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WHY LITHIUM IRON PHOSPHATE (LIFEPO4)? ARE THEY WORTH IT?

When we reached a stage in our business development where batteries were firmly on the expansion list, we embarked on journey of what was over 12 months of researching, sourcing samples, testing, more research, developing new specifications, changing potential factory partners, testing some more and reading so much about these things I thought my head would explode.  But the more I read and the more testing, charging and analysis I did, the more I was convinced that LiFePO4 is the way of the future and by far the best option for anyone using their deep cycles batteries daily or on a very regular basis.  If you are only a casual user of batteries (ie. once a month for a weekend trip), don’t have any weight issues or simply don’t have the budget, then AGM or Lead Crystal are still your best option.  I will use a AllSpark 100ah LiFePO4 and a leading brand 160ah AGM as the examples throughout this article and an average 80ah daily power demand.

 

Here is why I believe LiFePO4 for “regular daily users” is the way to go.  Now there are many people with very strong opinions on this topic, so this is just my opinion based on my research, personal use and testing of both types over many years and in real world scenarios.   This is not a beat up of LA batteries.  I use them myself and they definitely have their place for a large percentage of users.  Both have their pros and cons.  We chose to develop LiFePO4 for our AllSpark range rather than AGM for the below reasons.

 

DEPTH OF DISCHARGE:

Lead Acid (LA) batteries, ie. Flooded, Gel or AGM, have a safe Depth of Discharge (DoD) or draw down of 50% to ensure longevity of the battery and avoid premature failure.  If you were to draw a LA battery down to 20% or lower regularly, you will likely do significant damage to the cells (through sulfation) and either kill the battery altogether or significantly reduce its life expectancy.  LiFePO4 batteries can be safely drawn down to 80% without causing damage to the cells and are not affected by sulphation.  You should think of this as your baseline and the less you use it, the more cycles you will get.  Drawing down to 80% DoD won’t damage the cells or cause premature failure.  Think of it as putting km’s on the engine of a car.  The more km’s you do the faster it wears out, but at the same time you are also getting more use from it.  The other way to look at it is how much use you are getting in terms of total amp hours supplied rather than the number of years or cycles you get.

 

WEIGHT AND SPACE:

Using the example of 80ah of battery consumption per day, you will need 160ah of AGM (50% DoD) or 100ah of LiFEPO4 (20% DoD) for the same daily storage needs.  An AllSpark 100ah LiFePO4 battery with an exclusive custom design internal BMS weighs only 10.5kg, versus a leading industry equivalent 160ah AGM at 50.2kg.  Whilst this is an excellent AGM, it is 5 times the weight and at 200mm longer and 40mm wider, it also takes up almost double the physical volume too.  Most Offroad vehicles, whether it’s a 4wd, camper trailer or caravan will all have weight and space constraints and having an option that is half the volume and 1/5 of the weight is a major advantage.  Take a sec to think about this same scenario if your daily power consumption was double that…the weight requirements would be 20kg vs 100kg

 

NUMBER OF CYCLES:

Not all batteries are created equal.  There are many very good quality options in both types, but unfortunately there are also some very poor options out there, some still with very high price tags.  Our batteries are independently tested by a 3rd party inspector before they leave the factory to ensure they meet our exacting standards and will do what they promise to do.  They are also manufactured in a factory that has International Quality Management Standard ISO 9001 compliance.  You can get 2000+ cycles from our LiFePO4 batteries at 80% DoD, 3500 at 50% DoD or over 5000+ cycles at 70% DoD.  Compare that with AGM where you will only get around 200-300 cycles at 20% DoD, 500-600 at 50% and around 1000-1200 at 70% DoD.

 

PRICE:

You may have seen prices of some of the popular models of LiFePO4 batteries out there.  There are some 12v 100ah batteries priced at over $4000.  Yeah, they may have things like Bluetooth cell monitoring, but their design life and cycle expectancy are not that much different to most other quality brands.  At the other end of the scale you will also see some that have a maximum discharge current of only 50 amps which is only enough to power a 600w inverter or have much lower cycle expectancy.

 

In the AGM space they range from around $200 up to around $350-$400.  There is a lot of specification variability across the price range, so it pays to do your research first.  Look for something that has a C10 rate, rather than a C20 rate for the same specified ah capacity.

 

Below is a comparison of AllSpark LiFePO4 batteries vs the same leading brand of AGM mentioned above.  Both are suitable for deep cycle applications and yes both are also suitable (with 3-year warranties) for “under bonnet use”.  Most of both types on the market are not, so again, it pays to do your research first.  There are many options available, so this is just a comparison of two brands of comparable quality, performance guarantees and warranties.  You can see that whilst LiFePO4 is a higher up-front cost vs AGM, if you need it long term and every day, the cost per amp hour and cost per cycle it returns over its life is much lower by as much as 40%.  What it does also demonstrate, though, is that it is really important to size it correctly as there is a sweet spot for your specific power usage and getting something too large starts to increase the cost per ah and cycle as you aren’t making good use of the battery (just dead money).

 


CHARGING:

This is where one of the very key benefits of LiFePO4 batteries are totally overlooked by most.  Both types when drawn down require a “Bulk or Boost” charge where the maximum charge current is applied until the battery reaches the required voltage.  In LiFePO4 the battery will take maximum charge current all the way to 100% then stop charging.  It will absorb the current at a much faster rate and get your batteries to full (assuming correct size solar) very quickly.  A LA battery cannot handle full charge current all the way to 100% and it requires many hours of reduced current and constant voltage to achieve 100%.

 

What does this mean?  If you were to have 400w of solar, for example, putting out an average of about 20 amps per hour it would take approx. 4 hours in the morning to return your LiFePO4 to 100%, then go into monitoring or maintenance mode. There is a technical argument about the best no load charge levels for LiFePO4, but that is a whole other article and will bore more people to tears.  Drop me a line if you want to learn more.  Using the same solar output, the AGM will complete the bulk charging stage in a similar time frame to around 90%, but the absorption stage where current to is reduced to around 1amp, with voltage kept stable, can take another 4-6 hrs to get your batteries all the way to 100%.  This equates to poor utilisation of solar and the need for more solar watts compared to LiFePO4.  You still need the 400w size (in this example) to provide the bulk charge in the morning so that you have the rest of the sunlight hours to complete the charging process.  With LiFePO4 it will take whatever current you give it (within the design parameters) until it’s full then charging stops.  As it achieves 100% in a much shorter time frame, you can therefore reduce your solar requirements compared with that required for AGM.

SUMMARY:

If you are using your batteries every day, or regularly camping off-grid for long periods of time, then LiFePO4 is by far the most cost effective, long term option.  If you only use it once a month, stick with LA unless you have a weight or space issue.  Yes, they are more up front, but less per ah and per cycle over the long term.  You will also need less solar watts as it charges at a faster rate, takes up less space and also results in less weight in your vehicle with LiFePO4.  It gives you more usable ah in the same size battery or allows you to have much less ah capacity overall.

 

This can be a very complex topic and I have tried to summarise the key points about the benefits of Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries.  I hope it helps those of you just getting started with your own research or just can’t quite get your head around it all and need a helping hand.  If you have any questions, please feel free to post them up.  As always, I welcome feedback.  If you have something to add, or you think something needs correcting, please let me know.  I am not the world’s expert on LiFePO4 batteries but have done more than enough research and testing over many years to make my head explode.

 

Hope this helps.

 

Catch ya Offroad

Jason

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1 comment

  • We have a 25ft Travel home 5th wheeler (designed and manufactured in Newcastle, Australia) in 2006, with two original spec 105 amp hr AGM batteries fitted. It has a 240 volt 25 amp Cteck charger, 240 watts of solar on the roof with a PL 40 solar controller, and the original 12v to 12v battery charger(can’t remember make or model). My question is, how much of the original equipment would I have to change to go to lithium ion batteries?. Is any of it compatible?
    Thanks in advance
    Hans Schutte.
    Ps I live in east Victoria.

    Hans Schutte

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