Optima Digital Charger: The Swiss Army Knife For Battery Maintenance

OPTIMA Batteries is best known for its popular lineup of REDTOP, BLUETOP, and YELLOWTOP batteries you see powering racing and high-performance vehicles worldwide. That might have you thinking its production of these popular absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries is its sole product. But, they also know a thing or two about charging those batteries, as well.

More Than Batteries

OPTIMA builds a battery charger that is far more than just, well, a battery charger, and has put considerable engineering effort into its design. Whether in your shop or at a race, this charger does more than just throw some amperage at your battery.

The OPTIMA Digital 1200 uses digital charging technology to deliver multi-stage charging, automatic battery maintaining, and reconditioning modes. This multi-stage charging and auto-maintain effort keeps the battery at a peak charge level for many rodders and racers.

Old Battery Chargers

The charger we are replacing is an old-school charger that offers simply three different charging levels. Typically you set the charging level based on your impatience. With a set 12-volt output, the low, medium, and “buzz the hell out of it” are the three different amperage levels supplied by the old units.

The OPTIMA 1200 Performance Charger offers features tailor-made for the shop and the pits. A rubberized bottom holds the unit in place and does not scratch paint. A hatch door holds the battery and plug-in cables. Also, each charging clamp has a switched LED light for use in the dark.

We spoke to Jim McIlvaine, eCare Manager at OPTIMA Batteries, who stresses, “It’s not difficult for a drag racer to have good battery habits with a digital charger. A digital charger delivers multi-stage charging, conditioning, and automatic battery maintaining. The circuitry senses, charges, and maintains batteries between rounds, even if you have cooling fans and more still operating.”

A lead/acid or AGM battery low on initial voltage is in a discharged state. Batteries in this condition will more readily accept a charge. As a battery charges, you may see your old battery charger register a lowering of the needle at the gauge. These gauges are an amperage meter though many chargers only signify charging with a red-yellow-green indicator. This gauge does not represent a lessening of the charge amperage from the charger, but rather, illustrates that the battery is accepting less amperage as it becomes fully charged. However, the charger is still forcing high amperage upon the battery, causing a state of overcharging.

Damage to your battery’s chemistry is typical with overcharging. A lead/acid battery experiencing overcharge enters a gassing state, damaging the lead plates and drying out the acid/water-based chemicals. A sealed AGM battery does not gas out; it just damages the chemistry and the matting within — permanently. That is why AGM batteries have many product warnings about using an appropriate battery charger. With an AGM charging circuit, chargers such as this OPTIMA 1200 enter a maintenance mode when the battery is fully charged.

A large LCD screen and all your control buttons are on the OPTIMA charger's face. The screen prompts us to select the battery type; then, it goes into an analysis mode. The digital charger determines the charging process for the battery connected.

The Microprocessor Revolution

Digital battery charger technology has moved forward with a “smart charger” design. Whether standard lead-acid or AGM batteries, digital chargers use multiple stages of charging within each charging profile.

“The display on the OPTIMA 1200 charger shows you the level and status of your battery before entering a charge stage,” McIlvaine points out. “That is the first of six charging stages the OPTIMA battery performs each time you charge. The second stage is called ‘soft ramp charging,’ where controlled amperage for deeply discharged batteries is provided only when necessary.”

McIlvaine continues, “Then the Optima charger enters stage three, which is ‘fast charge bulk mode’ for batteries requiring any kind of charge – from normal battery usage. Stage four is a ‘conditioning mode’ that conditions your battery with a finish/complete charge.”

I’ve taken photos of some very high-end race cars in their pits between rounds, and some are charging their batteries with very old dial-type battery chargers. For anybody who has a 50-amp battery and repeatedly hits it with 200 amps between rounds, I hope the math works out, and the battery is not seriously overcharged. – Jim McIlvaine, Optima Batteries

The fifth and sixth stages are especially effective as an “auto-maintain” or “float” mode. The sixth stage is 30-day storage recondition mode – for use while your vehicle or battery is in storage. These last two stages are critical for a dormant battery between races or as much as between race seasons.

These “stages” of charging for a battery may seem overly complex, but making sure your battery lives in its optimum voltage zone between uses is necessary. McIlvaine describes an example from recent times.

Real Life Example

“The overall battery industry experienced a huge spike in battery sales in the weeks following the pandemic lockdown. Not just us, but industry-wide,” McIlvaine explains. “So many driving habits slowed dramatically for folks. They only went to the office once or twice a week or stopped commuting altogether.”

McIlvaine continues, “The family sedan with its computerized components may cycle periodically, even with it not running for extended periods. With little maintenance (driving), their batteries were weak. It was very wasteful to think of so many people going out and buying new batteries without knowing they could possibly recondition them with a quality digital battery charger.”

Our OPTIMA battery from our dismantled street rod has been sitting for over a year. That's not good for an AGM battery. We let the battery go through the digital charging stages, including stage four, "conditioning mode." The battery now load-tests properly and can be placed in the maintenance mode with the charger.

Reliable Race Batteries? Keep it Within Their “Zone”

A fully charged battery should measure 12.6 volts minimum in its normal state. A battery discharged under 12.4 volts while remaining dormant will experience sulfation forming inside the battery. This sulfation diminishes the battery’s capacity and lifespan.

“The OPTIMA charger-maintainer wants you to specify what type of battery (AGM, flooded, motorcycle, etc.) you have because each will be charged with a different digital program,” McIlvaine points out. “A REDTOP OPTIMA AGM battery will measure about 12.6-12.8 volts, while its YELLOWTOP (and all other BLUETOP) batteries will be happiest at 13.0-13.2 volts. Having a maintainer for these different types will give you the best — and specific — results.”

Relying Just On Alternators

Racing without alternators has been a practice going away by a high percentage of racers. The extreme swings of battery discharge and recharge caused by high energy ignitions and all racing electronics will kill a stand-alone battery at the highest pace.

There is a side port on the charger that serves two functions. You can connect an included maintenance cable directly to your battery. Plugged into this port, it automatically performs the maintenance mode. Also, a USB charger is very helpful on race day.

Many racers think that with an alternator, they are set for weekend after weekend of racing. With the alternator operating for the short spurts on the ‘strip — yes, you benefit from the alternator’s power for your high-demand components. But, the battery may not be fully charged by the end of a weekend of starting, racing, cooling fans, and so on. Your car may have enough “oomph” to restart the car, but may not have an actual full charge. Sitting dormant between weeks of racing or months off-season will also slowly degrade a battery.

McIlvaine points out that alternators are a great addition to simply running off the battery, but are not the absolute solution.

“The alternator is going to work at it, get hot, and depending on the depth of the discharge of the battery, it will potentially shorten the lifespan of the alternator as it works hard to replenish these deeply discharged batteries.”

With two batteries in our race car, Jim McIlvaine explained that I can charge them as a pair, but should rotate between when charging. Even with a high-quality race alternator, you do support your electrical system when you are at speed, but may not include enough run-time to prevent an undercharged state.

Performance Pulleys And Short Distance Driving Habits

Any underdrive alternator pulley or performance pulley kit for late-model muscle cars reduces alternator speed for performance. McIlvaine warns, “These pulleys can gain horsepower, but will lessen the alternator’s designed operating efficiency.”

McIlvaine adds, “I was talking to a guy with a Mustang yesterday. I asked if he was using stock pulleys, and he answered yes. Ten minutes later, he told me about his installed supercharger kit. We figured out that he was operating with an underdrive pulley combination that was affecting his alternator’s capabilities.”

Our truck sees very little driving other than race weekends. We checked our battery with the OPTIMA charger's analysis stage and were in a small state of discharge. We will now do periodical maintenance. A custom dimension shelf from Tuff Paw race cabinets provides a permanent spot in our race trailer.

Short-distance driving can also fall short in maintaining a battery to its optimum voltage range. McIlvaine provides an example: “My wife’s car is driven short jaunts to work. As a matter of regular practice, I plug it into an OPTIMA digital charger once a month overnight to top the battery off. Every time, the charger’s stage-one analysis indicates on the LCD display that a short second-stage charge is required.”

Optimum battery maintenance provides reliability, long life, and battery performance when needed. If a daily driver can fall outside of optimum charge status, consider how over- and undercharge voltage swings can affect your race or hot rod battery.

Let’s say you are not perfect at maintaining your battery between seasons, or between races, and even between rounds of racing. You’re in the semifinals at a big race and haven’t maintained your battery during quick “round-robin” rounds of racing. When can your battery tell you that you haven’t held it in the proper voltage zone? How about in the staging lanes during the semifinals?

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About the author

Todd Silvey

Todd has been a hardcore drag racing journalist since 1987. He is constantly on both sides of the guardwall from racing photography and editorship to drag racing cars of every shape and class.
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