Great Reasons to use a Trickle Charger (and One Reason Not To!)

Battery Tender

I’m a huge advocate of using a battery trickle-charger, or battery tender, when you won’t be driving your vehicle for extended periods of time – and especially if that vehicle is a newer one, packed with fancy electronics that get fussy if the battery powering them isn’t in tip-top shape.

Many readers have been in touch with questions and comments about trickle charger use, based on my frequent recommendation that you use one in my regular used car review columns.

So, readers, here’s a bit more information about why your investment in a sub-$50 trickle charger or battery tender is a good idea, a look at some great reasons to use one, and a look at one great reason not to.

You Battery Could Last Longer

Hook up that trickle charger to your ride’s battery, consistently, when you won’t be driving it for a few days or more, and you could be extending the life of your battery in the process. Two reasons why. First, if your ride sits for days on end and only gets driven briefly, the battery will have trouble achieving a full charge, which can reduce its life and cause problems. Second? Many trickle chargers have a conditioning function that helps optimize the condition of your battery. Once your battery has had its fill of yummy electrons, this function can maintain its charge at an ideal level for longevity. Remember: the longer your battery lasts, the more money you’ll save.

You Won’t Have to Reprogram Stuff

2018 Subaru WRX, WRX STI

In more and more new cars, owner’s manuals are advising shoppers that replacing a battery is a “dealer only” endeavor. Does the dealer want your money for a new battery? Sure – but this provision also ensures that a trained technician, not a backyard mechanic, is at the helm of the battery replacement procedure. These days, in newer vehicles, this is increasingly important: as disconnecting a battery isn’t just disconnecting a battery.

In numerous applications, improper replacement of the battery can wipe out the programming of certain vehicle systems – which will require (expensive) reprogramming, and often, a tow to the dealer (also pricey), as the vehicle may not start.

The gist? Whether from a disconnected battery, or a dead battery, you could be in for a serious migraine if your vehicle systems lose power. So, keep that trickle charger hooked up, and your battery topped off, to prevent issues and save hard-earned cash. After all, if your newer car battery goes bunk, boosting it may be the least of your problems.

You Won’t have to Remove Your Battery

Got a summer-only or seasonal car? Do you usually remove its battery and store it inside somewhere? With a battery trickle charger, you won’t need to. Just connect the leads to the battery posts, and walk away. Your battery will be topped off and conditioned all winter, and you’ll save time and effort by leaving it in your car where it belongs. She’ll fire up like a champ for that first springtime drive, too.

You Won’t be Late for Things

Let’s not forget one of the worst things about dead batteries – the failure of your ride’s engine to fire up. This makes you late to supper, your yoga class, an important meeting at work, or for a deadline to pick up your offspring at the movies. The 30 seconds it takes to hook up a trickle charger virtually eliminates the likelihood of a dead battery, both right after you unplug it, and for days later, too.

How NOT to use a Trickle Charger

September Goof of the Month

Your writer learned this one the hard way, the other day. I store my summer car in the garage over the winter, after hooking up my $30 el-cheapo trickle charger. Except, this year I didn’t.

Laziness and procrastination flowed into the holidays, and I put off hooking the thing up for about a month. By this point, my battery was completely dead when I got around to moving the car in the garage. After it failed to start, I figured, I’d leave the trickle charger hooked up a few days, to bring the battery back up to charge. Sounds legit, right?

Apparently not: my battery was totally borked, likely drained by the alarm system. And the trickle charger is just that: a trickle charger. It trickle charges the battery to maintain its charge – and most aren’t designed to bring a battery back from the dead. Now, I need a new battery. Had I hooked the trickle charger up when I should have, I’d have saved about $150. D’oh! The lesson here? Hook up your trickle charger early, and if your battery is dead, don’t expect it to bring it back.

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Justin Pritchard
Justin Pritchard is a native of Windsor, Ontario – though he’s called Sudbury his home for the past 20 years. Justin is a full-time auto writer, consultant and presenter of EastLink TV’s AutoPilot. His work can be seen weekly in numerous outlets across the country. When not writing about the latest new models and industry trends, you’ll probably find him fixing his 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS.
Justin Pritchard

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  • Eric Coll

    Several problems in the last paragraph. What does “borked” mean? I’m an Electrical Engineer and can’t find that term in any textbook.

    Worse, the leap from “I should have connected the trickle charger” to “now I need a new battery” does not make any sense.

    If the only problem is the battery was fully discharged, use a regular battery charger to charge it. Saying it was necessary to buy a new battery because you didn’t connect a trickle charger. If the battery was old and didn’t hold a charge anymore, then say so. It has nothing to do with using a trickle charger. Sheesh.

  • Glen

    The words “trickle charger” in the past referred to small-amperage chargers that continuously charged the battery. You absolutely do NOT want to leave one of these hooked up to your auto battery long-term. These will continue to pump a charge into your battery after it has been fully charged, resulting in possible water loss (dependent upon whether the battery is fully sealed or not), possible overheating in warm weather, and slow disintegration of the plates. This can be just as bad, or worse than not charging at all. You should look for a “float” charger. A float charger will bring the battery to full charge, then cycle off and on at a lower voltage (usually around 13.2 volts) to maintain the battery. This type of charger only supplies small charging currents and voltages to a fully charged battery when the charger on that battery drops due to self-discharge or loads. If used only to maintain the battery, a small-amperage float charger will suffice. Many such chargers have selectable amerage settings that you can use depending upon the size of your battery. So do not think “trickle charger”, instead look for a “battery maintainer” or a “float charger”

  • Stan

    There is another issue here. When a battery discharges, the electrolyte changes back to water, and water can freeze, causing the plates in the battery to become distorted and often will in fact destroy an otherwise perfectly good battery, whereas a battery maintainer prevents that from occuring.