Categories: RV SolarRV Tech

Do Lithium Batteries Fail In Cold Weather?

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One of the most common questions we get asked about lithium batteries is do they work in the cold?    Today, we are going to answer this question and take a scientific look at lithium batteries and cold weather.  

What Are Lithium Batteries?

For starters, what are lithium batteries?

Lithium-ion based batteries use a lithium metal inside the battery to store energy for later use.  Different lithium battery chemistries use different “ions,” but all are sort of lumped under this category. In this article, we’re specifically talking about lithium iron phosphate battery chemistry.

But regardless of chemistry, these batteries are rechargeable and tend to have higher energy capacities compared to other types of batteries.  Lithium batteries are becoming much more popular due to their energy capacity, allowing for smaller and lighter batteries.  These batteries power many things, from tiny electronics to entire towns.  

Lithium battery technology has taken a serious bite out of the traditional lead-acid battery market, particularly in the RV and marine space. This is due to the myriad of benefits they provide, including greater power density and low maintenance, just to name a few.

Some of the Lithium Batteries we have used over the years – Tesla module (R) and Battle Born (L)

Batteries and Chemistry

Before we dive into the question of temperature performance and get technical with experimental stuff, let’s back up to some battery fundamentals.

The Oxford Dictionary states the definition of a battery as “a container consisting of one or more cells, in with chemical energy is converted into electricity and used as a source of power.”

Strictly speaking, ALL batteries you use are “electro-chemical”, meaning they have a  chemical reaction going on inside them to produce or store electrons. 

Batteries are all about chemistry!
This is the structure of Lithium Iron Phosphate

Chemical Reactions in Cold Temperatures

If we think of batteries as containing chemicals and reactions, then let’s now take one more step and talk about how temperature affects these reactions.

Temperature greatly affects chemical reactions. As temperature increases, molecules move faster and possess more kinetic energy.   When molecules collide, the kinetic energy of the molecules can break bonds, leading to chemical reactions. 

If, however, the molecules are cold and moving slowly the chemical reaction will not occur as fast.  The minimum energy requirement that must be met for a chemical reaction to occur is called the activation energy. More molecules possess this energy in warmer temperatures.  

Yup there are Lithium Batteries in that rig!

Temperature Effects on Batteries

Since chemical reactions slow down in cold weather, all battery types will suffer performance decreases in cold weather. 

The reverse can be said in hot temperatures. The chemical reactions will increase and the battery may overperform.  Because of this, high temperatures for prolonged periods can actually shorten battery life, as the chemical reactions occur faster.    

But are different battery chemistries (lithium-ion vs. lead-acid, for example) subject to different temperature effects?

We have all be there, take your phone outside in the cold and it dies very quickly. Thank chemistry and poor battery management for that.

The Cold Weather Lithium Myth?

Many times we have heard people say “lithium batteries don’t work in the cold” without any scientific backing.  

Where does this myth come from? Well, lithium batteries suffer from a phenomenon of lithium metal plating on the anode if charged at high rates in cold temperatures.  This could cause an internal short of the battery and a failure.  When you use lithium batteries, this limitation needs to be taken into account.

It does not mean the battery won’t work, however, just that it can’t charge.  

Most commercially-available lithium battery packs have protections in place to prevent charging below a set temperature. This may be where this statement is coming from.  Fortunately, a little bit of heating easily overcomes this challenge.

Lithium vs. Lead-Acid in the Cold

Truthfully, lithium-ion batteries work just fine in the cold. But how does their cold weather performance compare with their lead-acid rivals?

Battle Born Batteries, makers of lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery packs, performed a cold-weather test under laboratory conditions to find the answer.

The Experiment

They tested their batteries against a major lead-acid manufacturer to compare performance in a cold environment. The test involved setting up a bank of 2x 100AH Battle Born Lithium-ion batteries @ 12V  and 2×100 AH AGM lead-acid batteries @12 V. 

The batteries were placed in a freezer compartment and a series of tests discharging the batteries at rates of 30, 50, and 80 Amps were run.  They repeated this test at four different temperature ranges: 

  • 67- 72° F
  • 33-37°F
  • 26-30°F
  • 13-18°F

The team discharged the batteries to the low voltage cutoff recommended by the respective manufacturer. 

Here is a shot from the setup of the batteries in the freezer! Source: BattleBornBatteries.com

The team chose the experiment’s discharge rates to better reflect how Peukert’s Law would impact performance as the temperature dropped.

Peukerts Law

Peukert’s law expresses the change in capacity of rechargeable lead–acid batteries at different rates of discharge.  It basically says that the faster you discharge a battery, the less energy you will get out of it due to internal resistance and chemical losses.  Lithium-ion batteries significantly outperform their lead-acid counterparts in this area when high discharge rates are needed.

While not completely unaffected, lithium batteries deliver back the energy put into them better when using large loads at any temperature. The results show this below:

The Results

After running 3 test per temperature range, the amp-hour capacity of the batteries was documented before the low voltage protection shut down the battery. The graphs above are the results of the first set of tests. Subsequent tests yielded similar results.

As the data shows, lithium-ion batteries work great in the cold compared to lead-acid. In their experiment, the Pukert effect was clearly visible as the accepted discharge power was significantly lower in the 80A discharge vs the 30A discharge on the lead acid batteries. It had much less effect on the lithium batteries even at room temperature.  

As the temperature dropped, this effect became more noticeable. Once below freezing the lead acid battery was only able to produce 8.1% of its rated capacity while the lithium battery still produced 80% of its capacity. 

If you want to see the experiement for yourself check out Battle Born’s Blog or download the paper below.

My Thoughts On This Experiment

Their experiment was well executed with good logging equipment and I am confident their numbers are accurate.  The test shows that lithium will preform its task of discharging stored energy in cold weather exceptionally well. 

One of the most interesting findings is how poorly the lead acid preformed even at room temperature. This was due to the Peukert effect as the rating for lead acid is usually using a very small draw over a 20hour period which is not how most people use the batteries.

They showcased the one drawback to lithium, however, when they could no longer charge when the batteries were in the teens.      

I only have 2 critiques of the experiment: 

#1 – Measure Energy, Not Power

The experiment measured Amp Hours from the battery which is a measurement of power.  Power and Energy are not the same.  Power measures the rate energy is moved, while energy is the ability to cause change or do work.  Energy numbers would have been closely correlated and most likely would have learned even more in favor for the lithium batteries. Since voltage does not sag as much, it most likely would have produced even more energy.

#2 – Allow for recovery time of the lead acid

Lead acid batteries perform worse overall than lithium batteries, but they might be able to perform a bit better in a real world application than the experiment projected due to the recovery effect.  Voltage is know to significantly recover in lead acid batteries after a strong discharge as the chemical reaction penetrates deeper into the battery. 

I believe that if the discharge had been on and off over a longer period of time they would have performed marginally better and may have more accurately represented a real-world scenario.   If a load were to be continuously applied, however, the situation set forth in the experiment would be accurate.  

What About Charging Lithium in the Cold?

So, what do we do about not being able to charge the batteries in the cold?  Its pretty easy, Don’t charge them in the cold!

You can use your cellphone when below freezing, but bring it inside to charge.  The same goes for lithium packs: they need to be warmed before charging if they are located in places well below freezing.  

Cold Weather Charging Protections

Electrical heating of the cells can accomplish this.  Lithium batteries require a BMS (battery management system) that is a set of electronics that balance and protect the pack.  This same BMS could easily trigger a warming circuit to use the charge energy to first warm the pack before charging starts. 

Future battery packs will soon offer this for cold weather and many custom builds have already added it.  I personally added this protection to a battery bank I built out of a Tesla Model S car battery that you can read about here.   

Electric Cars already do this and is how they work in the cold weather.  We drive a Chevy volt and it has a liquid cooled and heated circuit to keep the battery within its best operating limits.   Teslas and many other cars do the same. 

Battle Born Batteries even sells a heated wrap that can be used with any lithium battery when needed before charging.  

Temps in the Teens? Warm the batteries a bit to take a charge!

Our Personal Lithium Battery Cold Weather Experience

We have been living off-grid with lithium batteries as our primary storage medium for 4 years now and have dealt with freezing temperatures multiple times.  We make sure to keep the batteries in enclosed compartments at all times, even though the compartments were not heated. 

Some of our cold weather camping was during the Go North expedition to Alaska and the Arctic.

One of the packs I built included electrical protections and used a heated pad that would kick on to warm the pack. The heated pad used the packs own power or solar energy. If the pack got too cold, temperature sensors would shut it off to protect if from charging.   It was only a 40 watt heater, but it was more than enough to warm the small space to keep the battery within operating specs. 

For the Go North expedition we installed the batteries in a non-heated compartment. Bleed heat from the adjacent heated space kept the temperature above 40 degrees, even if the temps were in the teens outside.

Both systems performed well. Like the experiment, we noticed very little to no degraded capacity from the batteries over a warmer day.     

The Best RV Battery For Cold Weather

In conclusion, lithium batteries work great in the cold! Much better than their lead acid predecessors.

From Battle Born Batteries’ experiment, a basic chemical analysis, and our personal experience, we can definitively say that lithium batteries are the best RV battery for cold weather performance over their lead-acid counterpart.

We Currently are using Battleborn Batteries and are even writing this blog post with their energy!

If you’re using lithium batteries in the cold, they will need to be heated before charging. Adding a heating circuit easily overcomes this drawback, and the benefits of using lithium batteries in the cold are significant over this additional effort. 

New Heated Lithium-Ion Battery

Announced November 12, 2020: Battle Born Batteries has come out with a battery that makes any and all cold weather limitations irrelevant. Introducing their new BB10012H Heated Lithium Battery, with an internal heating technology to automatically keep the battery warm when conditions are cold.

Click here to see the new Battle Born Batteries Heated Battery kits.

Say goodbye to cold weather battery anxiety!

This was a very cold evening camping here, but we used a heated blanket running off our Lithium Batteries to stay toasty warm sleeping under the norther lights!

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Mortons on the Move

We are Tom & Caitlin Morton. We gave up the stationary life for one where we are constantly on the move. We live in a fifth wheel RV and travel with our two pups, Mocha and Bella. We enjoy hiking, biking, boondocking, videography, and upgrading our RV to suit our off-grid mobile lifestyle. Our goal is to share educational, entertaining, and inspiring content with our readers and viewers.

View Comments

  • Tom and Cait, of all the RV blog sites I visit your's is the best! Your presentation and factual information makes for a great read.
    Tom, have you looked at Dakota Lithium batteries? Any thoughts would be appreciated.
    If you ever get to the Duluth, MN area please feel free to contact me. I know you are getting close to home but we have some great area around here and a 30A outlet in the piney woods too.
    Thank you! Dave Miller

    • Thanks Dave!

      As for Dakota batteries I have heard of them but do not have any personal experience. Each manufacturer does things a little differently and I would love to see a teardown of their design. As for protections, it looks like a smart system, but I would want to verify they have cold weather charge disable and know at what temp.

      As for a visit, we will put you on our travel map! You never know when we might be in the area :) Thanks

  • Excellent article! Thanks for taking the time to write this up. Also, I loved the solar/battery install videos. Hope you guys are well!

    • Thank's Jon! We are doing pretty good, been one weird year. Would be great to catch up sometime!

  • Years ago, I attended the Polar Technology Conference and one of the popular topics was powering your scientific equipment in Antarctica and Greenland. Several presentations were on LiFePO4 batteries cold weather performance. The basic takeaway was that they would deliver almost their full rated capacity, albeit at relatively modest current, even at temperatures of -50°C. Obviously, they needed to warm them up before charging but this was around ten years ago or so and these research groups were building their own BMS and batteries.

    • No way! So none of this is new. Just getting more attention as lithium gets more popular. Thanks for your comment!

  • Your lithium battery article is okay as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. Actually, there are at least 5 very different lithium battery technologies. Lumping them together as you do is a big mistake. Your article should clearly explain that it only addresses FePo lithium cells.

    • Hey Stephen, You make a great point about the multiple chemistries. We did call out that the Batte Born Batteries of the experiment were of lithium iron phosphate chemistry, but I've gone ahead and bolded that to make it more clear.

  • Great information, I have been looking and waiting for someone to explain these types of batteries for some time now. I have been convinced now that lithium is the way to go.
    Thank you very much,
    Bill

  • Hi Morton’s on the Move!

    I have kind of a strange but scary story. I just purchased an RV back in September. It was built fr off road and off grid with solar and lithium ion phosphate batteries. The system was built out by go power I believe with their batteries, BMS and inverter/charger. We loved it. Now the scary part. 3 days ago while parked out in front of the house , a fire broke out and the whole thing went up in flames, 5 alarm fire kinda thing, nothing left. Thankfully no one was in or near it. Luckily I have the whole incident on video thanks to a ring camera that I have looking at my driveway. It showed an explosion and then smoke and then fire. Nothing was running in the unit, it was pretty much shut down and was plugged in only the day before. After reading your article the only thing I can think of is that night the temperature dropped to 27 degrees (we live in Minneapolis). However I can’t imagine there were no safety measures in place for the batteries, IF that was the reason fior the fire (the explosion was on the opposite side of the battery bank and right by where the inverter was. Insurance is supposed to be sending a investigative team/person to look at it but they seem to be taking their time. Anyway it totally freaked me out that we could have been in there with my 3 kids when something like this happened. I mean was I doing something wrong, is it this “easy” for an RV to blow up? I have so many questions and am afraid to ever get in one again. Any thoughts on what it may have been?

    • Wow that is a very scary story! I am so sorry to hear that this happened to you. I took a look at the go power batteries and they are supposed to have low temp protection, and it is probably unlikley that they would catch fire from a cold-weather scenario unless they were low and taking a high charge. What kind of an RV was it? Did you have any sort of electric heater that could have kicked on? If the batteries / electric system was running hard and not properly designed it is very possible for a fire to break out from the wiring and inverter. I have seen it before. If not electric heat was the furnace on? Some RV furnaces get very hot and need good clearance around them. If something caught fire then the propane separated/leaked it would be very bad. The last common means for RV fires is the fridge if it is a RV absorption propane style. It is not uncommon for a bird or something to get inside the air vents and get too close to the burner. Usually on electric fires are uncommon but not unheard of. If you are pretty sure it was the electric system then it was probably an improperly designed system or designed with improper protection. I personally have not disassembled the go power batteries so i cannot speak to their quality of components but it is possible that the a BMS could have had a catastrophic failure too. I would have hoped that they used fireproof materials or adequate protections in the battery however to prevent this. I would be curious to hear if they can determine if the cells themselves caught fire, that would be telling.

      As for the frequency of RV fires, they are more likely than in a house (because of all the fuels and tight spaces) but still not very common. Checking the fridge, water heater and furnace for debris are the best things that can be done to proactively prevent fires. Again I am so sorry this happened to you.

  • Our brand new Airstream lithium batteries failed right before delivery of our 2021 Interstate motor home and we are sitting in the dealer’s waiting room now while the they try to figure out what happened. These are the new heated Battleborn lithium’s that failed. It’s cold here in Montana, 30 degrees and the unit was stored outside for a couple weeks unplugged from shore power. The heater units probably ran the batteries down and they shut down completely. The shop warmed the batteries up but now they won’t turn back on. Some lessons are being learned here today. Airstream is now equipping all 2021 and on motor homes with lithium’s so the dealers are having to deal with frozen batteries. The moral of the story. Keep your lithium equipped RV’s plugged in to AC to keep those lithium’s heated and charged. Never had this issue with the older style batteries. They lose efficiency but never failed outright. We will have to be mindful of this when traveling in colder conditions

    • Thanks for sharing your story. Great point, They need to be monitored, off, or plugged in.

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