How to Test Car Battery with a Multimeter (4 Step Guide)

Have you ever had a car that wouldn’t start, only to find out it was a dead battery? I’ve been there, done that, more times than I’d like to admit. That’s why I’m big on regularly testing the car battery, and it’s something you can do right at home with a trusty multimeter.

Quick Summary: In general, car battery testing with a multimeter can be done in simple steps:

🔌 Step 1: Turn Off Your Car and Remove Your Test Battery
🔺 Step 2: Attach the Positive Probe to the Area
🔻 Step 3: Put the Negative Probe in the Area
📊 Step 4: Use the Multimeter to Read and Measure the Battery Voltage

In this article, we’ll dive into the step-by-step process of testing your car battery using a multimeter. This handy, inexpensive tool can help you troubleshoot potential issues and keep your vehicle running at its best.

Testing Batteries with a Multimeter

A multimeter on a wooden table

I was baffled when my car first refused to start on a chilly morning. But then, my trusty multimeter came to the rescue.

I learned the hard way that batteries can be finicky in cold weather. Since then, I’ve made it a ritual to check the battery more frequently as winter approaches.

Detailing the process is going to be a piece of cake. Yes, we’re going to show you how!

Step 1: Prepare Your Multimeter

Setting up the multimeter is easy, but I once forgot to turn it on and spent 15 minutes wondering why I wasn’t getting any readings. Lesson learned: always double-check the power switch!

Step 1: Select the specific measurement function on your multimeter’s dial – in this case, we are measuring voltage.

A hand holding a red multimeter and a car with open hood in the background
Video | ChrisFix

Step 2: If your multimeter has a power switch, turn it on at this stage.

A person is setting up the red multimeter to test a car engine
Video | ChrisFix

Step 3: Set the scale to an expected measurement value. Are you using a digital multimeter? Then, adjust it to 20 DC volts for the perfect range.

A person is holding a red multimeter with 0.02 reading
Video | ChrisFix

Step 4: Insert the multimeter probe leads into the appropriate ports: red for positive and black for negative.

A person is holding a red multimeter at 0.01 reading
Video | ChrisFix

If all has been done correctly, you should see a 0 or the lowest value within your selected range displayed on your multimeter.

Step 2: Touch the Probes to Your Battery Terminals

Here’s a story: I once mixed up the probes – red on negative and black on positive. The readings were all over the place, and I was scratching my head. Flipping them to their correct terminals made all the difference.

Step 1: Position the red probe on the positive terminal of your battery (usually marked with a ‘+’).

A person is using a multimeter to test a car battery
Video | ChrisFix

Step 2: Do the same on the black probe on the negative terminal (commonly identified by a ‘-‘).

A person is using a multimeter to test a car battery
Video | ChrisFix

While doing this, ensure you’ve got the probes placed correctly. Have you got a reading with a minus in front? You might have mixed things up – the probes are on the wrong terminals!

Step 3: Check the Reading

Once your probes are in position, we’re all set to check the reading on the multimeter.

A person is holding a multimeter at 12.85 reading
Video | ChrisFix

One winter, I saw my battery voltage dip below 12.2 volts. I thought a change would do, but it was time for a new battery. Sometimes, the cold can be the last straw for an already weak battery.

Similarly, don’t ignore a voltage drop of more than 2 volts during engine cranking; that could point to a weak or failing battery.

Step 4: Measure your Battery in the Crank Cycle

This is a step I learned is essential. It gives a complete picture of the battery’s health.

A person is using a multimeter to test car's battery
Video | ChrisFix

Due to the increased energy required to run the starter motor, this is when the car is powered, and the battery is under the most strain.

A second person will be required to start the ignition to obtain this reading. The battery voltage will dip briefly when the automobile is on, but it should not decrease below 10 volts.

A buddy and I once tested the crank cycle, and the voltage dropped alarmingly. We soon figured it was a weak battery that couldn’t handle the load. Without this test, I might have been stranded on a road trip!

Bonus Step: Examine the Alternator

car alternator

Don’t get me started on alternators. Once, my lights dimmed, and the stereo flickered. It turned out the alternator was failing to charge the battery. It’s an easy miss, but it is crucial to check.

The alternator aims to create energy to supply the entire circuit and charge the battery. So, switch on all of the vehicle’s electronic systems, including the headlights, interior illumination, weather controls, and stereo, to test the alternator. 

When done, it will maximize the voltage load. If the multimeter results drop below 13.5 volts, the alternator is not charging the battery adequately, so you may need to replace it. It’s time to seek a consultation from a licensed professional.

Troubleshooting Guide: Navigating Common Battery Testing Hiccups

A mechanic using a multimeter to test the car battery

When I first started testing car batteries, I ran into a few hiccups, but I figured out how to solve them:

ProblemWhat’s Happening?Quick Fix
Inconsistent ReadingsThis usually means the connection is shaky or the multimeter battery dies.I make sure everything is connected properly, and if that doesn’t work, I check the multimeter’s battery.
Difficulty Connecting ProbesSometimes, the terminals are hard to reach or corroded. I clean them first for a better connection.
Multimeter Not Powering OnI’ve learned this usually means the multimeter’s battery is dead or the device is malfunctioning.Replace the battery first. If it’s still not working, you might need a new multimeter.
No Reading on the MultimeterThe most common culprit here is improper setting or a dead car battery.The first time this happened, I double-checked the multimeter setting.
Fluctuating Voltage ReadingsThis indicates a loose connection or an issue with the car’s electrical system.Ensure that all connections are secure. If the problem persists, it might be time to check the car’s electrical system.

Maintenance Tips: Keeping Your Car Battery in Top Shape

A man wearing a yellow red gloves is testing a car battery using a multimeter

Maintaining your car battery is key to avoiding unexpected breakdowns. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Regular Checks and Balances

  • Visual Inspections: Make it a routine to peek at your battery. Look for signs of corrosion, leaks, or damage. It’s like giving your car a quick health check.
  • Clean Those Terminals: Corrosion is a battery’s enemy. Clean those terminals regularly with a brush and a mix of baking soda and water. It’s like brushing your teeth – prevents problems before they start.
  • Keep It Tight: Ensure the battery is snug in its holder. A rattling battery is a recipe for a shortened life.

Charging Up Right

  • Regular Driving: Batteries love to be used. Regular driving keeps them charged and happy. If you’re not a frequent driver, consider a trickle charger to keep the battery in shape.
  • Avoid Short Trips: Quick jaunts can drain more than they charge. Longer drives are better for keeping your battery fully charged.

When to Call the Pros

  • Slow Engine Crank: If your car starts slowly, your battery might whisper for help.
  • Swollen Battery Case: When it looks bloated, it’s time for a professional check-up.
  • Age Factor: Batteries don’t age like fine wine. If yours is over 3 years old, get it tested regularly.
  • Check Engine Light: When this light pops on, it could hint at a battery issue.
  • Electrical Issues: Flickering lights or malfunctioning electronics? Time to call in the experts.

Remember, a little TLC goes a long way in extending the life of your car battery. Keep an eye on it, treat it right, and when in doubt, let the pros take a look. Drive safe and stay powered up!

Safety Precautions: Handle With Care!

Handling car batteries requires care. Here’s my approach:

  • Gear Up for Safety:
    • Slip on those protective gloves and safety glasses. It’s like going into a DIY project fully armed – you’re protecting yourself from the battery’s acidic contents.
  • Proper Lifting Technique:
    • When lifting the battery, remember it’s all in the knees, not the back. These batteries can be hefty, so lift smartly to avoid “ouch” moments.
  • Clean and Clear:
    • Spot any crusty residues on the terminals? That’s corrosion. Gently brush it off, but keep those gloves on. Safety first!
  • Avoiding Sparks:
    • Ensure everything in the car is switched off before connecting your multimeter. Sparks and batteries are a big no-no – it’s like inviting trouble to your doorstep.
  • Connect Correctly:
    • Always connect the negative probe first, then the positive. This order is your secret to keeping things stable and spark-free.
  • Disconnect with Care:
    • Done testing? Remove the probes in reverse order – positive first, then negative. It’s all about wrapping up as safely as you started.
  • Secure Everything:
    • If you had to remove the battery, secure it back properly. A loose battery is like a bull in a china shop – not a good idea.

There you have it – your quick guide to handling car batteries safely. Remember, the right precautions make all the difference. Stay safe, and let the good times roll!

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why Should I Test My Car Battery Regularly?
    • Regular battery testing isn’t just about preventing those ‘car won’t start’ mornings. It’s about staying ahead of the game, knowing your battery’s health, and ensuring you’re never stuck in a parking lot asking strangers for a jump start. It’s all about that peace of mind!
  • Can I Test My Battery Without Starting the Car?
    • You bet! That’s exactly how we do it. Testing your battery without starting the car gives you the most accurate reading of its resting voltage. It’s like checking your pulse while you’re chilling, not when you’re sprinting!
  • What If My Multimeter Shows a Voltage Below 12.2 Volts?
    • Have you got a reading below 12.2 volts? It’s like your battery’s telling you it’s feeling under the weather. It’s either time for a good recharge or, in some cases, shopping for a new battery. Don’t ignore these signs – your car’s counting on you!
  • Is It Safe to Test My Own Car Battery?
    • Safety first, always! You’re good to go if you follow the steps carefully and wear protective gear. It’s like DIY home improvement – know your tools, respect the process, and you’ll be a pro in no time.
  • What Role Does the Alternator Play in This Test?
    • Think of your alternator as the unsung hero of your car’s electrical system. Testing the alternator tells you if it keeps the battery charged and ready for action. If the voltage drops too low when everything’s running, your alternator might be waving a white flag.
  • How Accurate Are Multimeter Battery Tests?
    • Multimeter tests are like having a trusty sidekick. They’re pretty accurate for getting a snapshot of your battery’s health. But remember, they’re just one part of the puzzle – sometimes, a pro’s opinion can give you the full picture.
  • Can Cold Weather Affect My Battery Test Results?
    • Absolutely! Like how you feel sluggish on a cold morning, your battery feels it, too. Cold weather can lower your battery’s performance, so consider that during those winter months. It’s all about understanding the conditions and adapting!
  • What’s the Ideal Voltage for a Healthy Car Battery?
    • A healthy car battery should show a resting voltage between 12.2 and 12.6 volts – its happy zone. If it’s within this range, your battery’s telling you it’s feeling good and ready for the road.

Other Common Car Battery Problems

a car engine

A person’s car batteries might have a variety of issues. Here are a few examples:

  • A bad connection
  • Corrosion
  • Disuse
  • Problems with the alternator





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About Sam Orlovsky

AvatarCertifications: B.E.E.
Education: University Of Denver - Electric Engineering
Lives In: Denver Colorado

Electrical engineering is my passion, and I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. This gives me a unique ability to give you expert home improvement and DIY recommendations. I’m not only an electrician, but I also like machinery and anything to do with carpentry. One of my career paths started as a general handyman, so I also have a lot of experience with home improvement I love to share.

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1 thought on “How to Test Car Battery with a Multimeter (4 Step Guide)”

  1. Hello Sam,
    I saw one of your articles about wiring a Lincoln 225 welding machine. I had an additional question. Do you know if I could run that same welding machine off of a Troy-Bilt 8,000 Watt Portable Generator? I need to do some repairs on my tractor that is out in the field and not close to the house.


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