After having a discussion with one of my customers about leaving his battery charger on all winter, a practice I am certainly not a huge fan of, I decided to do this article.
On December 11, 2012 I charged this house battery, that had just ended its sixth year of use, using my bench top DC power supply. I charged the battery to 14.8V and 0.2A of "accepted current" which essentially means this battery was full.
I then hit the battery with an equalizing voltage of 15.5V for about 30 minutes.
December 11, 2012 @ 10 Minutes
I then carried the battery out to my garden shed, which is unheated, to mimic a boat during the winter here in Maine. I suppose I could have just carried it up the ladder, and into my boat, but no sense in breaking my back, the temps are the same.
I then took my first open circuit voltage reading about ten minutes after discontinuing the charge. It read 13.77V and represents a "surface charge" that has not yet dissipated.
I placed my cell phone next to the DVM to try and capture the date.
December 11, 2012 - Shed
This is a shot of the shed with the battery sitting on the green box. The temps in here mimic that of our boat quite well.
In cold weather the self discharge of lead acid batteries slows dramatically to the point of nearly stopping. The colder the temps the slower the self discharge. In an area that has more temperate winters the rate of self discharge will be slight faster.
December 14, 2012 - Resting Voltage
I placed the battery in the shed on Tuesday the 11th and on Friday the 14th I remembered to go take a voltage reading. As we can see here the temp was 19F and the open circuit resting voltage, after 4 days, was still reading well above full. This battery, when at full charge, reads about 12.72V to 12.73V.
The cold Maine winter temps have not even allowed the battery to drop to a "resting voltage" over a period of four days...
February 26, 2013 - Resting Voltage
OK so much for my "article".... Yes, I promptly got ADHD and totally forgot about the battery in the shed until today. D'oh.......... When I remembered about the lonely battery in the shed I shoveled a path through the snow and took a voltage reading.
As you can see this battery is still resting at 12.72V after two and half months! December 11, 2012 to February 26, 2013 and still reading technically "full"... Ideally I wanted to get bi-weekly readings, but so much for that.
My point here is to illustrate why leaving your batteries on -board your boat, in the winter, does not lead to their instant demise, as many on the net would have you believe. My family and I have done this for more than 30 years and my bank longevity is tremendous, and always has been very, very good.
A broken back, hip, leg or other mishap can end your season or sailing career. Lugging batteries on and off boats can be very dangerous and is 100% unnecessary, if your excuse for doing so is cold weather. Some boat yards like to remove batteries because they can charge you for it! When doing so they also know the batteries are in-fact disconnected and it gives them peace of mind.
This particular Wal*Mart battery (actually made by US Battery Inc.) recently ended its sixth year of use and still performs at better than both CCA & MCA specifications based on both Argus and Midtronics analyzers.
How do these measurements compare to a true 20 hour capacity test? At the end of the batteries 6th year she produced 79.4% of the new Ah rating when capacity tested. This battery had lived every winter on-board our boat uncharged except for the occasional "top up" charge a few times per winter. Now granted, this battery is a cheap Group 31 "deep cycle" (automotive type) battery but it had lead a rather mild life in a system designed for shallow discharges with 80% SOC often being the deepest discharge. It is not a true deep cycle battery thus the system was designed for shallower discharges to increase cycle life. It apparently worked because I often see this same exact battery literally murdered in 1-2 years.
Contrary to popular misconception cold weather is actually not a bad thing for the batteries, provided they are fully charged going into it. A fully charged battery will not freeze until approx -70F. I lived in Alaska, Fairbanks to be exact, and they have been using flooded lead acid batteries up there since they were invented. In most parts of this country we will never see the -60F they see in Fairbanks.. I Fairbanks you can spit and have it hit the ground frozen, not so in the rest of the country.
Lead acid batteries (AGM, GEL and FLOODED batteries are all lead acid) will lose very little voltage/stored capacity in colder weather due to what is called "self discharge".
If leaving batteries on board I much prefer to see them 100% disconnected from the vessel and only occasionally topped back up, if at all. I find this practice safer and more reliable than being left on permanent charge while unattended. There is just too much to go wrong to leave unattended batteries charging.
I see far more problems when batteries are left charging, without any supervision, than I do when left fully charged, equalized if applicable, disconnected and resting (in cold weather). Perhaps once per month, if that, hit them with some good "bubbling" voltage then disconnect them again. If your temps moderate, or warm up into the 60's, hit them again.
Self discharge rates are directly dependent upon temperature. As the temperature climbs the self discharge rates also climb. As temps drop the self discharge rates and chemical reactions also drop & slow. When the temps go sub 30F the self discharge rate crawls to a hibernation level or very, very slow pace.
When I say hit periodically them with a good "bubbling voltage" this applies to flooded batteries. A good gassing voltage of 14.6V to 14.8V will get the electrolyte moving and minimize any stratification going on inside the battery from it sitting idle. If you want to shorten these periodic charging events, use an equalization voltage.
Stratification is when the acid and water tend to separate due to sitting idle. The acid sinks to the bottom and the water rises to the top. It is a common misunderstanding that a constant float charge prevents stratification. It does not. Most so called "smart chargers" will generally not prevent stratification of the electrolyte. The floating voltages are often too low to keep the electrolyte moving and in a mixed state. Push the float too high and we suffer plate decay. This gassing or movement of the electrolyte, at absorption voltages or higher, is will helps limit stratification. Smart chargers that revert to absorption voltages every few weeks can help roll the electrolyte and limit stratification. Sadly most "smart" chargers don't do this and are not really as "smart" as they think they are. Most "smart chargers" are really rather dumb and are nothing more than glorified egg-timer voltage limiters.
Still leaving batteries on-charge and unattended can often result in dead banks, which is the exact opposite of the intended goal.. Power outages occur, cords get unplugged, breakers get tripped and not reset and the parasitic loads then go to work killing your bank. I have yet to see more than a hand full of boats that do not have some form of parasitic load. Meerely turning the battery switch to OFF is NOT adequate.
Most "smart" chargers, or any smart enough to even consider leaving connected full-time, while unattended, will not restart if the battery voltage gets too low. This is a built in safety feature to prevent charging into an internally shorted battery but can mean the charger will not fire back up if the bank has dropped too low.. The usable capacity of your bank shrinks when it gets cold so even a small parasitic load is essentially amplified in cold temps.
So, power goes out or the solar panel becomes occluded in snow/ice and the parasitic loads of the charger, controller or other "always on" devices suck the bank down. Power comes back on or the snow melts but now the battery voltage is below the safe turn on threshold and the battery continues to discharge until fully dead. This is not as rare an occurrence as it would seem. Power has been out three or four times in the last month here in Maine due to winter storms. Will your charger automatically re-boot?
With a fully charged and 100% physically disconnected battery bank noting except time & temp can discharge it, and when it is cold, you've got plenty of time....
OK This morning September 9th 2013 I walked into the shed and realized a gas can had been set in front of my "experiment" and I had totally forgotten about it. Arghhh that damn ADHD.......
What this means is the battery sat from Dec 11, 2012 to September 9, 2013 100% un-charged!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Doh'..........
Really, It Was Not My Fault...........
I immediately went to the barn and grabbed my DVM totally figuring this battery was a goner. It tested with an open circuit voltage aof 12.54V! This after sitting in a freezing cold then blistering hot shed throughout an entire Maine winter and summer.
I was a total disbeliever at the resting OCV of a flooded battery that has sat 100% uncharged for nearly 9 months. I grabbed my refractometer and performed specific gravity checks on each cell. They all agreed and all agreed with the DVM at the SOC..
So this causes one to wonder why there is all the concern around self discharge> I have to assume that nearly 20-30 days of this summer saw the shed temps over 100F. It is uninsulated with a black roof... If we are to believe OCV and SG readings it puts this battery at approx 90% SOC after at least 9 months..
Interesting n=1 data, to say the least......
OK off to charge and equalize this battery... Face palm.............
EDIT 10-28-13: I finally got a chance to perform an equalization and then conducted a 20 hour capacity test on this battery. It completed the test with 78.8% of the 20 hour rated capacity.
If you were paying attention early on in this article, this 6 year old battery had previously tested at 79.4% of rated Ah capacity. After sitting for nine months, through a full winter and then a hot summer in my shed, the battery lost only 0.6% of its previous tested Ah capacity. My suspicion is that if I had tested it in April I would have seen minimal to no loss and the summer heat is what really caused this minor loss of capacity.
Considering this battery sat uncharged & untouched through an entire winter and an entire Maine summer I find that pretty darn amazing. I have no explanation for how the summer heat in that shed did not destroy this battery? I would have thought the stratification alone would have murdered it but perhaps the winter hibernation also inhibits the negative effects of stratification too?
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