What is a True Deep Cycle Battery?

Having briefly touched on the topic of deep-cycle batteries in our article on dual-purpose batteries last month, now seems like a good time for a more in depth look at these often-unsung heroes of work and play.  Sort of like a janitor, you only notice them if they’re doing a poor job. These days deep-cycle batteries are used in so many applications, it’s no wonder the industry registers in the multi-billion-dollar range. From recreation like golf carts and RVs to heavy industry like forklifts and UPS systems, deep-cycle batteries are everywhere, keeping the world running. At this point, it’s safe to say we could not live without them.

The simplest definition of a deep-cycle battery is a battery that can be discharged constantly until it reaches the maximum depth of discharge recommended by the manufacturer and then recharged before the process is repeated again and again. A car battery could never be subjected to this type of application and last very long. But why?

Served on a Plate, or by a Plate

A true deep-cycle battery will differ greatly from most standard automotive batteries due to the composition of the individual plates inside the battery. Automotive batteries utilize sponge lead, lead that has gone through a special process so that it becomes like a sponge. Sponge lead has a lot more surface area which allows for energy to flow out of the battery more readily for cranking an engine. The downside of the material is that it’s weak and subject to rapid sulfation.

Most deep-cycle batteries are made with flat plates, or in some cases cylindrical tubes. If the battery is well made, these plates, thick with ample active material, are well cured so they’re neither brittle nor mushy. Curing time is critical to ensure long-life and resilience. Some manufacturers cut corners and the curing process is rushed which can lead to early failures. Remember Murphy’s Law. Fullriver plates undergo a 10-day curing period, one of the longest in the industry where the standard is 1-3 days.

A Tight Fit

After the plates are finished, they are ready to be installed in the battery case. For a typical flooded cell battery, they are simply set into place. But for an AGM battery, the glass mat material is intentionally bulky and must be compressed to fit into the case. Once the electrolyte is added to the cells, the glass mat expands, further wedging the plates into the cell housing. This greatly mitigates against the inherent vibration of applications like electric vehicles, or a pallet jack going down the road in the back of a semi-truck.

Connections

The next step in assembly is to connect each of the individual 2-volt cells in the battery together to whatever nominal voltage the battery is supposed to be. 3, 2-volt cells for 12 volts, 4 for 8 volts, 6 for 12 volts, and so on, ad infinitum. Most manufacturers accomplish this inter-cell connection by punching a hole between the plastic separators (partitions) that divide these cells, and basically bolting the cells together. This method has one serious short-coming, upward movement of the cell pack. If a battery bounces up and down, the cell connection is subjected to stress where the partition inhibits this movement, and a dropped cell is common. Instead of a 12-volt battery, you’re left with a 10- volt.   

Fullriver uses a method of cell interconnection called over-the-partition (OTP). Instead of punching through the plastic partition, the cell connections go over each partition. By linking each cell with OTP welds, if the cell pack wants to move upward, the inter-cell connections are not stressed by slamming into the plastic partition. That’s not to say the pack is free-floating, it’s just allowed some wiggle at these critical connection points.

The thing about battery cases…

The case of the battery is the next critical component we shall examine. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but you can be sure it matters more than you might first imagine. Have you ever been told not to put a battery on concrete? That’s not true anymore unless you have a battery that’s really old but was related to the type of case batteries used to be made with, rubber. Today, battery cases are made from a few different materials.

Many automotive and some deep-cycle batteries use polypropylene cases. To begin, PPO is not very puncture resistant. The lid on a PPO case is heat sealed to the top of the battery. Heat-sealing is problematic because it is vulnerable to failure when in hot environments. In the case (pun intended) of a valve-regulated battery this weakness effects the overall operation of the battery. The psi rating of the valves on top of the battery, which allow air and moisture to escape the battery, cannot be too high or there’s a risk of case failure, either by rupture or deformation. In turn, the lower psi setting of the valves allow them to open more often, which allows for more moisture to escape from the battery. When a sealed battery dries out, it’s game over.

Fullriver battery cases are made with ABS plastic. While that may not sound very sexy, ABS solves a lot of the problems inherent in PPO. First, the lid can be epoxy sealed to the case, which is much stronger. If you want to take the lid off an ABS case, get out your angle grinder, because it’s not going anywhere otherwise. This allows for, you guessed it, higher psi settings on the valves. The valves open less frequently and thereby retain more water for the life of the battery. Oh, yeah, and ABS is incredibly resistant to drops and punctures.

DoD: Dispatching Myths

It is all too common today to be reading on some forum or in the marketing literature of a “new battery technology” that deep-cycle batteries cannot be discharged more than 50% of their rated capacity. In other words, they would have you believe that a 100Ah battery is really only a 50Ah battery because one must never discharge below 50% (Gasp!) If you happen to own a battery and the manufacturer has stated not to discharge below 50%, by all means follow their advice. Generally, with most respectable manufacturers, they allow for discharging to at least 80%. Every Fullriver battery is life cycle tested to 100% DoD. Meaning, every battery Fullriver makes, is tested from day one to its full rated capacity, 100% DoD, until it finally gives up and quits.

Shotgun

We’ve examined some of the more critical parts to a true deep-cycle battery. However, there are so many other things that Fullriver does to ensure the highest quality, longest lasting deep-cycle battery that it’s just not practical to examine every one of them in fine detail. In passing, here’s a few of the other details worthy of mention. All Fullriver batteries in our DC Series have a 10-year design life. All our terminals in the DC Series are made of highly conductive brass to reduce heat/resistance.  Our batteries offer some of the highest cycle life in the industry. For longer life, and faster charging, we use 99.994% pure lead in every battery we make.

And that, in our experience, is what make a true deep-cycle battery. Attention to design details, rigorous manufacturing standards, and the best components. It’s not any one thing by itself, but the sum of its parts that makes it great. 

Sustainability, Reliability, or Both?

Fullriver believes at its core that lead-acid battery technology remains the most sustainable and reliable iteration of energy storage technology. Recently, much acclaim and ardor has surrounded lithium battery technology. At the same time, older battery technology has been dismissed out of hand as dying and irrelevant.  So much so, that one of the largest golf cart manufacturers has switched entirely to lithium for their carts.  According to Plato, knowledge is justified true belief. Today we will examine these technologies in terms of their reliability and sustainability to hopefully add knowledge to our belief.

Ease of Recycling-

Lithium: As it currently stands, lithium batteries are both very difficult to recycle and very expensive, with very few of the residual materials from this process able to be reused.  Current estimates are around 15-20% of a lithium battery is reclaimable.  It doesn’t require much insight to see what this means in the long-term, lots of landfill waste, and a constant quest to mine new materials from the earth.

Lead-Acid: It is well documented that one of the most recycled products is the lead-acid battery. Lead Acid battery recycling is one of the best examples of true circular economy. Very few products/materials outside maybe aluminum / steel are recycled at this level. Even everyday materials like paper, cardboard, and plastics have a long way to go to achieve a similar recycling success as lead batteries. Quite remarkable, as much as 99% of a lead-acid battery is recyclable. And not only is it readily recyclable, but a lead-acid battery is almost always recycled because of its inherent value. Lead-acid recycling is so valuable, a whole industry exists that continually seeks it out.

Consumption of Raw Materials-

Lithium: The raw materials in lithium batteries require intensive mining processes to obtain. Because much of these materials cannot be re-used, this mining will go on and on to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for lithium batteries. 

Lead-Acid: To produce a lead-acid battery still requires mining of raw materials, this demand is held in check by the abundance of recycled materials used to make today’s batteries. Up to 80% of the lead in a new battery can be of recycled origin. It is possible that the lead in new batteries today in some part has been in use for a hundred years.  

Energy Consumption-

Lithium: To produce a lithium battery it requires 450 kWh for every 1 kWh of capacity.

Lead-Acid: In stark contrast, it requires 150 kWh for every 1 kWh of capacity to produce a lead-acid battery.

Reliability-

Lithium: While the individual lithium cells themselves are very reliable, the layers of tiny electronic components like pcb’s, composed of diodes, resistors, and mosfets, are lithium’s pinch point. The failure of any one of these components, and it’s lights out for the battery. This is one reason that many mission-critical applications have not yet adopted lithium.  Even Nasa still uses a very pricey lead-acid type battery to this day (silver-zinc). Murphy’s Law is alive and well.

Lead-Acid: A good analogy to understand the reliability of lead-acid batteries can be borrowed from the appliances of yesteryear. Major appliances like refrigerators and washing machines had much longer lives than their modern counterparts. Even buying a top-tier brand appliance today seems to have only a nominal impact on the reliability. In contrast, a lead-acid battery has no electronic components, it simply does not need them to do its job. 

Life-

Lithium: In general lithium cells are advertised by their manufacturers to be capable of anywhere from 1000-2500 cycles at 100% DOD depending on the producer. While this accounts for individual cell performance, it does not take into account the overall pack reliability.

Lead-Acid: One of the oldest and mostly widely used battery technologies, great advancements are being made to increase the usable life of lead-acid batteries. New designs like the Fullriver EGL Series, cost 35-45% less than lithium batteries of comparable quality, while offering ~1,000 cycles at 100% DOD.

Cost-

Lithium: The cost of a lithium battery was one of its first barriers to adoption. But lithium proponents argued that scale would translate to lowered costs. The opposite is true. With giants like Tesla increasing production by 80% in 2022, the cost for raw materials has increased by 15-20% in January of 2022 alone.

Lead-Acid: While it cannot be said that lead has remained stable, compared to lithium it is relatively stable. A robust recycling sector helps to buffer much of the potential for instability in cost. The cost of a lead-acid battery of reputable quality (cheaper is available, but quality may be sacrificed) is 35-70% less than that of a lithium battery from a reputable producer.

When broken down side-by-side, the truth is, lead-acid batteries may experience some displacement, but they will continue to be a valuable player in the future of energy. Lead-acid batteries exhibit immediate real-world upsides in the here and now. Batteries like the Fullriver EGL Series demonstrate lead-acid's constant improvement, promising at the very least, a multi-pronged approach to meeting the energy demand of the future in a safe, reliable, sustainable, and cost-effective manner.