. Before getting started, remember to protect sensitive engine components — including the air intake, distributor, and electrical parts — with plastic bags. Spray your warm engine down with dishwashing liquid or other degreasers. When you rinse, be sure to avoid the alternator, a/c compressor, and steering pump. After hosing it down, blow it dry with air. Start it up and let it run with the hood open for a few minutes to let the steam escape. If you aren’t a do-it-yourself person, have it done at a detail shop.

Kevin asks: I was listening to a part-time mechanic friend the other day talk about maintaining anti-lock brakes on my Acura TL, and I thought the anti-lock brakes were maintenance-free. What am I supposed to do? I try to perform my own maintenance.

Mike: Kevin, for one, you should replace the brake fluid in the ABS control unit every two years along with your primary brake fluid. The problem is that brake fluid is hygroscopic: which means it absorbs moisture. After eighteen months, your system could contain ten percent water, which degrades the system’s performance. However, if you aren’t familiar with the ABS, I’d recommend taking it to an ASE Certified Technician to perform the work. Maintaining it now can save you a lot of time and money in the future.

Donna writes: My 2009 Ford Explorer has green fur growing on the battery. Do I wash this off? Is it a problem? Mike: Yes, it is an indicator that your battery’s case is leaking acid. Not only will it damage the very expensive battery cables, but it will also strand you very soon. Wash it down with a mixture of baking soda and water to neutralize the acid. Be sure to rinse it thoroughly. Then either replace the battery yourself or have it done by someone qualified to do so. Electrical problems are costly, and this is a trainwreck waiting to happen.