Thursday, November 28, 2013

Product Review: Optima Batteries

Perhaps you've seen the advertisement: an Optima battery survives the rigors of a demolition derby, then goes into the vehicle taking it's owner home. But is it pure advertising hyperbole or is there something to the claim? To find out I tested the Optima Red Top and Yellow top batteries in situations ranging from daily-driving to that demolition derby-in-denial, the 24 Hours of LeMons.

Geek Alert: while conventional lead-acid batteries use (fragile) lead plates suspended in vats of acid, the Optima has lead wound into a spiral tube.Optima's design is inherently stronger, thus more resistant to vibration, especially in off-road applications.The design also allows a more pure grade of lead and there's a fiberglass mat to hold the electrolyte gel against the lead. Fantastic.

In reality, it works. TTAC's race car for the 24hrs of LeMons uses my leftover Optima "Red Top" battery, doing very well under the rigors of race use. Proof positive was our electrical nightmare: the reinforced battery tray that dislodged itself from the rusty fender. With our luck, the car's good vibrations let battery hold down (metal) meet the positive cable. Then they became friends. Such good friends, in fact, they welded themselves together and cooked several underhood wires.But the Optima survived the ordeal, where a normal battery would have exploded.

But why did I donate a functional Optima to the LeMons car?Again, geek alert: my Lincoln Mark VIII (a car known for charging problems as they age) had bizarre charging characteristics after 2 years of use with a Red Top, even with significant upgrades over OEM. It worked until it's second Houston summer made the car's voltage fluctuate several tenths in stop/go traffic.Fearing more problems (been there, done that), I proactively switched to a conventional battery and netted rock-solid charging after 2+ years of daily commuting. I discussed this with an Optima product guru: he suggested the problem is unique to my car.Frankly, after many hours of wrenching, I suspect he's right.

I had two other negative Red Top experiences, one from vehicles in storage for 6-12 months, unable to take a trickle charge afterwards.Optima says this is a common problem, but it's the battery charger's fault. In their words:

If an OPTIMA is deeply discharged (below 10.5 volts) most basic chargers will not supply a charge. Also keep in mind an OPTIMA will not recharge properly if treated as a regular flooded or gel battery. To charge the battery, you can wire a second fully charged automotive battery (12+V) to the discharged AGM in parallel (+ to + and - to -). Then hook up the charger to either battery, setting the charger at 10 amps. Leave for two hours, monitoring frequently. During this process if the discharged battery gets very hot or if it is venting (hissing sound from vents) then stop this process immediately. When the discharged battery reaches 10.5 volts or more, remove the standard battery and continue charging the AGM until fully charged.

For normal charging a relatively low current, such as one or two amps can work well, but when the battery has been deeply discharged, some sulfation of the battery plates may have occurred. If you charge at 10 amps, the higher current will help to break up this sulfation. If you have an automatic charger, let it run until the charger indicates charging is complete. If you have a manual charger, you can get a rough estimate of the charging time in hours of a completely discharged battery (11.2V) by multiplying the capacity (amp hours or Ah) of the battery by 1.2. If your battery is not completely discharged the time would be less.

In most cases these steps will recover the AGM battery. It's okay for the AGM battery to get slightly warm during the charging process. If it's hot to the touch it means there's a short and the process should be discontinued.

A fancier charger like a CTEC should work fine, but that's not all: I had a (daily driven) Optima Red Top fail on the 36th month of its 36 month warranty.The car's charging system is in excellent condition, but the battery couldn't start the car after sitting overnight.While the free replacement works flawlessly for 2+ years, this was disappointing considering Optima's premium pricing.

And there's that: Optima Red Tops are about $150, roughly $50 more than a conventional battery with a similar warranty.The Yellow Top, with its superior "deep cycle" capabilities often retails for an extra $20 over the Red Top.And Optima supplied a Yellow Top for TTAC's project car, a Cadillac Fleetwood Limo in dire need of a new battery, alternator and so much more.

Long story short: the Yellow Top worked flawlessly while diagnosing, wrenching and cranking (endlessly cranking) the Caddy's pathetic motor. Not to mention providing hours of entertainment to passers by at the 24 Hours of LeMons, thanks to the Yellow Top's deep reserve against the Limo's extensive interior lighting, BOSE audio and power-hungry load-leveling suspension.The Yellow Top is designed to handle long periods of usage, resisting failure after repeated discharges. My time with the Limo proved it. I am happy with this battery's short-term performance: like the race car's Red Top, this is the ideal partner for a Limo.

But what about the average car of your average TTAC reader?Even with Optima's clear engineering superiority, I don't see their performance gains worth the higher asking price.My negative experiences with the Red Top aside, this product isn't a good value for your daily driver. Non-street legal toys and high-current applications are a different story.
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