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Stanford Report, July 10, 2002

Golf carts, like cars, need routine check-ups, mechanic warns

BY BARBARA PALMER

Part of the problem, as Regina Aiello sees it, is that golf carts are just so darned adorable.

"People think that they're so cute and little, like Tonka trucks," said Aiello, a mechanic in the Facilities Operations garage. And even though campus golf carts probably are driven more heavily than the campus fleet of cars, employees don't really think of them as vehicles that require maintenance, she said. The attitude is, "We'll just jaunt from here to there. If you plug them in and charge them up, that's maintaining them," Aiello said.

But improperly maintained golf carts can pose serious, even dangerous threats, Aiello said.

The carts typically are powered by six lead-acid batteries mounted on a metal plate beneath the front seat. Many campus cart batteries require users to add distilled water to ensure that the battery's leaded plates stay immersed in sulfuric acid electrolyte. The byproducts of the electrochemical reaction that charges the battery are sulfuric acid and hydrogen gas. Without water, the battery will start to smoke and can catch fire. An overheated lead-acid battery can vent the flammable gas and potentially explode, Aiello said. "Each one can have the force of a grenade. And you're sitting on six of them."

The lack of knowledge on campus about basic battery maintenance recently was brought home when Aiello was called to service a non-operative cart and discovered that the cart's six batteries were out of water and one had caught fire at some point and blown off the battery cables. (Full disclosure: The cart belongs to the News Service.)

Aiello replaced the batteries and cables on the cart and decided it was reasonable to assume the second cart operated by the News Service needed maintenance as well. As soon as Aiello entered the courtyard where the cart was parked, she knew there was a problem.

"It smelled like rotten eggs," a sure sign that the battery was leaking, Aiello said. "It would have just taken a spark for the batteries to blow up."

No one at the News Service was aware that the batteries in the carts needed maintenance -- which isn't at all uncommon, Aiello said. For years, automobile manufacturers have used maintenance-free batteries, which don't require additional water, said Aiello, who worked in the auto industry for 25 years. Users just assume that the batteries that operate the carts are maintenance-free batteries, she said.

Aiello, who began working on cars while she was still a teen -- her father taught her to repair cars before she learned to drive -- resigned from a management job at an automobile dealership because she missed working directly with the public, she said. Besides, she found she was spending nights and weekends working on cars anyway, at the request of her former customers.

During the eight months Aiello has worked in the campus garage, she's developed the habit of checking the batteries of unoccupied golf carts she spots on campus. "Most of them are out of water," she said. When she finds a cart that needs maintenance, "I leave a note," she said. When she sees a cart that she deems dangerous, "I go find whoever is in charge."

Some departments, such as Athletics, have a number of carts and follow a regular preventive maintenance schedule, she said. (Anything that rolls on the road -- cars, bicycles, golf carts, skateboards -- should be scheduled for periodic preventive maintenance, said Aiello.)

But departments that operate a cart or two often don't know the cart batteries need maintenance, she said. "No one has ever explained how to maintain the carts or even that you have to do it. And people don't know to ask." The carts aren't required to be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles or to be licensed, so there's no way of knowing how many carts are on campus or who is driving them, she said.

In addition to checking fluid levels, users also should make sure that cables are free from corrosion. (See sidebar for maintenance and safety tips.) One campus cart was so badly corroded by battery acid, the machine shop had to fabricate a new metal plate for the bottom. The chemicals contained in lead-acid batteries are a force to be reckoned with, she said. The acid "eats through everything," she said. "There is some respect that should be given to the battery. This is serious stuff."

The battery is the only part on the cart that's potentially explosive, but ignoring a cart's brakes or tires also could result in serious injury, she said. Aiello said she left a note on one cart recently, pointing out the tires were bald. Last week, she was called out for a service call -- a tire on the cart had blown out. "When the tires get thin, they pop," she said. A tire can blow after striking something as small as a pebble, she said.

Although some employees are intimidated by the thought of conducting routine maintenance, "it's not that hard," Aiello said. "I tell people if you can bake a cake, you can do this. And if you're nervous about doing it yourself, call us." The number for the fleet garage is 723-4240.

Regina Aiello, campus mechanic, warned that many carts are potential safety hazards because of dried out batteries and corroded cables. Photo: L.A. Cicero