Trucking team switches battery for ultra-capacitor; experts say it’s the solution to cold-weather battery failure
By Mark Reddig
Host, Land Line Now
A lot of truckers have had the unfortunate experience of turning the key on their truck, and hearing – well, something other than an engine starting.
The reason is a familiar one – the battery has lost its charge. Either too many hotel loads were attached to it when they key was off, or some other factor, such as extremely cold weather, sapped the battery of its ability to hold a charge.
Now, technology has offered an alternative to the traditional battery. And it’s not something entirely new.
That solution is the humble capacitor.
In the case of semis and starting, that capacitor is big. In fact, huge compared with many others. It’s called an ultra-capacitor.
OOIDA members Bob and Linda Caffee of Silex, Mo., are among the operations that have changed from a starting battery to an ultra-capacitor.
I first spoke with Bob Caffee about that changeover back in early 2014. He and Linda were only four months into the use of their first capacitor.
Before that device, Bob said that several times, he and Linda faced a situation where they pull in for the night or a meal, leave the truck in the lot, and when they returned, the battery sometimes didn’t even have enough power to start the generator, and even some of the most basic equipment – such as interior lights – wouldn’t come on.
That led them to look for a solution that would guarantee the truck would start. The capacitor was the solution they decided on.
In part, he says, the hotel loads in the sleeper are a good reason to invest. But they’re not the only one.
“Trucks have so much electronics in them, and the drivers have their cell phones and their laptops and their iPads and whatever else they plug in,” he said. “There’s just so much draw on the batteries, unless you idle of have an APU, you have no choice but to run the batteries down.
“The thing about this (capacitors) is you can run your batteries down, and as long as the batteries have enough voltage to energize the starter, which is only like 10 ½ volts, the truck will start because the capacitor has everything it needs to make the engine start.”
After they installed that first capacitor, the problem simply went away. They would reliably emerge from the truck stop, turn the key, and everything would come on – even in very cold weather.
When I spoke to Bob at that time, it was the depth of winter – and he had a very real world example of just how well the device performed in those conditions.
“We were in Davenport, Iowa … 45 below zero wind chill,” Bob explained. “We sat there from Saturday afternoon till Monday morning. Hit the key, truck fired right up – no problem.
“I’ve never had one, even with fully charged batteries, start as easy as this engine does now.”
So for the uninitiated, what exactly is an ultra-capacitor – or what is even a regular capacitor?
At its most basic, a capacitor is made of two plates with an insulator in between. When hooked up to a power source, the capacitor will store a positive charge on one plate, and a negative charge on the other.
Complete a circuit between the two plates, and the charge is released.
Capacitors are used in radios, in appliances, in all kinds of electronics. But in trucks, a larger unit is used – an ultra-capacitor.
Years ago, Land Line Magazine Senior Technical Editor Paul Abelson wrote about the use of capacitors in heavy diesel equipment in extremely cold areas, such as Siberia or other regions adjoining the Arctic Circle.
“An ultra-capacitor does