Lead-acid battery technology hasn't changed much since it was introduced in the 19th century, but that doesn't justify taking an outdated approach to maintaining the lead-acid batteries that power a facility's forklifts. Advances in charging technology and maintenance techniques combined with common-sense approaches to heating and cooling can go a long way toward keeping batteries in their best possible condition—a must when you think about the considerable investment involved in purchasing a new battery. Forklift batteries cost thousands of dollars—some upwards of $5,000.
Experts agree that battery life depends largely on how hard a particular piece of equipment is used. The more frequently a forklift is in use, the heavier the loads it carries, and the harsher the conditions it operates in, the higher the toll on battery longevity. But within those parameters, experts say adherence to proper charging and maintenance techniques can add years to battery life—which equates to meaningful savings on such high-ticket items. Here's a look at three simple steps warehouse personnel can take today to get more out of their batteries tomorrow.1. REPLACE OLD CHARGERS
Although lead-acid batteries have not changed much over the years, chargers have—and investing in new ones can add up to meaningful savings, says Mike Olin, national account manager for battery and charger manufacturer Douglas Battery. The advent of high-frequency chargers, for example, is helping to extend battery life by keeping the battery cooler (high temperatures reduce battery life) and reducing maintenance requirements (cooler batteries require less-frequent watering).
Olin says high-frequency chargers are 90 percent efficient compared with older technology that performs at 70- to 80-percent efficiency levels, according to industry standards. This can potentially add years to battery life. And because chargers can cost about half what a battery costs, the savings potential makes it worth the investment, he says.
Therefore, simply replacing your outdated chargers is a first step to increasing battery life.
"With new charging technology, you would expect your batteries to last ... one to two years longer than they probably [do]," Olin says. "If I was a warehouse manager, the first thing I would do is look at my charger fleet and see how old it is."
Steve Spaar, marketing director for EnerSys, echoes those sentiments, emphasizing the importance of new charger technology that reduces heat in the battery. EnerSys is a global provider of stored energy solutions for industrial applications.
"We know what batteries like and don't like, so we can adapt our charging algorithms and create less heat during the charge," says Spaar.
"Smart charging" is another beneficial technology not available in older chargers. Smart charging systems include remote monitoring capabilities that can perform a variety of functions—such as detecting rising temperatures and cutting back or stopping the charging process, protecting the battery. This is especially important in the last 20 percent of the charging process—the finish charge—when most of the heat is generated, explains Todd Dietz, project manager, industrial, for battery specialist Exide Technologies.
"The critical point is not always so much how they start, but how they finish," Dietz says of the battery charging process. "The last 20 percent of the charge is where the majority of the heat is created, and heat is the enemy of the battery. Smart chargers have a great deal of ability to control when and how that finish charge occurs."
Smart chargers are part of the larger industrial Internet of Things movement, in which products and services are getting "connected" as a way to gather data for better decision making on a range of issues throughout a facility.
"Battery operations management—the telemetry side of the business—is really taking off," says Spaar, noting that manufacturers are incorporating sensors and Bluetooth technology in order to better monitor batteries in real time and provide action-item lists to customers.2. MAINTAIN WATERING SCHEDULES
Ensuring the proper watering of batteries is a second practical step personnel can take to extend battery life. This regular maintenance step often gets put on the back burner in a busy facility—to the detriment of batteries. Lead-acid batteries contain water that is consumed during operation and needs to be replaced regularly. Neglecting this process can cause a host of problems, most notably oxidation of cell plates when they are exposed to air. Because industrial batteries contain many cells that must be monitored and watered, the process can be time consuming and labor intensive.
On the flip side, overwatering is a common pitfall. This occurs when personnel water batteries that are not fully charged, add too much water, and/or water too frequently. Doing so can cause batteries to boil over and lose some of the acid required to keep them going. It can also lead to corrosion of the battery.
"If you boil over the battery and lose some of the acid in the cell, that's capacity you've lost out of the cell," Dietz explains, adding that batteries should only be watered after they've been fully charged.
Adhering to a regular maintenance schedule alleviates these problems, adds Dietz's colleague Brad Persons, product marketing manager, industrial batteries, for Exide Technologies. Batteries should be checked weekly, and only those that need it should be watered. Single-point watering systems—which allow workers to water multiple cells from one source—are a good way to save time and labor. In addition, accessories such as water-level indicator lights can help speed up the maintenance process and keep workers on task.
Maintenance in general is a hot topic among battery manufacturers, in large part because of warranty issues. For some customers, outsourcing maintenance—via monitoring and service programs—is an attractive option.
"There are certain things customers are required to do to maintain the warranty," says Spaar, citing watering, proper charging, and washing batteries (to keep them free of dirt, grease, oil, and other substances that can adversely affect performance) as examples. "They can do it themselves, or they can hire us to do it for them."
Either way, proper maintenance is a must for prolonging battery life, adds Katie Gehris, marketing support manager-service, for EnerSys.
"If something is broken, some customers are apt to just let it go," Gehris explains. "But you have to maintain your batteries and chargers—because that will extend [their] life."3. KEEP IT COOL
Exposure to heat is another factor that affects battery performance, which leads to the third practical step in extending battery life: ventilation. Simply adding fans to charging areas and opening the hood when rapid-charging a battery in the forklift can make a big difference.
Managing temperature can help reduce the impact of wear and tear from heavier use, Olin explains. He points to a general rule about battery temperature: For every degree above 77 degrees Fahrenheit, a battery's life expectancy is reduced by 2 percent. If your battery has an average temperature of 100 degrees over its lifetime, life expectancy is cut almost in half.
"We can't control how much they are used, but we can control the temperature," Olin says. "Most people are running batteries really hard. They stay in the lift trucks, they stay warm, and they never get a chance to cool down. Using floor fans and ceiling fans can help. You need some kind of air circulation in your charging area. And when you're using a rapid charger, lift the hood and let the air out.
"I've found that air circulation will bring the average battery temperature down 10 degrees," he adds.
Maintaining the proper ratio of batteries to equipment helps with this as well, allowing for batteries to be used, charged, and then cooled down appropriately before being put back into use.
"The proper ratio is really important," says Dietz. "It keeps individual batteries from being over-cycled, and it allows for proper cooldown."
Replacing chargers, maintaining watering schedules, and implementing common-sense ventilation measures can go a long way toward increasing the life of your forklift batteries. Experts also advise consulting with your battery and charger provider regularly for additional tips and recommendations—because it never hurts to stay up to date on even the most tried-and-true technology.