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Saturday, September 23 2017 @ 02:24 AM CDT

Battery Care And Maintenance

Previous: Creating Power At Site - Next: Alternate Power Sources

Sealed lead-acid batteries require minimal maintenance. There is no way to add water for instance. The basic maintenance activity lies in seeing that the battery does not get too hot, too cold, too charged or too discharged, for whatever reason. Don’t sit them in the sun or put them in an enclosure that might get too warm. Anything above about 30 C is getting too hot; better is to keep them around room temperature or slightly below. Don’t let them get too much below freezing. The acid in them will protect them, depending on the state of charge, down to below -50 C but if not charged, they should be kept above about -20 C.

There is lots of literature on battery use and maintenance available on the web. The following is generally illustrative but should be tempered with information about your particular make/model of charger, discharge controller and batteries.

The less your deep cycle battery is discharged, the longer it will last. This means that you should not design your battery replacement schedule based on what can be used, but rather on what should be used to get maximum value from your batteries. Of course if you’re swapping batteries to recharge them, you should also factor in the cost of maintaining the site. If it costs you $5 for gas for your vehicle to get to the site, and a battery is worth $200, then for a site that draws the battery down to 50% in 2 days and 100% in 4 days, with a season of 80 days you will save the cost of a new battery by not visiting the site the 20 extra times. This does not count the environmental concerns (or your time), but lead-acid batteries are very well recycled.
Get a “conditioning” charger to recharge your batteries. How big the charger is will depend upon how long you have between visits to the site. If you have to, keep a third set of batteries for the trip, so the ones on charge can charge for longer between uses. The longer you take to charge the batteries, the closer to full capacity they will get and the lower the charge current you can use, the longer the batteries will last. Charging at high current rates heats up the battery and boils off the water (even in a gel-cell) which will eventually kill the battery.

A conditioning cycle every few charges will also help make your batteries last longer. This cycle “de-sulferizes” the battery plates. The sulfur gathers on the lead plates when the battery is in a discharged state, so the deeper you cycle the batteries (and the longer it takes for you to get them to a charger) the more frequently you’ll have to condition them. Without the conditioning, the sulfur eventually stops the acid from getting to the plate and the battery is useless.

Electrical Concerns

Connecting the load to a battery should not be done carelessly. There is a lot of power in a lead acid battery and it can discharge extremely quickly. If you are not careful you can cause an explosion or what appears to be one. It is possible to weld with them – and if you accidentally connect one terminal to another (short circuit) the wire will either burn through fast enough that it will appear to explode (sparks and molten metal/plastic everywhere), or heat hot enough to smoke and burn anything it touches (fire hazard!)

It is also possible to generate a real explosive condition if you don’t properly ventilate wherever you have your batteries, both charging and discharging. If the battery is charged too fast, the pressure relief valve can open and hydrogen gas will accumulate. A spark can set this off. Again, please read the literature available on the web for ideas on venting and working around batteries.

Don’t mix salt water with lead acid batteries – the “U-boats” found out the hard way that this causes chlorine gas – and people die from this. Yes, sealed batteries can be submerged – but if they leak for any reason the result can be deadly.

Other Batteries

We (Hancock Wildlife Foundation) have been donated a set of industrial NiCad batteries. These are individual 2-volt cells that are wired up to provide whatever voltage the installation needed. Each cell in this case weights about 20 lbs., and is full of not acid, but base solution. Our 100+ cells can form a 1000 amp-hour battery at 12 volts with some cells left over, but the care and maintenance of them is quite a bit different from a similar collection of lead-acid deep cycle batteries. Their major difference is that with proper maintenance they’ll last decades. These ones are already 20+ years old and most of the cells are still in top condition.

Transport and setup of these cells is completely different from sealed lead acid – these are “wet” cells and can’t be tipped over. They have to be in wooden carry cases and have quite strict maintenance regimes that have to be followed. This means they’re really not for portable re-charge scenarios – see generators for what we had them planned for.

Other types of batteries are coming on-stream, including lithium-ion and a whole bunch of other types. At this point we don’t feel that they are cost effective for the amateur, so won’t discuss them.

Batteries are used in all the following power generation setups as well. Again, the typical battery will be a deep-cycle lead acid of some size related to the load and the method of recharge. The only difference is that the recharging and use will be determined by the use of the other power source.

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