Further Battery Adventures

October 21, 2013

I’d been reading and listening to the radio while Betty Lou was shopping in the McLean Giant. When she returned and I pressed the engine start button, I was dismayed to once again hear the “click, click, click” of a nearly dead battery. It was particularly unexpected because it had been at the dealer’s less than three weeks before for routine service and I assumed it had been checked. Indeed, when I later examined the invoice, “Battery condition” was one of 42 items that had been marked “Checked and OK.” However, so was “Battery cables and connections,” and the negative terminal connector was covered with corrosion, so it’s questionable how much really gets inspected. In any case, there was no doubt about the battery’s current state; the Driver Information Center display showed 9.75 volts.

By now, the Corvette road service warranty had expired, but I knew that OnStar would provide similar service. Since there was still enough power to operate the GPS display, I pressed the button that would connect me with an OnStar agent, realizing that not only would they would know who I was but also the exact location of the car.

However, after the “Calling OnStar” voice response, the line went dead. Fortunately, the procedure when calling them is much simpler than Corvette’s; for example, one immediately reaches a person without having to first provide answers to a long phone tree of questions, including the last eight digits of the VIN.

They passed me through to road service. After several miscommunications: “L-O-D-W-I-C-K?” “M-A-C-L-A-I-N?” (they did comprehend C-V-S, in front of which I was parked) I was concerned about whether they would actually be able to locate us. However, they said they would contact a local service provider, and they did have the correct address of the CVS. They also said it would take 45 minutes, and Betty Lou began to be concerned about perishable items in the trunk.

So we were pleasantly surprised 15 minutes later to hear a tap on the window the rescue car had arrived. We were fairly easy to locate, the CVS being a much smaller landmark than the Giant. Not to mention that it’s not that difficult to spot a lone red Corvette in – this being McLean – a sea of SUVs and black or silver sedans.

Unlike the earlier battery adventure, the rescuer had a new Passat and a separate booster battery, which immediately started the car.

Returning home – with the motor still running – I checked the service records and found that although the battery had been replaced early on, it was nearly five years old, so it was unlikely that any remaining pro-rated warranty discount from Chevrolet’s list price would be worth the drive to Gaithersburg.

So I returned to McLean, to Advance Auto Parts, across the street from where we began. Battery replacement is no longer the simple remove-and-replace procedure since computers, with their associated memory, have taken charge of so many functions: radio station settings, of course; but also seat, steering column and side view mirror positions; when to automatically lock and unlock doors, turn off interior and exterior lights, whether to beep or just flash the lights when remotely locking or unlocking, etc. – not to mention the many pre-programmed GPS destinations.

We’ve had first-hand experience with that situation when, during a service of our 2004 Acura, someone disconnected the battery without first ensuring that the electronics would continue to be energized. Reprogramming was a time-consuming process. When Advance Auto Parts later replaced the Acura battery, they used a device that plugged into the cigarette lighter outlet.

However, the clerk said that things were different for newer cars – now they use a memory keeper that plugs into the OBD (On-Board Diagnostics) connector. But he warned that this could sometimes result in a trouble code being displayed, requiring a reset by the dealer. In particular, it had recently happened to a BMW.

The Corvette controls being generally user-friendly, I thought it unlikely it would have problems, but I asked if the BMW had started and continued to run satisfactorily. He said it had, but the windshield wipers had operated erratically for a while and the GPS had been inoperative for half an hour. So I decided it was worth a try, and didn’t even have to sign a waiver.

He rolled out the tool cart and battery, and was pleased that the battery seemed to be readily accessible in the engine compartment. (The hot Corvettes, those with 505 and 638 HP, as compared with my puny 430, have the battery in the trunk.) He even recalled one car where it was under the rear seat. He told the owner he could remove the back seat to replace the battery, but it would be up to him to reinstall it.

As you might expect, it turned out that removal wasn’t that simple, requiring just the correct sequence of lifts, twists, and turns – and it weighed 44 pounds.

He installed the new battery and the end seemed to be in sight. He tightened the positive terminal, then the negative – interrupted by a “ping,” when a piece snapped off the connector, which, as previously mentioned, had been seriously corroded, and came to rest on some body part below.

I took a look at the surviving connector and found it was much different from the usual ones, in particular seeming much flimsier.

It looked like I might have to make a trip to the dealer after all, but first he would have to tighten the remainder sufficiently to be able to conduct the heavy starting current. He squeezed with pliers, but confided that he really needed the larger pair that someone had borrowed. I suggested that he lock his toolbox, but he said he couldn’t because it belonged to Advance Auto Parts.

He next tried hammering it, lightly, with the same lack of effect. I suggested the cable was long enough to just replace the unique connector with a universal one, but he said it would look ugly! I assured him that I wouldn’t be entering any classic car shows, so we went inside to see what was available. A large clamp was fairly unsightly, but a smaller one looked fine to me.

We went back outside, and soon found that his cutters were not an equal match to the thick cable. He strained mightily and the cable did eventually yield, the connector snapping off and dropping downward. This time it rested just within reach, but in very narrow confines, and when he tried to grasp it, it joined its companion below.

So he now set about stripping the cable, but the way the insulation stubbornly resisted the wire stripper’s efforts, it might have been some space-age material. He retrieved a formidable folding knife from his pocket – he hunts a lot, he said – but even that imposing blade did not have an easy time of it.

Finally, the cable prepared, he began to tighten the bolts that clamped the new connector to it. Somehow the socket popped off the wrench and …, by now you know the result. Fortunately, he had another wrench to complete the installation.

Now it was time to recover the missing pieces. He was able to squeeze far enough under the low-slung body to almost, but not quite, reach them, so he asked me to hand him the magnet tool. I have one myself, a powerful magnet on an extendable shaft, so I located it and handed it to him. I mentioned the powerful magnet – I was not surprised to hear several “clangs” as it attached itself to the frame, rather than what he was searching for. Finally he used it as a sweep and emerged with all parts accounted for.

After the afternoon’s entertainment, it was anticlimactic that the car started immediately, with no trouble codes displayed and all memory settings intact. And the cable clamp was gratis.

Later research in Corvette forums revealed that connector breakage was not uncommon, one respondent saying that his dealer had difficulty keeping cables in stock. You may realize from this comment that connectors aren’t sold separately. In fact, neither is the special nut, which has a conical base, to the dismay of those who have lost one when making some electrical modification.

And it’s even worse than you might think, because one can’t even purchase a single cable; they come as a harness set – for $122.63. And that’s for the short set I have, not the ones that extend back to the trunk. So it’s no surprise that the general recommendation is to do just what I had done, the final result looking perfectly acceptable to me.

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