Not So Frequently Asked Questions
While most lithium battery websites list several FAQ’s there is little point in us duplicating the same information. Instead below you will find answers to many questions about lithium batteries which you never thought about asking and which the other lithium battery suppliers in Australia simply don’t know the answers because they are sales and marketing companies only and not lithium battery electrical engineering specialist companies such as Lithium Batteries Australia.
We set the record straight and correct outright lies told by some of the other lithium battery suppliers. It is due to so much conflicting information about lithium batteries why battery consumers often feel so confused and don’t know what to believe.
1) How and why did the first lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery come to Australia?
The very first LiFePO4 battery was imported to Australia from Texas, USA in early 2007 by the founder of Lithium Batteries Australia, Armin Pauza. (The LiFePO4 battery was invented by Dr John Goodenough and his design team from the University of Texas.) Armin was the senior installation and project commissioning electrical engineer for one of the world’s largest uninterruptable power supply (UPS) companies and prior to bringing the first LiFePO4 battery to Australia, Armin was responsible for the installation and maintenance of thousands of sealed power standby lead acid batteries for customers including Apple, IBM, General Electric, Coca Cola Amatil, Optus, BHP, MacDonald’s and many other household names where lead acid batteries are installed with critical power UPS systems to provide ultra- reliable power for critical computer and data rooms. Due to having to lift thousands of extremely heavy lead acid batteries over several years on to battery shelves during contract battery replacement Armin thought “this is going to end up killing my back- there must be something lighter and better”. At this time the first few LiFePO4 batteries we starting to become commercialised and become available to the market in the USA and so the first LiFePO4 battery was brought to Australia from America. The testing results of the first cells at Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico were extremely impressive and Armin knew this was a game changer in battery technology and it was just a matter of time before lead acid batteries would start to make way for the vastly superior performance lithium batteries provide. At this time Lithium Batteries Australia was born. The first 5 years of the industry from 2007 – 2012 was the time when the original high quality LiFePO4 cells existed and the main battle at this time was with the many lead acid battery manufacturers and suppliers who felt threatened by the claimed superioriity of lithium iron phosphate and did everything they could to discredit lithium batteries. The most recent 5 years from 2013 to the present saw the mass production of greatly inferior quality lithium batteries in China. As with so many products the Chinese simply stole and copied the LiFePO4 battery without ever paying any royalties or recognition to the rightful American owners of the LiFePO4 patent. As a result of the flood of these inferior Chinese batteries this time has also brought about the bad reputation of lithium batteries due to the many reported battery fires as well as poor performance and premature failures of many of these batteries which have left many battery purchasers with a sour taste in their mouth. 2017 marks 10 years of lithium iron phosphate batteries in Australia.
2) When is lithium battery warranty not really a battery warranty?
The answer to this question is whenever you purchase a battery directly from an overseas supplier it comes will nil warranty (no matter what lies the overseas supplier might tell you). It does not matter if you buy a battery from USA, Europe, China or anywhere else. Many people look at the long warranty periods offered on a website by some of these foreign suppliers but the fact of the matter is that if you buy a battery directly from overseas it comes with zero/nil warranty. This is due to IATA regulations (which due to several well publicized lithium battery fires and resuling fatalities) has resulted in changes to the IATA regulations which prohibit the return export of a defective battery under warranty to the original supplier (due to the fear of a fire starting in a faulty battery during transport which is being returned to the supplier). So if it is important for you to buy a battery which comes with a warranty it must be purchased from a reputable local Australian supplier. Only then are you protected by local Australian consumer law.
3) What are the different types or “qualities” of lithium batteries which are commonly available?
As with many products there are a wide range of quality available. If for example we use as an example cordless electric power tools such as electric drills you will see that no name / generic products are much cheaper than well-known brand names. This is largely to do with the quality of the parts used in the manufacture of the drill. For example many cheap no name drills will use a very low temperature rating of insulation on the motor windings. These can easily burn out if over used hence why many of these drills are specified for “handyman use only”. By contrast the well known tradesman quality products use much higher temperature rated insulation and better quality components throughout the drill. This is why they are considered “tradesmen quality” and can be used for many hours at a time without any risk of overheating and burning out. Likewise with lithium batteries the quality of the cells and components makes all the difference in the performance and reliability of the battery. The method of construction of the battery is perhaps one of the major factors which the prospective battery buyer can easily see to determine the quality of the battery.
By looking at how a battery is made it is easy to see if a battery is a “Consumer Use” or “Professional Grade” (PG) battery. “Consumer Use” (CU) batteries are also sometimes known as “general purpose” batteries. It is easy to think of a consumer use battery as being a “disposable” or “throw away” battery.
4) What are the pros and cons of both Consumer Use and Professional Grade lithium batteries and how do I identify these battery types if I am not a battery or technical expert but merely a battery user?
Consumer Use batteries can be thought of in simple terms to be a “disposable / throw away” battery type. These are the cheapest batteries in the market due to the type of cells used and manufacturing methods used. You can identify a battery of this type by looking at it. If the case is all sealed and the battery looks much like a sealed lead acid / AGM battery you can be sure it is a Consumer Use battery. These batteries can’t be serviced, repaired or upgraded due to their sealed case construction so a minor problem with a single cell or BMS inside the battery will soon lead to entire battery failure and the only option is disposal of the battery.
Lead acid / AGM / gel batteries all contain highly corrosive and toxic sulphuric acid electrolyte which is why lead acid batteries must be made in a sealed container so they are safe to use by the consumer with no risk of acid burns. Lithium ion batteries do not conatin any toxic or corrosive acids or alkalais so there is no need for them to be in a sealed conatiner which can’t be opened for service. When man moved from the horse and cart to the modern motor car for transport the early car manufacturers didn’t make the car look in any way like a horse and cart. Unfortunately the Chinese battery companies are good at convincing battery users to buy their lithium batteries by making them look as similar as possible to the seald lead acid batteries they are so used to and feel comforatable with. People are likely to buy a battery which they feel looks similar to what they have been using for many years while in reality a good lithium battery will look in many respects very different to a lead acid battery (just as a car looks different to a horse). It is what is inside that matters the most by being able to access the inside components to be able to service, repair and upgrade the battery in future years (as opposed to being sucked in to buying a battery which is sealed and having no choice but disposing of it if only a small problem occurs in the future..)
If a consumer use battery was cut open you would see it is made up of dozens or even hundreds of tiny little 18650 or 26650 size cells all spot welded together much like an over-size power tool battery or lap top computer battery. Since the cells are welded together they cannot be replaced. Small 18650 size cells are used in these batteries because they are dirt cheap. They are made in the billions for many different consumer type appliances from cordless tools to lap top batteries. The same small format welded tab cells are then used to make up much larger batteries of higher capacity for such applications as electric bicycle batteries, mobility scooters and for caravans and boats. We have lost count of the number of times we have been asked if we can repair a battery which has prematurely failed which uses these cells. In many cases even if the battery case can be opened to inspect the cells such as in some e-bike batteries the cells are not only welded together but are also glued to each other with an adhesive or resin. It is virtually impossible to repair these batteries which are made extremely cheaply in China.
Another identifying factor of consumer use batteries is that they use cheap to manufacture very low discharge rate (low power) cells. If the battery supplier can’t or won’t supply you with a battery or cell data sheet showing the cell charge / discharge rates and curves then run away fast before you waste your money. The data sheets supplied with these batteries can be very poor and almost always the battery will be rated at often no more than 1C and rarely 2C continuous discharge. If you are buying a lithium battery which can only provide 1C – 2C discharge you are certain it is a very poor quality battery. Professional Grade lithium batteries on the other hand are easy to identify. They will always have some means of disassembling the battery housing by machine screws, clips or other fastenings. Once the battery is opened they will always have large format cells with threaded terminals making individual cell replacement quick and simple. In addition the internal BMS will also be pluggable or easily able to be tested and replaced if needed. In essence a Professional Grade lithium battery is fully serviceable, repairable and upgradeable whilst a Consumer Use battery is not. Professional Grade batteries generally use much higher quality cells and components in their manufacture. They may or may not have additional connections for data, monitoring or balance charging in addition to the battery terminals common to all batteries.
An example as to the benefits of a Professional Grade batteries was a recent case. Several years ago a customer purchased two 12V 60Ah LiFePO4 batteries for a racing sail boat from Lithium Batteries Australia. A few months ago the boat was sold and the new customer sent the batteries back to Lithium Batteries Australia for a service. Both batteries were tested and serviced and then upgraded from 60Ah to 90Ah each. This is much cheaper than having to buy new batteries and the recently serviced and upgraded batteries are sure to provide reliable service once again for several more years.
5) Are Professional Grade lithium batteries more expensive than Consumer Use batteries?
The answer is that while PG lithium batteries are more expensive to purchase initially they are cheaper to own long term than CU batteries. A minor fault such as a single cell or BMS failing in a consumer use battery will soon lead to the entire battery failing. Since these batteries cannot be repaired and are a “throw away” battery we feel that they are false economy. A professional grade battery will last much longer especially if maintained and serviced at regular intervals. Tests performed in the USA showed that a high quality LiFePO4 battery will actually be 30% cheaper than equivalent capacity lead acid batteries based of total cost of ownership over the life of the battery ie, cents per cycle. We like to think of professional grade batteries as being a bit like what happens if you have a skin cancer. If you find you have a skin cancer growing you go to the doctor to cut it out before the cancer takes over your body and kills you. A professional grade battery can easily be diagnosed before a serious problem with the battery occurs which would otherwise lead to failure of the battery. A single cell or other part can easily and inexpensively be replaced and the battery can then go back into service almost as good as new. By contrast a cell failing in a consumer use battery is 100% fatal because the battery is sealed and can’t be opened. One cell failing will result in a localised lower capacity in the region of cells around it which the BMS in not capable to maintaining cell balance. So the battery soon fails completely. This is why so many people who contact us ask us why their batteries they purchased from other battery suppliers failed in only 12 – 36 months.We consider it much more sensible to be able to detect and cut out a skin cancer early rather than ignore it and let the cancer quickly take over your body and kill you.
6) What is the Golden Rule of lithium batteries when it comes down to the cost of purchase?
The Golden Rule of any lithium battery installation is to “spend the money to do it properly once”. This includes using proper lithium specific battery chargers designed for the type of battery being used. If you can’t afford to install high quality professional grade lithium batteries it is always best to stick to a good quality set of AGM/gel lead acid batteries rather than to take a big chance on a cheap Chinese consumer use battery. We see the disappointment so many times we have lost count when customers contact us and tell us their sad stories of how these batteries failed in only a matter of months and of all the money they lost.
In one case a customer from north Queensland called us because he could not understand why his new LiFePO4 consumer use battery which he had purchased from his local battery retail store would not work in his caravan. After some tests we found that the cause was that due to the very poor quality (low discharge rate cells and BMS) in the battery at the moment when the customer would turn on his inverter the battery would simply shut down and die because it could not handle the initial surge current at start up. This is one of the problems with these cheap consumer use throw away batteries. Needless to say the battery purchaser quickly returned the battery for a full refund after we clearly explained to the customer what was happening and the reasons for it.
7) Can my car (lead acid) battery charger be used to charge my new 12V lithium battery in my motorhome, caravan, boat, etc?
Any battery supplier or website which tells you that it is perfectly ok to use your existing car battery charger has just weeded themselves out as being a rip off merchant who just wants to get your money from a quick sale and doesn’t care what happens after they have your money. If you want to shorten the life of your expensive lithium battery and ensure it fails early then of course you can go ahead and use your car battery lead acid charger! Lithium battery chargers are made specifically for charging lithium batteries only so as to ensure proper charging and the very longest battery life. The charging voltages and curves of a lithium battery are very different to a lead acid battery. Lithium batteries do not use lead acid charge modes of bulk/float/equalise/desulphation etc. Lithium batteries use a CC/CV curve at the correct voltage for the cell being used.
Due to the old technology of lead acid batteries they can only be charged slowly. There are many different power ratings of chargers for any given voltage of lithium batteries based on the battery capacity, BMS rating and type of cell. For example Lithium Batteries Australia’s new military grade Ion SafeX LiFePO4 and LNCM cells (“flash charge” version) can be super-fast charged to greater than 95% capacity in only 6 minutes. Almost all of our professional grade cells can be fast charged in 30 – 60 minutes.
So the simple rule is to use the proper charger to suit the specific chemistry of the battery type. After all, if it was so simple to be able to use any existing lead acid charger to charge a lithium battery then the lithium battery manufacturers would be happy because they would sell more batteries because they would not need to supply new chargers also. So always remember lithium battery chargers are for charging lithium batteries only and lead acid battery chargers are for charging lead acid batteries only.
The simple analogy we use to explain this to non technical people is about the fuel you put in the tank of your car. I may have a car with a petrol engine so I put petrol in my fuel tank while your car may have a diesel engine so you use diesel fuel. Petrol and diesel are both liquid fuels just as lithium ion and lead acid are both energy storage battery types. But they are different chemically. So just as you won’t get very far if you put petrol in the tank of a diesel car (or vice versa) you also will get the same amount of life from your lithium battery if you charge it regularly with a lead acid charger. The day you can sucessfully use diesel fuel in a petrol engine will probably be the same time when yiou can use a lead acid charger to properly charge a lithium battery. But for the present day the moral of the story is simple- use a lithium specific charger only if you don’t want to shorten the battery life of your expensive lithium battery. We think you get the picture now……..
There are also some technical reasons why a 12V lithium battery will fail faster if it regularly charged with a car battery charger but which relate to the way the BMS functions and why the BMS will not work properly and efficiently if a car battery charger is regularly used. Unless you have received specific lithium battery training you would not know these causes and this is another reason why battery stores who just import batteries have no understanding of why the batteries they sell can fail so quickly or unexpectedly.
8) I require a 24V or 48V battery. Can I simply connect 12V LiFePO4 batteries in series to give me 24V or 48V?
The short answer is no. It is bad practice to connect several 12V lithium batteries in series. It can be done but it is not accepted good practice. It is certainly not what a battery professional would do. Lithium batteries are manufactured in single blocks of 24V, 48V, 60V etc. including the voltage and current rated BMS for this specific purpose. It is just inefficient and more costly to do it this way since each battery must have its own BMS. It is inefficient because it would be a bit like having to transport one hundred 44 gallon / 205 litre drums from Sydney to Melbourne. The guy who uses lots of smaller batteries (lower voltage or lower capacity) is a bit like using a ute or towing a trailer behind his car where he can only fit 10 drums in the back so he needs to make ten separate trips to his destination and back again before he could deliver all 100 drums. It is a lot quicker, faster and more efficient just to load all 100 drums on to a large truck and make one trip only. So while it can be done, itis simply not very efficient or well accepted practice.
While 12V lead acid batteries are connected in series strings to provide higher voltage, lithium batteries are connected in exactly the opposite way. That is cells are connected in parallel first to provide the desired total capacity and then cell blocks are connected in series to provide the required voltage for the BMS being used.