This question has been asked many times over the years, but the answer hasn’t always been clear. There was a time early in the development of lithium batteries that there were safety concerns. However, with the advent of newer lithium technologies, it’s clear that lithium batteries are, in fact, safe.
Let’s look at why.
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What Are Lithium Batteries?
Before diving into what a lithium battery is, let’s cover the basics of how a battery works. Batteries have a positive side (cathode) and a negative side (anode). When you connect an electronic device to a battery, electrons flow from the anode to the cathode through your device and power it.
Lithium batteries get their name because they use lithium metal as the cathode material. Compare this to traditional lead-acid batteries, like in your car, which uses lead as the lead dioxide.
There are many different types of lithium batteries. For example, you’ve probably heard of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Phones, computers, and other small rechargeable electronics commonly use Li-ion batteries.
However, in this article, we discuss lithium battery replacements for traditional lead-acid batteries in RVs, boats and other larger mobile off-grid applications. The most common lithium battery replacement for lead-acid batteries is the lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery.
Are Lithium Batteries Safe?
As we mentioned above, there are many different types of lithium batteries. Some are safer and more stable than others. However, when used and maintained correctly, lithium batteries of all kinds can be safe.
Lithium-ion batteries have been in the media in the past few years for incidents where cell phone batteries catch fire or explode on airplanes or perhaps an electric car catching on fire. These accidents have given lithium batteries a bit of a bad reputation for being unsafe.
Battery fires and explosions like this are caused by thermal runaway. Thermal runaway can happen in all types of batteries, not just lithium, and can be caused by many different factors.
Lithium battery technology is still relatively new. As this technology has advanced, improvements such as integrated battery management systems (BMS) and more stable internal chemistries have resulted in lithium batteries that are safer than their lead-acid counterparts and provide many advantages.
The Safest Lithium Battery: The LiFePO4
As we mentioned earlier, the most popular option for lithium RV batteries is the lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery. LiFePO4 batteries have a lower energy density than Li-ion batteries, resulting in them being more stable and making them an excellent option for RV applications.
Another safety benefit of the LiFePO4 is that lithium iron phosphate is not toxic. Therefore, you can dispose of it more easily than lead-acid and Li-ion batteries.
Benefits of Lithium Batteries
The safety consideration of LiFePO4 batteries is obviously essential. However, many other benefits help make LiFePO4 batteries the optimal choice for RVers.
Longer Life Span
Some people balk at the up-front price tag on lithium batteries, which can easily reach $1,000 each. However, lithium batteries can last up to ten times longer than a standard lead-acid battery which often results in overall cost savings over time.
Safer than Lead Acid or AGM
Although most lead-acid or AGM batteries are sealed to improve their safety, they still do not offer many safety features that lithium batteries do.
Lithium batteries typically have an integrated battery management system (BMS) which helps them charge and operate more efficiently and safely. Lead-acid batteries are also susceptible to damage and overheating when being charged and discharged but do not have a BMS to help protect them.
Additionally, LiFePO4 batteries are made out of non-toxic materials that resist thermal runaway. This adds to not only increased safety for the user but the environment as well.
More Battery Capacity
Another advantage to lithium batteries is that they have a greater useable capacity as compared to lead-acid batteries.
You can only safely discharge a lead-acid battery to about 50% of its capacity rating before you start to damage the battery. That means that if a lead-acid battery is rated at 100 amp-hours, you only have about 50 amp-hours of usable energy before you start damaging the battery. This limits its future capacity and lifespan.
By contrast, you can discharge a lithium battery almost completely without causing damage. However, most people don’t deplete them below 20% before recharging. Even if you follow this conservative rule of thumb, a 100 amp-hour lithium battery provides about 80 amp-hours before it needing to be recharged.
The integrated BMS monitors and helps maintain your lithium battery, eliminating the need to do this yourself.
The BMS makes sure the battery isn’t overcharged, calculates the state of charge of the batteries, monitors and regulates temperature, and monitors the batteries’ health and safety.
There are two ways that lithium batteries can reduce the weight of your battery system.
As we said before, lithium batteries have more usable capacity than lead-acid batteries. This will often allow you to need fewer lithium batteries in your system to achieve the same capacity as a lead-acid system. Additionally, a lithium battery will weigh about half as much as a lead-acid battery with the same capacity.
As mentioned, lithium batteries are much more efficient than lead-acid batteries. Even with a similar capacity rating, lithium batteries offer more usable energy. They also discharge at a more stable rate than do lead-acid batteries.
This effectively allows you to operate longer without having to recharge your batteries, which is especially useful when boondocking and allows you to reduce generator usage and maximize your solar power.
Less Expensive Overall
While lithium batteries initially cost more than their lead-acid counterparts, the fact that they last 6-10 times longer means that you will ultimately save money in the long run.
There’s A Reason Lithium Is The New Gold Standard
So, are lithium batteries safe?
The advancements in lithium battery technology have made them safer than ever and have introduced many other benefits as well. Safety, cost, weight, and efficiency are all critical factors in deciding what type of battery to use in your RV. Lithium batteries outshine lead-acid batteries across the board, making it no surprise that they are quickly becoming the gold standard for RVers everywhere.
Want To Learn More About Electrical Systems and Lithium Batteries?
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