Maintaining Solar And Other Storage Batteries

Guest Post by Walt Barrett

A few weeks ago I was visiting a US Coast Guard Station where I looked at small solar battery charging installation. It was built to government specifications, and was an excellent example of a perfect solar installation. One of the companies that I have owned for over twenty-five years is a battery company so naturally I was interested in their battery bank.

I noticed immediately that there was a very prominent sign above it that said “Check batteries for water level every thirty days.” There was also a log there so the persons responsible would have to date the log and initial it. I cannot tell you how good it made me feel to see that our government is using serviceable batteries that you can easily water. I really do not like sealed batteries because as a battery re-conditioner I have personally found that when I autopsy a failed sealed battery it is always out of water, or nearly out of water. Now you don’t have to be young Thomas Edison to figure out very quickly that if someone could have added water on time they would not be experiencing premature battery failure.

We get hundreds of letters regarding this subject yearly. Now I am not telling you what to do, but personally, I will not buy any type of automotive or solar deep draw battery that is sealed. No battery is ever really sealed, or it would blow up. They are valve regulated which means when they are charging gases including water can escape. I rest my case on that subject. No watch me catch a lot of flack from “Experts”. Just give me a break and put screw caps on the batteries so we don’t have to drill them to service them.

Now that I have covered that subject we can move on to servicing the batteries. When I was a flight engineer during the Korean War the Air force sent me to an extensive training class on the proper servicing and maintenance of lead acid batteries. I can’t thank them enough to this day! This is the sequence that I do to this day

  1. A visual inspection of the overall condition of the battery. I’m looking for leaks, corrosion, broken, or bad connectors, loose hold downs, and anything that looks abnormal. If the battery is really corroded, I carefully clean it off with a quarter of a cup of baking soda dissolved in a Quart of water. Make sure the caps are on and never get baking soda indie the battery. BE SURE TO WEAR EYE PROTECTION, AND NEVER SMOKE OR MAKE ANY KIND OF SPARKS AROUND A BATTERY BECAUSE THERE IS HYDROGEN GAS PRESENT AND IT IS VERY EXPLOSIVE! This brings up a major point. When removing a battery you obviously have to disconnect it. Always remove the negative – cable off first and put it on last when replacing the battery or the resulting sparks may cause a hydrogen explosion.
  2. Once you have inspected and cleaned the corrosion off the batteries you should use an inexpensive battery terminal cleaning brush, remove the negative terminal first and clean the terminal post and the cable end. Leave the negative cable off, then remove the positive cable and clean and inspect the positive + post and cable end. Did you know that many supposedly “Dead” batteries are only suffering from dirty or loose terminals? Many can be cleaned up, tightened up and recharged. I get about eleven years from a battery. This is a good time to do a battery load test. Please watch the video to view all the tests you are about to read.
  3. While you have the terminals off is a good time to remove the caps and check the water (electrolyte) level. I like to use distilled water. Some people would argue with me, but that is up to them. I do not want a lot of minerals and such in my battery.
  4. Never overfill a battery. An eighth of an inch above the lead plates is sufficient.
  5. Now this is where I get a little more in depth with my battery checking. While the caps are off I always do a hydrometer check on the condition of each cell. Be sure to read the instructions that come with the hydrometer so you will get an accurate reading. There are six cells in a 12 volt battery. I am including a video with this article to show you how to do these simple tests. If you really care about the life of your batteries, you will do these tests. A hydrometer is used to check the condition of the electrolyte in each individual cell. Hydrometer looks like a gravy sucker with a glass float inside with color coded markers and numbers printed on the glass float. When you suck up the electrolyte into the glass tube and hold it level the fluid rises up in the tube. If the level on the float is well up in the green that cell is in good shape. What you have just done is to check the specific gravity of the electrolyte in that cell. Repeat the process for all six cells. If you get significantly lower reading below the green marker then that cell has a problem. At that point we would use an additive and try to bring it up. If a cell has dirty black or brown electrolyte is is usually no good or will fail soon.
  6. While you have the cell caps off you can also do a cell voltage test. You need an inexpensive $3.00 volt meter from Harbor freight or one of the other discount too supplier. Put alligator clips on the ends and cut two six inch test probes from a wire coat hanger. Then clip the probes into the alligator clips. Then, starting with the positive post touch positive probe to the positive battery post and stick the negative probe into the first cell next to the post and touch the electrolyte. A good strong cell with a decent charge will read 2.1 to 2.4 volts. Now, remove the negative probe from the first cell and stick it into the second cell, and take the positive prob and stick it into the first cell. This will give you the voltage reading of the second cell. Now repeat the process for all of the cells right on up the battery.
  7. A weak cell will read less than 2.0 volts. At this time I would add an additive to see if the sulfation in the cell can be cleaned up. It is best to do all the cells at once. If the additive is working the cell will gain strength with each successive charging. I even do this with forklift batteries that cost $7,000.00 to replace. You better believe my customers are happy with our company.
  8. Now having done all the cleaning and checking and testing, you can put the caps back on, put some anti corrosion paste on the positive battery post and terminals and replace the positive + battery cable first. Then repeat the process with the negative – ground cable. Most of the anti corrosion compounds work great on battery terminals posts and cables. Now this is not rocket science and on some of these expensive solar power packs it will save you thousands of dollars in the long run.
  9. Please view the video that appears with this article. It has veen viewed by over 250,000 people.

Walter H. Barrett is the President of Battery Chem International USA in over 55 countries.

Walt has offered to let me sell his Battery Chem additive here on the Tiny House Blog. Use it for your off grid home or your car and help keep this blog going at the same time. Only $19.95 . Use the Add to Cart button below to purchase.

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Brook - November 16, 2010 Reply

Walt,
I enjoy your posts very much.
I am a builder in California. I am looking ahead to search for possible enterprise oportunities. When I read your post, I knew, immediately, that your work in battery ‘servicing’ was necessary and good for the environment. It seems there will be more and more need this expertise.
Do you have any opportunities for an ambitious, sharp, working general contractor. I have excellent access to the agriculture industry in Salinas and we also have a new electric car manufacturer opening locally. This part of California is rich with industry and batteries are everywhere. I live within 5 miles of 12 golf courses. The residential solar photovoltaic economy is very strong.
Please contact me at brookigleheart@yahoo.com.

Walt Barrett - November 16, 2010 Reply

Thanks Brook,
I have emailed you and offered to call and explain our simple program. We can have you distributing our product in a matter of days.
It’s a wonderful free opportunity.
Walt

George Brown - November 8, 2012 Reply

This is very useful to almost everyone. I hope even people doesnt have solar power, they can at least use this article to look after their car batteries

TheDarkHorseOne - November 12, 2012 Reply

Walt, what a fantastic and informative video!! I love getting the skinny on such maintenance from a knowledgeable person in a straight forward way. It gives me confidence that I could do that with no problem. Great article, and awesome video, man. I really appreciate it.

Vince - December 17, 2014 Reply

I may be interested. Please call with details
Regards Vince

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