Ka-BOOM!! So a car battery really CAN explode?!

After our hike up the Swartboskloof in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve with Sister T, we returned home utterly exhausted.

But we still had an early evening appointment at the nearby BP service station: Sister T was selling her brand-new never-been-worn leather motorcycle jacket via Gumtree (P.S. If you’re interested, drop me a line! It’s a stunning jacket, in size ‘small’.), and the potential buyer had arranged to meet Richard and Sister T at the service station to try on the jacket. I stayed at home, as the heat exhaustion had morphed into a head-thumping nausea-inducing migraine.

About 10 minutes later, mere moments after I had mercifully dozed off, my phone rang. Disoriented, I staggered down the hall to the phone.

“Honey? Can you fetch us? The car exploded.”

“Huh?”

“No, it’s not quite that bad. The car’s battery exploded.”

“What??!!”

It was a decidedly surreal conversation. In fact, I was starting to wonder whether I was having a bizarre lucid dream.

“We’re on our way home from the service station. Can you come pick us up with your car? We need to tow mine home.”

I don't think a car battery is supposed to look like that

I don’t think a car battery is supposed to look like that

By the time I had gotten my brain into gear, locked up the house, reversed the car and driven down the road towards the service station, they were halfway home. The two of them looked a bit stunned, but they weren’t hurt. Thank God for that. They climbed aboard, and we returned to the service station.

I pulled in next to his car. It looked fine on the outside, but when he opened the hood, I could see that the battery had in fact exploded. It was not just dead, but spattered all over the inside of the engine compartment, with sulfuric acid leaking everywhere.

He hadn’t been joking.

Seriously, the possibility of this happening had never ever crossed my mind. A flat battery, yes. But one that was capable of blowing up quite spontaneously? Definitely not.

It took us an eternity to figure out a way of towing his car.

Ever since my car had been sideswiped by a bloomin’ Golden Arrow bus two years ago, the rear bumper has been just a little bent out of shape. The little flap that conceals the towing eye and that you’re supposed to dislodge with a screwdriver, was refusing to budge. Richard slid halfway under the car until he found somewhere to attach the one end of the towing rope. It probably wasn’t an officially recommended attachment point.

Then we discovered that he had a towing eye for his car, but only for the rear. There didn’t seem to be any place at the front, where the towing rope could be safely attached. Eventually, he connected it – somehow, I didn’t ask – to the metal chassis underneath the engine compartment.

All in all, it was a decidedly dodgy and unstable setup. Luckily, we didn’t have far to go, and we traveled at crawling speed. An additional problem was that, because the battery was dead, none of the electrics in the car were working: we had no lights, no indicators, no emergency flashing lights, no way of opening the windows in the stifling heat… oh, and very little braking power. We couldn’t even stick our arms out of the window to indicate to other vehicles that we had a problem.

Quite a bit of battery acid has leaked out onto the tarmac

Quite a bit of battery acid has leaked out onto the tarmac

Fortunately, it being early Saturday evening in a quiet residential neighbourhood, there was almost no traffic. Richard climbed into my car, and Sister T – bless her – bravely got behind the wheel of Richard’s car. She reassured me that she had been towed before. I had too, but it hadn’t been a happy experience at all; and it’s not the kind of thing you want to try when your head is pounding and you feel a bit detached from reality.

We made it safely home. Phew.

Richard and Sister T proceeded to clean the engine compartment of shrapnel from the battery. After squeezing his hands into a slightly too-small pair of rubber gloves, Richard carefully disconnected and removed the shattered battery, before hosing everything down thoroughly for good measure. By the next morning, a small puddle of sulfuric acid had formed underneath the battery, and another small puddle of acid had cleaned the dirt off the garage floor. Sheesh! This is potent stuff!

It being a Sunday, we weren’t too hopeful that we would find a service centre where we could purchase a replacement battery. Richard patiently worked himself through the Yellow Pages directory, until someone answered the phone! And by sheer luck, it happened to be the battery centre next to the tyre shop, where we always buy new tyres! We drove through to town in my car, picked up the new battery and left behind the exploded battery. Close inspection of the old battery revealed that it had been in the car for around 6-7 years, which is impressive. Back at home, Richard figured out how to connect the new battery, and it worked first time – without exploding!

We are not sure how and why the battery exploded. After extensive Googling (Do Car Batteries Really Blow Up?, What Can Happen If A Car Battery Explodes, and The Shocking Truth About Car Batteries), what we think may have happened is that there was a build-up of hydrogen gas in the engine compartment (we had driven the car quite a long distance that day, in sweltering heat, and it seems that a small rubber pipe had come loose – we think it may have been an outlet venting pipe or something like that), and that the spark from the ignition set off the explosion.

In any case, it was a sobering realisation that lead acid batteries are dangerous items that should be treated with serious respect. And I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable jump-starting a vehicle in future – at least not without full body and face protection!

Richard DIY-installs a replacement battery

Richard DIY-installs a replacement battery – thankfully, it works!

About Reggie

"To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour."
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18 Responses to Ka-BOOM!! So a car battery really CAN explode?!

  1. I didn’t know this could happen, though the bombs I’ve driven most of my life have suffered nearly every other possible disaster. Inconvenient at the time, but it makes a good story – all that matters to a writer!

  2. sybil says:

    What ? No auto club to call to tow you ? I’m a big baby and have a CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) membership. And your difficulty finding a battery on a Sunday ? Wasn’t your local Canadian Tire open ? lol

    I have never heard of a battery exploding. Quite scary. Glad everyone is OK. I assume F.K. was home taking care of you and bringing you wet cloths for your head ?

    • Reggie says:

      LOL! No, no Automobile Association membership! And – no! we don’t have a Canadian Tire outlet! Perhaps they should franchise to South Africa. ;-)

      Sadly, Flat Kathy wasn’t around at that time. If she had been, though, I’m sure she would have kept me company.

  3. munchow says:

    That is quite a story. I have heard about car batteries exploding, but this is the first time I have seen it happening (well I guess I didn’t really see it, but you get my point). That battery really looks like it’s been bombed. I am glad nobody got hurt.

  4. SallyK says:

    That is so scary! Thank goodness the car didn’t catch fire. I’ve had cars go bad in lots of ways, including a VW Bug that did catch fire, but never a battery explode. Glad no one was hurt.

    • Reggie says:

      Oh man, that must’ve been scary! I’ve – on very rare occasions, thankfully – seen VW Bugs (the older models) on the side of the road after they’ve burnt out. It’s a sorry sight. So I guess that does really happen too.

      I’ve never heard of a battery exploding, though; but it seems that this is not an uncommon event!

  5. jimsgarage says:

    I checked your entry and was glad that no one was hurt. Over the years I have several anecdotes on people having managed to have a battery explode, but it is quite rare. Best of luck – Jim

    • Reggie says:

      Thank you, Jim. You’ve written such an excellent post about this topic – very informative. Since then, whenever I turn the key in the ignition, I am aware that it could happen again. Usually, one just assumes that, as long as the car starts, the battery is fine; they often last so many years without giving problems that we don’t even bother checking the date, and making a note of when we might need to replace it. I guess now we need to add it to the regular checklist – “fuel, oil, water, tyres, battery“. ;-)

  6. Good grief – I hope that never happens to me! The photos of the blown up battery look good though!. ;-) Sort of like an art project gone wrong.

  7. KerryBek2012 says:

    Sheesh how unusual and frightening! — take it the gumtree meeting was to no avail?
    G xx

  8. Truels says:

    Reggie, what a story! I’m glad Richard was not hurt in the explosion – or working on the battery afterwards – it’s dangerous stuff….
    I have not been around here for a while, but now I’m trying to get the screw in the blog water again;-)

    • Reggie says:

      Sooo am I, Truels. Fortunately, the explosion was confined to the engine compartment.

      I confess that I was more than a little on edge when I watched him installing the new battery himself. And when he turned the key in the ignition the first time, I kept a safe distance – which is also why there’s no photo of that moment! :-)

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