In this photo I am simulating a sailboat heeling with flooded batteries. For years I have been wanting to write this article but until my friend Dave let me shoot these polycarbonate cased UPS batteries it was going to be tough to explain. A picture is worth a thousand words. This one may be worth more than a thousand.
Here we can see the three individual cells of this 6V battery. A 12V battery would have 6 cells. Even heeled like this the positive and negative plates are not and have not "uncovered" and this is good. The vents are also not having electrolyte try to escape out the vent holes. In a port starboard orientation, like this, the cells are in their "thin" orientation compared to port or starboard tacks. Cells running port to starboard, not bow to stern, is the preferred method for installing flooded batteries on a sailing vessel. Sorry for just telling you this now, if you have them running bow/stern, but I needed the pics before the article could happen.
This is a problem I discovered back in the late 80's. I was on a friends fathers boat that we had put a "state of the art" charging system on due to chronic short battery life. At the time we incorrectly assumed it was "overcharging" or what we through at the time was "overcharging"... Even after the new alternator and regulator he still had short battery life.
He went through the first bank in less than a season. One day while helping him work on it I noticed electrolyte spilled in the cases. The plastic cases for the batteries were black and so were the battery boxes so it was tough to see.
I removed the batteries and discovered quite a bit of electrolyte. I cleaned it out, neutralized the acid, and we went for a sail with no charging. We put her up on ear beating to weather and sure enough electrolyte began to drain out of the batteries fill/vent ports.. The cases were not cracked or leaking but it was spilling out when heeled.
It then dawned on me that the orientation of batteries on sailboats mattered. Doh'......
I looked at the cell layout, and fill/vent ports, and simply rotated these batteries to port/stbd. After that quick fix he never again had a single drop of spilled electrolyte. This may NOT be an easy fix on all boats as many builders really stiff you one this.
If I recall that bank lasted 5 or 6 years, after those first few days of spilling. This after multiple years of replacing batteries almost annually. I can't say all the issues were related to the exposing of his battery plates, and chronically low electrolyte, but it certainly did not help any.
This problem is only compounded with batteries that have "off set" fill caps meaning they are closer to the edge of the battery than the center. Orient offset cap batteries in a bow/stern orientation and you'll have some real leakage issues on one particular tack.
Exposing the plates, especially under charge or discharge, can lead to shorter battery life. Is a failure immediate and catastrophic? No, but if the opportunity exists to orient them more optimally then it should be something you consider. Monohull sailboats should ideally have flooded batteries installed to minimize electrolyte spillage and to minimize or prevent the positive and negative plates from uncovering during normal sailing activities.
Bow To Stern Orientation
Here we have the same battery only now it is oriented with the cells running bow to stern. As you can easily see the positive and negative battery plates are exposed and uncovered from the electrolyte. On these batteries spilling is not an issue due to the height and design but on the typical 12V "marine" group 24,27,31 etc. this can not only lead to exposed plates but also electrolyte leakage.
Exposing or uncovering of the positive and negative plates of a battery from the electrolyte, especially when under load or when being charged, is not good for the battery. Even if you are not spilling electrolyte you may be exposing the plates.
Seeing as most sailors are using the batteries to power house loads, while they are sailing, proper orientation of the cells can be that elusive piece of the puzzle that finally leads to longer battery life.
You may have invested thousands of dollars in solar, wind, regulators, alternators, desulphators, fancy chargers, new large gauge wire, bank fusing and more, but if your batteries are improperly installed you're still missing that last piece of the puzzle...
Side Profile = Uncovered Plates
Here is a close up and side profile of what happens when the batteries are installed non-optimally. This battery was also at the low level for electrolyte. If it was full to where it should be then leakage could have occurred. Either way the positive & negative plates are exposed and this is bad.
There are differences between 6V batteries and the typical 12V batteries used in marine applications. No one ever discusses these points so I will.
In this photo you can see the blue line representing low mark for electrolyte levels, and this battery needs topping up. The bottom line is the low mark and the top blue line is the full mark. Even at low this battery still has sufficient electrolyte covering the plates to sustain typical heeling angles if properly oriented.
6V deep cycle batteries are taller than typical "marine" 12V batteries. Why? They are sold and used most widely in golf car applications and the added height benefits these batteries in two important ways.
#1 The added height gives more electrolyte depth covering the plates when compared to typical 12V batteries. Golf carts are often driven on hilly terrain, parked at steep angles and this type of movement is closer to what a monohull sailboat undergoes. Only off road jeeps and four wheelers put flooded batteries through the same pains as a golf car or sailboat... This added case height allows for less chance of the plates uncovering when the golf car moves about on hilly terrain.
#2 In deep cycling applications, like golf cars or sailboats, sulfation of flooded batteries is just a fact of life. The bottoms of 6V battery cases are deeper allowing for the collection of more shed lead sulfate. This battery shows very little sulfate in the bottom of the case but I have seen autopsied batteries with a "snow" covering of lead sulfate in the bottom of the case. 12V batteries can be "shorted" internally due to the build up of lead sulfate which eventually can reach the plates and short across them. This is very rare in 6V deep cycle batteries.
A Proper Orientation
While this picture shows the battery cells lined up port to starboard, this is not how they shipped from the factory. This entire battery compartment was re-configured to allow for a larger house bank of two group 31 12V batteries plus a group 27 starting battery. The factory installation had the batteries bow/stern and only had room for two group 27's..
I like this picture because if you look closely (click on ANY photo to make it larger) you can see the cell divisions dimpled into the top of the plastic battery cases. Look at the faint lines and you can count all six cells on each battery.
This is an example of a good factory installation on an older Sabre 34 MK I. At the Annapolis boat show, this past fall, the Sabre I was on still had properly oriented batteries! Nice job Sabre.
While this battery compartment is small, at least by today's standards, the batteries are properly oriented and that is a good thing..
I will certainly give kudos to builders who do it right but there is no need to slam an out of business builder by calling them out by name. Those who own this model will know this battery compartment well. Sorry.
This owner has actually tried to do the right thing by installing AGM batteries. Of course they lasted all of two years, on a mooring, but that is a topic for another day. Everything on a boat seems to be a compromise.
Unfortunately this builder left no possibility for a proper installation of flooded batteries short of cutting fiberglass and reconfiguring the battery tray. There is no way, in this tray, to orient the batteries any way other than bow/stern. Doh'....!
On a boat like this GEL or AGM batteries will likely be a good alternative option.
Any discussion about battery installation would be incomplete without addressing securing the batteries into the vessel.
For this task I often prefer a set of heavy duty pad eyes and some canoe/kayak straps.. The other pad eye in this photo is for the house bank which has not yet been installed into the battery tray. Containment of acid is critical so that any metal tie downs don't get compromised by acid. For containment plastic battery boxes suffice.
Also important is that the battery box not be able to move fore, aft or side to side. In this installation it is entrapped by a 1.5" tall X 1.5" wide mahogany frame on the battery platform. There are many ways to secure your batteries, just be sure you do.
A good way to think about installing your batteries is to mentally visualize your boat in a knock down. So, take a moment to picture your vessel in a knock down........
Now, where are YOUR batteries...? $hit happens so please install your batteries safely. A little spilled acid, if you have flooded batteries, is better than a 65 pound cannon ball flying through your cabin.
I generally dislike the cheap battery hold down straps that come with plastic battery boxes. The AGM photo before this one is a prime example of sub par hold down straps, neither of them was still operable... These cheap straps, with their plastic buckles, are marginal to useless at best.
EMS, LL Bean or Northwest River Supplies (NRS) sell the type of canoe/kayak straps I use. They work extremely well and are very, very strong..
Off Set Fill/Vent Caps
Here is a a prime example of a 12V group 31 battery (Deka/East Penn) that absolutely needs to be installed properly. If not they will leak on one tack and this leakage can quickly ruin the batteries.
Here the batteries are properly installed with the neg post facing PORT and the positive post facing STARBOARD.
I can not stress enough how critical proper orientation is with batteries that have offset fill/vent caps as these do..
With 4D and 8D batteries the placement and orientation of cells is different than a typical 6V GC2 or 12V G24, G27 or G31.
In a 4D battery the cells are rectangular, as shown here with the red lines. As such the cells on 4D batteries are best mounted so the long length of the battery runs bow to stern. This puts the narrowest profile of each cell oriented to minimize positive and negative plate uncovering during sailing conditions.
The red lines represent the cell dividers inside the battery box. Each rectangle/cell is sealed from the others. The battery could also be flipped around so port / starboard are opposite the the long sides of a 4D should face port/starboard...
8D = NOT OPTIMAL
In this image I have left the red lines off the cell divisions. If you click the picture, and blow it up, you can see the faint divisions of the cell dividers imprinted into the plastic cover.
When you look close at the cell layout of an 8D battery you can clearly see that these cells are SQUARE! The 4D has rectangular cells, which can be better situated, the 8D has no optimal configuration.
Because of the square cells on an 8D battery there is no orientation that is better than another. Any way you install a flooded 8D battery, on a monohull sailboat, will result in the plates uncovering when heeled. This is never good for the batteries.
I do not and can not recommend 8D flooded batteries for use on sailboats.. Use at your own risk and if short life is an issue you'll know part of the reason.
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