It’s always a bit of a kick to the gut when you have a battery that dies on your boat. A very common question is if you need to change all of your boat batteries now that one died.
As with all things, it depends.
It is necessary to change all of the boat batteries if the dead battery is part of an isolated bank and connected to other batteries in series or parallel. You do not have to change the other marine batteries if they are not part of the same isolated bank.
Let’s dive into this topic and quickly cover when we need to change all of the batteries, when we only need to change a single battery, how often to change your boat batteries, and how to tell when your marine battery needs to be changed!
When Do We Change All of the Batteries?
You will need to change all of the batteries within the same isolated bank when they are connected to each other in series or in parallel.
This is to preserve the integrity and longevity of our new $100+ investment when we buy a new battery. You could certainly hook a brand new battery to an existing bank and it will certainly work. However, within a very short amount of time, your new battery will be at the same capacity and will have the same life expectancy as your old batteries.
Say, for instance, you had a bank of 12-volt batteries that were 5 years old. One died, and you replaced it.
The new battery will have a resting voltage of about 12.75 volts after being fully charged. The old batteries will all vary, but let’s say that they are now resting at about 12.2 volts after being removed from the charger for a day or so.
Due to the lower resting voltage, the old batteries are going to pull current out of the new battery in order to equalize the entire bank.
When a battery isn’t at it’s optimal and healthy state of charge (12.65-12.8 volts), then it will undergo sulfation. Sulfation is when lead sulfate naturally builds up inside of the battery and attaches itself to the plates when the battery is in a state of full or partial discharge. This sulfation will make it harder for the battery to accept a charge and harder to give out current when demanded (the number 1 killer of batteries).
When your new battery is being equalized by the other batteries in the bank, you are prematurely causing it to undergo sulfation on a constant basis.
The other issue comes with charging. When hooked to a charger as a single bank, the charger treats it as one battery, for all intents and purposes.
Let’s say that same bank of batteries with 3 that are nearing the end of their useful life and a single new one are connected in parallel. When the charger starts pumping in current, it is going into one battery on one end of the bank and out the battery on the other end of the bank.
The new battery, because it has less sulfation, will actually absorb and become charged faster than the other batteries that have a higher internal resistance due to the lead sulfate inhibiting their charge.
However, because this new battery is part of the whole bank and is treated as a single battery, the charger will keep pumping in current until the entire bank reaches a “full charge”. The new battery didn’t need the additional charge to bring up the rest of the batteries but must deal with it anyway.
This will result in the new battery constantly overcharging every time you hook it to a charger. Overcharging will result in the battery overheating, bubbling, hissing, or any combination thereof.
If you don’t catch it in time with a flooded battery (one where you can pop the caps to check the acid levels) and replenish the evaporated electrolyte with distilled water, then you will permanently damage your battery if the levels drop below the tops of the lead plates.
If you have a sealed battery, you run the risk of the battery hissing and venting out excess pressure (evaporated water from the electrolyte) caused by the heat during overcharging.
I know it’s a pain, but if your batteries are all part of the same bank, they need to be treated as a sunk-cost once one decides to die. It’s better to buy all new batteries and get another 5 or so years out of them than to buy a new one and have it die within the year and have to replace all of them again (plus the new one that didn’t last).
In bank of 2 batteries, you’d essentially be replacing 3 batteries in a short amount of time if you didn’t just replace the 2 when the first one died.
When Do We Only Change 1 Battery?
You are more than welcome to change just a single battery if that battery is isolated from other batteries and is its own “bank”. It is common on small to mid-sized boats to have a starter battery for the engine and a house battery to power everything else.
These are usually controlled with a “1-2-Both” style switch where you can draw from battery/bank 1, battery/bank 2, or draw from both if needed.
In this case, the voltage and health of the starter battery has absolutely no bearing on the voltage and health of the house battery. You can certainly take it as a warning that because one died, the other might soon follow, but it is not a hard rule.
You may very well have a starter battery that dies and a house battery that gets another 3 years of life.
How Often to Change a Boat Battery
The life span of a marine battery all depends on the frequency of use, the depth of discharges put on them, the climate, as well as the maintenance and charging habits of the owner.
That being said, it’s nice to have some sort of expectation, right?
You can reasonably expect to change a marine boat battery after 5-6 years.
This is assuming you use your boat on the weekends about 4 months a year and you always keep them charged with a smart charger when not in use and check their electrolyte levels (if applicable).
If you’re searching for a smart charger for your boat that can handle multiple banks and maximize the lifespan of your batteries, then you should at least consider this charger seen on Amazon. You can select the model based on the number of banks you anticipate having on your boat.
How Do I Know When My Boat Battery is Bad
There’s a lot that goes into testing the overall health of a battery. Simply checking the voltage is not enough. There’s much to consider including the specific gravity of all of the cells, internal resistance, sulfation, etc.
The easiest and most fool proof way is to buy a rugged “load tester” for your battery. You can enter in the specs that are on your battery’s sticker, and the tester will perform a full scan of the current capabilities of your battery in relation to those specifications. It will then tell you the current state of health of your battery.
This load tester on Amazon is completely affordable and is suited for marine batteries.