How to Tell the Positive & Negative Side of a Car Battery?

how to tell which side of a battery is positive

Have you ever needed to jump start your car only to open the hood and be baffled by the sight of the battery terminals? Those confusing metal bits attached to the top of the car battery don’t exactly come labeled “positive” and “negative”. But connecting jumper cables to the wrong terminal can have disastrous consequences.

So how can you tell the positive and negative side of a car battery?

By carefully inspecting the physical features, markings, colors, sizes, and connections of the terminals, the positive side can be clearly identified with some basic automotive knowledge. Certain tips, like using a voltmeter, can also definitively determine battery polarity.

This comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about car battery polarity. You’ll learn fool-proof methods for determining which battery terminal is positive and negative so those intimidating jumper cables can safely give your car the extra power it needs to get back up and running.

Specific topics covered include:

  • Physical identification of positive and negative battery terminals
  • Using labels, symbols, and color-coding to distinguish polarity
  • Consequences of connecting jumper cables incorrectly
  • Step-by-step instructions for jump starting a car
  • When to replace a dead battery
  • Maintaining and caring for car batteries
  • Proper battery disposal and recycling

So let’s start by demystifying the basic purpose and layout of your car’s electrical system, centering around that perplexing rectangular box known as the lead-acid battery.

Purpose and Anatomy of a Car Battery

The battery is the heart of your vehicle’s electrical system, powering everything from ignition and starting functions to lights, audio, charging ports and more.

Without a properly charged battery, none of your car’s vital systems can operate. So it’s critical to understand battery basics like how to provide a power boost with jumper cables or trickle charger when voltage runs low.

Car batteries contain lead plates submerged in an electrolyte solution which enables chemical reactions generating electric current. Inside the plastic battery case, sets of these lead cell pairs connect in sequence to produce around 14 volts of power.

The amount of charge in your battery depends on factors like plate size, acidity and number of cell pairs determining reserve capacity. When car batteries discharge from things like interior lights or ignition left on without the engine running, the lead sulfate buildup makes it harder for cells to generate more energy.

That’s why you might need that extra power punch delivered by correctly jump starting the battery using the positive and negative terminals conveniently connected to metal posts on top of the battery.

But if the battery terminals aren’t properly matched using those jumper cables, the introduction of reverse polarity electricity can quickly overload circuits and electronics.

So let’s cover specific techniques you can use to accurately identify which post connects to the positive and negative side of your car battery.

Physical Features of Positive and Negative Terminals

One of the quickest visual checks for determining battery polarity requires locating the main positive and negative terminals connected to the metal posts extending from your battery’s top.

The positive terminal is almost always physically larger in size than the neighboring negative terminal. The thicker conductive metal and wider diameter increases stability and contact for the charge-delivering “hot” cable of the electrical system. This distinct size difference is universal across most vehicle makes and models.

If the battery has additional smaller auxiliary posts, these connect to internal cell partitions and cannot be used when jump starting. Only the main external terminals should make contact with jumper cable clamps.

While variable depending on battery group size and metal composition, the larger positive terminal measures around 11 to 13mm in diameter on average. The smaller negative terminal post is usually closer to 11 to 13mm inches wide. If you connect the positive jumper cable to the smaller post, it likely won’t make a tight clamp connection and risks coming loose.

Another visible indicator can be the length of the terminal bolts extending through the plastic battery case. The higher tension positive terminal bolt often protrudes an extra fraction of an inch below the negative terminal to better anchor against vibrations. This extended length also guarantees a secure seat on the battery tray or tie-down bracket.

Markings and Labels Distinguishing Polarity

Manufacturers usually stamp or imprint some type of + sign indicator directly onto the positive battery terminal metal post, plastic cover or battery casing surface near the terminal.

See if you can locate this positive symbol or related wording like “POS” or “P” silkscreened in red coloring on or around one of the terminals. The negative terminal should then be the unlabeled post.

Here’s a close up example of such positive and negative terminal markings:

Custom label stickers are also commonly adhered along the top battery edge or sides designating POS and NEG polarity. Note that any barcode stickers are purely inventory and tracking identifiers without any relation to electrical polarity.

If no markings are present due to wear or missing stickers, the larger terminal can still be safely assumed as positive as long as no non-stock cabling or electrical modifications have been made under the hood.

Color Coding the Battery Terminals

Seeing a bit of red coloring on one of the posts can provide another good visual cue towards positive polarity. Battery terminal connections points are sometimes coated with red lead or oxidized material so wary mechanics don’t accidentally attach the wrong jumper cable.

So if one post appears red and the other looks dull gray, you can bet red means positive. This color coding extends to the terminal adapters and covers themselves as well as ring connectors in wiring harnesses clipped onto the posts.

Note this red hue may be harder to distinguish on corroded or dirty terminals. But when in doubt, whip out that cleaning rag and brush for a better look at potential color differences underlying gunk build-up.

Using a Voltmeter to Identify Positive Polarity

If you want definitive proof whether a car battery terminal is positive or negative, a voltmeter or multimeter provides a precise electrical test. These affordable meters capable of measuring voltage drops can be purchased at any hardware or automotive store.

The process involves these simple steps:

  1. Set your voltmeter to DC voltage mode, typically 12V or 20V.
  2. Touch the RED positive meter probe to one of the battery terminals.
  3. Touch the BLACK negative meter probe to the other battery terminal.
  4. Check the voltage reading.

If you’ve properly made contact with the positive terminal, it will show a charge reading around 12.6 volts. The negative terminal should produce a 0 volt reading if tested the same way.

Sometimes it helps to brush off the terminals first since meter leads can be less forgiving than jumper clamps.

Using this method clearly validates which side is positive and which is negative rather than relying on visual inspections alone. Having this battery testing capability also gives the added bonus of diagnosing charging and deterioration issues down the road.

What Happens If You Connect Jumper Cables Wrong?

After covering techniques for determining positive from negative, what exactly happens if you Reverse polarity and connect cables backwards?

The repercussions of accidental reverse jump starts come from violently feeding positive power straight into the ground circuit wiring. This effectively rapidly discharges the entire battery at once past safe current limits.

Without built-in circuit protection, attaching positive to negative terminal could technically weld flat jumper metal to your car body. Mixing up battery polarity during jump starting often results in blown fuses, fried onboard computers, damaged alternators or starter motors and even wiring harness meltdowns.

Not what you want from an attempt simply to get back on the road.

The key is taking a careful approach using proper terminal identification before cables make any contact. Rushing into boosting a dead battery blindly can leave you stranded even farther from home when electrical systems get knocked out.

If you do accidentally make wrong terminal jumper connections, sparks, high heat and odd or erratic operation of controls likely means polarity got reversed. Safely remove jumper cables immediately and fully inspect your vehicle before attempting to restart or recharge battery. This may prevent further collateral electrical casualties.

Step-By-Step Guide to Safely Jump Start a Car

Armed with knowledge for determining which side is positive, here is a complete step by step process for delivering an emergency burst of power from a helper vehicle to your dead battery:

Step 1: Prep Both Vehicles

First, ensure both vehicles sit positioned hood-to-hood without physically touching. Turn off all lamps and accessories in the vehicle needing a jump.

Put both cars in Park with emergency brake engaged.

Step 2: Identify Terminals and Attach Positive Cable

Locate the positive and negative terminals on both the dead and helper batteries. Attach the positive (red) jumper cable clamp securely onto the positive terminal of the dead battery.

Step 3: Connect Positive Cable to Helper Battery

Firmly clamp the other positive cable end to the positive terminal of the helper battery.

Step 4: Attach Negative Cable to Helper Battery

Take the black negative jumper cable and connect one clamp to the negative terminal of the helper vehicle.

Step 5: Connect Negative Jumper Cable to Metal Ground

Then complete the circuit by clamping the other negative cable end onto unpainted metal body or engine frame of the car with the dead battery. Avoid directly connecting the negative clamp to the negative battery terminal which can cause sparks and voltage spikes.

Step 6: Start Helper Car and Let Idle

Start the helper vehicle and let idle for a few minutes as you give the dead battery a chance to gain some surface charge from alternator current flow.

Step 7: Start Dead Vehicle

Try starting the car with the dead or weak battery, taking care not to crank more than 15 seconds. Hopefully the added jumper cable power does the trick. Let vehicle idle again so battery can continue taking on more charge.

Step 8: Disconnect Negative Cable First

Once the formerly dead car is up and running again, carefully unclamp the black negative cable from both vehicles first. Then disconnect the positive (red) cable second.

This proper jumper cable removal order minimizes risk of voltage shorts. Fully remove and stow cables away from both battery areas.

Now hopefully you’re confident in successfully bringing an electrical heartbeat back to stalled vehicles using those handy jumper links. Properly distinguishing between positive and negative terminals prevents damage from reverse hookups.

Signs Your Car Battery is Failing or Dead

In an ideal world, that durable lead-acid 12V brick bolted under your hood would last at least five years of dependable starts.

But reality can often deliver dramatically shorter lifespans ranging from a few months to only a couple years before problems crop up. Catching imminent failure warning signs early allows you to either rejuvenate or proactively swap your aging battery instead of getting stranded.

Watch out for these common indicators of impending doom:

Frequent Need to Jump Start

Routine jump start needs just to crank your car likely mean charge capacity fading fast. Trouble maintaining voltage between drives hints the lead plates are crumbling internally. Time for new battery.

Lights Dimming at Idle

As engine electrical loads overpower the weak battery at idle, you’ll notice headlights and dash indicators eerily fading in and out. Let the voltage dip too far and systems cut out completely.

Slow Cranking Speed

Healthy starter current instantly whips an engine to life. Sluggish rotation and labored cranking, especially when cold, telegraphs a battery struggling to dish out enough amperage.

Battery Making Bubbling or Gurgling Noises

The mixture of acid and water electrolyte inside should be tranquilly silent. Odd sounds emanating from the battery translate to damaging internal structural erosion and eventual short circuiting.

Cracked Case or Corroded Terminals

White crusty build-up around posts along with expansion cracks or leaks in the housing scream imminent demise. Very difficult to reverse this degree of deterioration.

Odor of Rotten Eggs

That nauseating sulfur stench comes from byproduct gasses emitted in the battery’s death throes. When you literally can smell problems under the hood, replacement is urgently advised.

Catching problems ahead of failure allows you to either correct issues with maintenance tactics or properly plan replacement on your own terms instead of getting stuck with a coffin-ready battery on the freeway home.

When to Call a Mechanic for Battery Issues

While this article focuses on lighting your DIY path towards battery understanding and care, not everyone feels comfortable playing automotive electrician.

Professional technicians with the right digital diagnostics training, specialty tools and repair experience may better serve complex electrical issues like:

  • Testing charging system components
  • Removing difficult positioned batteries
  • Diagnosing parasitic drains
  • Accessing complicated wiring configurations
  • Handling corrosive chemical leaks
  • Confirming compatibility of replacement batteries
  • Properly disposing old batteries

A technician can verify if charging problems come from a faulty battery, alternator or cabling gremlins. Leave battery removal and disposal to experts instead of risking chemical burns or injury.

Searching out a trustworthy shop with glowing customer satisfaction ratings minimizes chances of unnecessary upsells or overpricing. Establishing a relationship with capable mechanics paying proper attention to your car’s health makes life easier down the road.

What to Look for When Buying a New Replacement Car Battery

Before those last wheezy cranks leave you fully stranded, swap in fresh power with a new replacement battery specifically matched to your vehicle. But decoding the dizzying data sheet specifications poses another challenge.

Let’s demystify key criteria for selecting the best battery for your car’s electrical needs.

Group Size

The physical dimensions of car batteries are standardized across makes and models into group size categories. Common groups like 24, 35, 48, 58 and 65 cover battery tray sizing for most vehicles. Verify the existing or factory equipped group size for guaranteed fit.

Voltage Rating

Automotive batteries will be labelled as 12-volt, matching required voltage to power your car. No variations here unless running specialty electronics.

Cold Cranking Amps (CCA) Rating

The higher this number, the more discharge current supplied for ignition cranking during cold winter temperatures when chemical reactions inside battery slow down. Choose highest amps fitting your climate.

Reserve Capacity Rating

Indicates duration battery can deliver minimum voltage if alternator fails at idle. Batteries designed for passenger cars often have lower reserve capacity since alternators share the electrical load.

When uncertain on ideal replacement specifications, the manufacturer brand and part numbers stamped on original battery provide the definitive compatible selection. Reference these labels when comparing new batteries.

Car batteries sold by reputableChains like Interstate or Napa also undergo rigorous evaluation testing to verify advertised performance ratings actually hit the mark. These advanced lead-carbon batteries include higher density paste and thin plate perforations reducing internal resistance and increasing capacity within the same footprint.

Many newer vehicles rely on Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) sealed lead-acid chemistry for enhanced power flow, faster recharging and reduced gassing. Make sure any upgrade claims full compatibility or you’ll miss out on optimized functionality.

Aftermarket vs New OEM Batteries

You’ll often spot far cheaper aftermarket replacement options sitting right beside the premium name-brand OEM fit beside your vehicle make. But are those budget-friendly knock-offs reliable?

Major manufacturers devote heavy research towards mating battery chemistry and performance perfectly with the vehicle charging systems and accessory power demand. The newest maintenance-free AGM designs last up to two times longer through increased cycle resilience before reaching end of life.

Factory fresh batteries individually undergo comprehensive multi-point inspections confirming strict quality controls get met before shipping. Improper storage and handling of cheap imports can degrade plates or electrolyte levels right out the warehouse door.

While no fun stuffing those higher OEM price tags back under the hood, Shelling out extra Coin for optimized reliability over bargain bin sources carries sound logic for warranty and longevity.

Caring for and Maintaining Automotive Batteries

Now that you’ve mastered locating those positive and negative terminals crucial for providing underhood power, let’s cover best practices that help ensure ongoing battery health.

Keep Terminals and Connections Corrosion-Free

Fungus like white or blue cruddy build-up around posts negatively impacts electrical connectivity critical for charging and starting. Regular cleaning with a stiff brass brush clears this resistance MT culprit. Prevent future corrosion using protectant sprays after terminal hardware gets tightened down firmly.

Recharge Completely After Heavy Discharge

Deeply depleted batteries left unrestored to full voltage risk permanent plate sulfate crystal formation severely degrading charge capacity over subsequent cycles leading to premature failure risk. Let alternator completely restore your battery after heavy accessory use or failed starts.

Apply Battery Maintainer When Storing Long-Term

Letting batteries sit untouched for weeks allows natural self-discharge to gradually drain them to dead status. Using smart chargers that automatically float charge without danger of overheating or overcharging rescues longevity. This perfectly safe voltage cushioning means reliable instant starts upon your return instead of probability of expensive replacements. Choose compatible trickle chargers, disconnect before operation and limit duration to avoid heat build-up.

Check Housing and Vent Caps

Make sure those plastic protection shrouds don’t have any cracks from overtightening or extreme environmental exposure. Depending on traditional lead-acid versus modern maintenance-free designs, ensure vent valves don’t leak or air filters.

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